Art and literature: A chapter in the autobiography of Donald Brook

Phyllis Brook, Donald Brook and Hans Coper at Digswell, 1961. Photo: Jane Gate

I remember with some embarrassment a time when I complacently thought of art and literature as departments of abnormal psychology, if not insanity. A committed artist or poet, so I believed, would abandon his wife and children if they seemed to be an impediment. He (not she) would drink immoderately, for other drugs were less easily accessible to the poor. He would hold all societal norms in deep contempt and display little or no consideration for the feelings and sensitivities of those who committed themselves to a less demanding life-style.

I followed these prescriptions dutifully without achieving success, and felt frustrated. Not, at first, positively cheated, for there was still time; although the age by which we believed that success must be achieved in those days was fast approaching, and would soon call for revision. “We” were my close friends; all of them still uncelebrated in their several arts when I returned to Paris after a year spent in Greece, sleeping on unguarded archaeological sites and being briefly hospitalised for under-nourishment.

Paris was my preferred alternative to London because David Mercer lived there with his wife Jitka, who worked for her uncle Frantisek near the Gare du Nord. He was writing an unpublishable novel called Let Another Man Praise, that I would take with me as a refugee from France when I was driven out by a combination of residential and work-permit restrictions. We were all convinced that the door to fame and fortune must yield, if not spontaneously to the manifestation of talent then reluctantly to a sufficiently strenuous assault. It was with this conviction that I carried David's manuscript from our squalid rooms in Courbevoire and across the bridge that Monet made famous to London, there to importune George Orwell's widow with the news about his genius.

Sonia Orwell was a reader for Weidenfeld and Nicolson and, as we believed, a significant force in the literary world. It was my purpose to explain to her certain facts of which she might be unaware: principally, that Let Another Man Praise was not only a literary masterpiece; it was the very first post-Wittgensteinean novel. I have not the slightest idea what I meant by that. Stanley Eveling, who had done his postgraduate work in Oxford where J. L. Austin was his tutor, was the philosopher among us. I was still an amateur, and David had scarcely understood a word of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus apart from its first line. The Philosophical Investigations had not yet appeared in English.

Mrs Orwell was not impressed. I still own the original yellowing manuscript, brown-singed around the edges because of his maudlin consignment of it to a dying February fire from which I rescued it after a long evening spent drinking a noxious red wine called Postillon Rouge and reading poetry aloud. In those days we read mostly Donne and Eliot into the small hours of the morning, ignoring occasional poundings on the wall from the next apartment. Donne was then fashionable and Eliot was not yet clearly enough unmasked as an anti-Semite and Enemy of the People.

Jitka persuaded her uncle to give me some part-time work designing publicity material for his small company, that made irrigation equipment. This was how I discovered that in France clichés – which of course we abhorred – were the inoffensive blocks from which illustrations were printed. Uncle Frantisek was a character we treasured in moods oscillating between awe and derision. I designed posters and advertising layouts for him, incorporating witty slogans about the virtues of arrosage that were too improbable even for his bizarre taste. He did not mind. He approved of artists for no reason that we ever heard him explain, and indulged his niece who was the daughter of a brother in Czechoslovakia who had not survived the war. He spent much of his time and energy as an international salesman, telegraphing his enthusiasms back to us from places like Bolivia. The waves of his mania were strongly felt in the office when he triumphantly communicated huge orders from national governments for such things as diesel locomotives. He seemed to be unaware – and was not open to persuasion – that his company did not manufacture diesel locomotives.

A significant part of my reason for choosing Paris as a place of purgatory was not the model of artistic propriety that we had inherited from the previous century. It was the fact that the Greek hetaera of the classical muse that I had acquired on my travels was about to visit that city in pursuit of her own artistic calling. I did not understand when I left her in Athens that she already had a prospective husband in tow, and that he was well connected with the world of international art – which is to say, with those American painters still huddled around the reputations of Arthur Miller and Gertrude Stein. Instead of joining me in a new assault upon Parnassus from western side, she proved evasive. It was almost by accident that we came to learn of a party in Isadora Duncan's studio in the course of which my relegation would be confirmed. 

David and I gatecrashed this party, where I was eventually laid out insensibly drunk on a table that had been casually swept clear of food and crockery by my friend who – although not yet a professional dramatist – already had a gift for the theatrical. He folded my arms and set candles at my head and feet. My face, he later assured me, was seraphically composed. In spite of that we were both thrown out.

This insensible composition of the face was, it seemed to us, an appropriate if marginal element in the artistic life as it was imagined in the novels and artistic biographies of the period. Despair and disgrace constituted evidence that we were almost there. Another heave or two would surely bring us to the attention of a public that had proven, to that point, utterly indifferent. Stanley Eveling, for example, needed no more than a nudge toward the footlights of a rapturous public stage. We met together in London from time to time, and once, after drinking ourselves into a mood appropriate to decisive action, I found a telephone book in which Dame Edith Sitwell was listed just as if she had been a normal subscriber to the amenity of disembodied conversation with strangers. Times have changed.

She answered the telephone herself, and I divulged to her the information that Stanley Eveling was a very great but tragically neglected poet. Unfortunately she did not live long enough to see the evidence that would support this claim unfold; and she would not take my word for it. The conversation was peremptorily terminated.

