ENTERTAINMENT

George Harrison: Musician, Mystic, Gardener, Film Producer - On What Would Have Been 71st Birthday, We Remember 'The Quiet Beatle'

29/11/2011 11:29 GMT | Updated 25/02/2014 14:59 GMT

George Harrison would have been 71 today.

His great friend, motor-racing legend Jackie Stewart, recently tried to express what this loss still meant to him.

Stewart was speaking in a documentary by Martin Scorsese charting Harrison's life and death (George Harrison: Living in a Material World). Stewart explained how the world of motor-racing had forced him to experience grief at first hand many times, but how the loss of the Beatles' lead guitarist had somehow left a deeper and longer-lasting wound than all of these.

And Stewart added, "And I wasn't even one of his closest friends. I bet if you were to ask dozens of people, they would say the same thing."

Stewart's words are testament to the scope of interest and influence Harrison enjoyed in his life. Far from being just "the Quiet Beatle", Harrison took paths encountering everything from Eastern mysticism to motor-racing, via film production and even gardening.

His road to global fame and wealth was shared for the most part with his schoolmate Paul McCartney - from Liverpool's renowned Cavern, the training ground of Hamburg's neon light district to the craziness of Madison Square Garden. The song-writing skills of John Lennon and McCartney always took centre-stage, but Harrison's songs Something and Here Comes the Sun are an indispensable contribution to the Beatles' legacy.

He was also the Beatle who, in the midst of all the euphoric attention surrounding the band, sought a quieter place for contemplation with Eastern mystics, introducing the other three to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and learning the sitar at the knee of Ravi Shankar.

With the folding of the Beatles, Harrison could have been forgiven for packing away his guitar and counting his millions. Instead, he continued to be creative, enjoying a solo worldwide hit in 1970 with My Sweet Lord, and later jamming with his pals Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty as The Travelling Wilburys.

His production company Handmade Films (founded 1978) was behind many of Britain's most influential and enduring pictures (for example Withnail and I, Brazil, Mona Lisa), including backing the Monty Python team's successful foray onto the big screen.

And he even went where few would dare, steering newlyweds Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise.

His ever-hectic career was a world away from the serenity of Harrison's Gothic pile, Friar Park, in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where he was often photographed lovingly cultivating his huge garden. He was as likely to invite Hare Krishna members to stay as he was racing drivers and rock stars.

His deep belief that nothing can be permanent or possessed was personally tested in 1974 when his first wife Patti Boyd embarked on an affair, and later went off with, his great friend Eric Clapton. Asked about this at a press conference very soon after, Harrison reflected, "He's a great friend of mine - better him than someone else."

Harrison himself later found lasting contentment with his second wife Olivia, who proved her mettle when the couple were attacked by an intruder in their home in 1999. Although Olivia fought off the attacker and saved the life of her stabbed husband, their son Dhani later reflected how much this trauma took out of his father, already suffering from cancer.

Olivia Harrison also described how that was the night her husband, who had always been deeply philosophical, properly began to question whether he was in a fit state, spiritually, for what lay ahead of him..

Ironically, this man who had been blessed with material gifts and rewards beyond measure in his material world, became increasingly defined by the dignity and grace with which he prepared to leave it all behind. Ten years later, it is clear that it is this gentleness and quiet sense of purpose which has kept his place dear in the hearts of his family, friends and fans as much as his music and creative talents.

SLIDESHOW: George Harrison's life in pictures...

George Harrison