Evidence of our common psychopathology mounted steadily. David's marriage to Jitka ran like seismograph in an earthquake. It was played out as a fantasy in his film Morgan – A suitable case for treatment, directed by Karel Reisz in 1966; but ten years earlier our bad behaviour seemed to everyone – quite properly in retrospect – to have had no justification at all. We worked together for a while at the chore of maintaining a connection between body and soul by making rubber animals, vegetables and other accessories for the film industry for an entrepreneur called Dendy, in an old warehouse on a street that was then called Seaton Market, just behind the Warren Street Underground. David spent five days a week sandpapering the seams from hard vulcanised oranges that had been cast in rubber in two-part moulds. Once the seams had been smoothed the oranges were spray painted and then abundantly stacked in the upper glass display section of soft drink dispensers, looking hectically super-real. The drink itself looked hectically super-real too, and we never met anyone who drank it.

Although we had been to art school together and he had studied painting before he turned to writing, David had very little manual skill. Dendy was not at all impressed by his talent because the rubber dust provoked in him an asthma that lowered his productivity, and he often took days off. Artistic authenticity required, of course, that he should die of it. In fact it would be many years later, sitting in an aircraft flying toward the European summer from winter Adelaide on my way to a philosophy conference in Ghent that I would casually turn over a page in an English Sunday newspaper, and find his obituary. He died of a heart attack in Israel where, now with a partner half his age, he was writing an extravagantly unpopular teleplay that sympathised with the Palestinians, for the Israeli national television.

By then he looked exactly like Leo McKern in the role of the dying writer Robert Kelvin in On the Eve of Publication, one of many Mercer self-portraits. David died in reality no less dramatically than his own theatrical projection, of a heart attack on the afternoon of his little daughter's birthday party. In a hot close room in Belgium, with a paper on pictorial representation to read the following day, I lay awake all night grieving for him and slapping mosquitoes.

At Dendy's where David sandpapered I was the resident clay modeller. We made vulcanised rubber armour as props and costumes for historical films. We made animated pigs for a pork pie company. We made artificially breathing cats for Ealing Studios, driven by air tubes attached to an inflating bulb. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals judged the exposure of domestic animals to film studio lighting to be inconsiderate. It did not occur to them that human actors might deserve the same compassion. We did not make inflatable rubber film stars, although I am sure that we would have done so had there been a market. London sex shops in the post-war years did not adventure far beyond sprightly condoms and sleazy underwear. There was, of course, an under-the-counter literature of depravity in which the life-size inflatable might have been encountered, but there was no demand from the local wholesale trade that we might have satisfied.

I made the original models for the armour in which Richard Burton was then under contract to subdue most of the known world, sturdily masquerading as Alexander the Great. There is a picture of him wearing my gear in the International Edition of Life magazine for November 28, 1955. Readers of the associated text, avid for romantic background on the film industry, were informed that ‘...Spanish actors, craftsmen and technicians pocketed more than three quarters of the film’s budget of $4 million.” There is not a word about English sculptors and sandpaperers of high ambition chewing into this mammoth budget at the rate of three shillings and sixpence an hour, just up the Tottenham Court Road.

At this time I was sharing a one-room bed-sitter in Hammersmith, sleeping chastely in the one and only bed with Timothy Holliday, a painter sufficiently indifferent to the market forces then animating the visual arts to persist in featuring the moose as his animal of choice, for subject matter. The partner I had acquired by then and cherished since visited us occasionally, and sometimes we saved up and gave Tim enough money to go to the cinema, so that we could have the bed. She lived miles away in a tower block that had been designed for a progressive local council by Lasdun or Lubetkin or Skinner, or perhaps all three, to point the way forward for the utopian society of post-war Britain. These architects of the new future that was destined to become a deplorable past did not live there.

I was able occasionally to put a little work Timothy's way. For example, I had a commission to make a memorial statue in the academic manner that paid sufficiently well for me to pass on to him the responsibility for modelling the boots, while I did the face and hands. He used a real boot as his guide, and made a very passable show of it. It was not until the thing was cast in metal and I saw it clearly for the first time in the foundry, from above, that I realised he had used the same shoe for both feet.

In the nineteen-fifties shop window fashion figures were beginning to grow knees and elbows that an anatomist might recognise. These bony articulations must previously have been modelled by journeymen with their eyes closed, wielding a wet sponge in a cloud of optimism. An adventurous fashion industry found that it needed to use real sculptors to give the joints of its window-dummies a show of authenticity. I worked for a while with a former Rome Scholar, recently back from his studies in Italy, whose financial plight was similar to mine, in the studio of a West End shopfitter with a sideline in palmistry. Between us we pushed the plausibility of the high street elbows and knees now displayed under short sleeves and very much shorter skirts back at least to Donatello.

Our employer's more occult talent, as regularly displayed in a popular BBC half-hour at the time, was my undoing. The day came when he casually turned over a modelled arm on which I had been working, exposing the open hand. He read its palm and sacked me on the spot.

This chapter in octogenarian art theorist and philosopher Donald Brook's autobiographical writings sheds light on the early adulthood of this super-gifted individual. It follows an earlier chapter on his childhood and adolescence "Depravity in Wharfedale" published in Artlink 25:3, 2005.