Friday 19 April 2013

Boom boom cluster

To Southampton City Art Gallery earlier this week to see the collection of paintings bequeathed by my late friend David Brown.

Portrait of Dr David Brown by Maggi Hambling (1986)

I shall certainly write more about David in a later blog and the only reason I haven't done so already, and at length, is because I still find it hard to accept the fact that he died in 2002, aged 76.

I knew him for the last four years of his life. We were introduced by a mutual friend from Japan, Kayoko Murumatsu,  and it's fair to say we hit it off. I shall never forget the many ramshackle six-hour lunches held in his kitchen (huge quantities of smoked salmon and gallons of wine), the wonderful talk, his (initially) disconcerting narcolepsy, the calculated disorder of the household, the lovely Flo (a neighbour who 'did' for Dr Brown, many years his senior and a lifeline) and, of course, his breathtaking collection of British art.

We met perhaps two dozen times - always for lunch at his home, with one exception, which I shall write about elsewhere. Those epic boozy lunches tended to peter out in the late afternoon, although sometimes merging into a riotous supper. Usually unable to go the distance I would weave unsteadily down Killyon Road to catch my bus home. The last thing one saw on leaving what he called his 'grotty palazzo' was an early Gilbert & George postcard sculpture entitled 'Heaven help a sailor on a night like this', created from comic images of inebriated seamen. It was an apt send-off.

At first we talked about everything except art. That came later. He was fond of my son Edwin (then aged three), and quite unruffled when Eddie accidentally smashed some valuable piece of heirloom china. 'Can't be helped,' he shrugged, and opened another bottle. He was a brilliant, spell-binding host as his many devoted friends will gratefully remember. I recall one of his disarmingly simple aphorisms: 'Art is complex because life is complex'. He talked of his approach as a curator, hanging pictures to create what he called 'a boom boom cluster', in which two adjacent works together create an effect on the responsive viewer. His whole house was one colossal boom boom cluster, with constant visual detonations to amaze and delight the fortunate visitor who was trusted to wander freely around the cluttered rooms, revelling in the unlabelled treasures. Perhaps his greatest achievement was a superb monograph (written, I believe, one marathon sitting) about the St Ives School of painters - Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson and the illustrious rest. My inscribed copy - given to me late in a particularly hectic and hilarious and convivial lunch - is a treasured possession. I still have some other books of his, and am especially fond of the complete Lyttleton Hart-Davis letters. The three tatty paperback volumes are kipper brown from cigarette smoke, and bits of dry tobacco spill from the seams, accumulated over many of his kitchen re-readings.

He was profoundly and quite unselfconsciously eccentric. Once a year until quite late in life he road a powerful motorcycle around London in a ritual attempt to see all the city's Rembrandts in a day. He would not remove his crash helmet until his final destination, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London, where he would unwrap and eat a pork pie. He tended to carry victuals in his hat. He had a photographic memory and could arrange a hypothetical exhibition in almost any major gallery in the land in his head (if that inelegant phrase makes sense). He knew, he said, 'all the spaces, all the walls.' He looked like Bacchus (or Silenus - he would know the difference) and savoured the bitter wormwood flavour of Fernet Branca, enjoying my spluttering disgust at my first and last taste. At the time I got to know him he lived and worked and slept much of the time at the western end of his huge kitchen table, which was piled with (it seemed) every catalogue of every current exhibition in Europe, and I mean piled - it seemed to me to ceiling height. One day I arrived to find that he had installed a very large and very expensive television set - his first, he said - positioned at one end of that kitchen table, turned on but with the sound down, which I suspect was a permanent arrangement until a few weeks later, when it mysteriously disappeared. The set came with a video player and I once took a copy of Listen to Britain, the wartime documentary short by Humphrey Jennings which he had, to my surprise never seen, He watched it intently, and at the end said, with tears in his eyes: 'he doesn't waste a single frame', which was acute.

His life was not without tragedy, but I shan't talk about that here. A sensitive obituary (which I presume was written by his close friend Martin Brunt) appeared in the Daily Telegraph and you can find it online if you want to read it. His funeral was a hoot. An old friend of his, an eminent art historian, recalled that DB divided the world into 'friends and fuckers', and looking around the crowded chapel added: "I can see many of those friends here today (pause) and one or two fuckers'. .We knew who we were.

But back to Southampton. David Brown had a superb collection of over 40 Roger Hilton works and it was a pleasure to see some of them again, in the excellent company of the curator Tim Clayton. We spent an hour together in the gallery's basement - a wonder show of pictures, some familiar but others entirely new to me. Best of all was the astonishing hammerhead nude, last seen propped on the mantelpiece of his guest bedroom in Wandsworth.

This nude anticipates Hilton's masterpiece Oi Yoi Yoi, which I'll blog about tomorrow.

Brown had befriended the Hiltons (in the 1960s I think) and kept them afloat during a particularly difficult period in their life. Roger (suffering from peripheral neuritis and bed-ridden), his wife Rose and their two sons were living in a tiny cottage in the remote Cornish village of Botallack, some miles from St. Ives. Hilton's last works were a series of astonishing gouaches, using the humblest materials - poster paint and butcher's paper - produced in extremis. Painted at night (when he could work for only a few minutes at a time) as his body failed, they are not all successful but the best of them, which is to say most of them, are dazzling in their energy and invention.  

Roger died in David's arms in 1975. David died in 2002 following a heart attack at the foot of the staircase in the grotty palazzo. The staircase was closely hung with dozens of Hilton gouaches behind dusty, fly-blown glass. Elephants, lions, tigers, crocodiles. 'My menagerie,' growled Brown, approvingly, on my first awestruck tour. I like to think that these were the last things he saw.

The large, gloomy and rather dilapidated house had many hundreds of wonderful pictures, most of them stacked on the floor facing the walls in upstairs rooms. The gloom was necessary to protect fragile drawings and gouaches from light damage, but it also brought a mildly sacred air to our meetings, and to my encounters with his collection. His bedroom was spartan, with a simple camp bed (army-issue by the look of it, and clearly dating from his African days), a metal table and little else, apart from a small gem-like oil which I think was either a Bomberg or  a Gertler. He had a couple of mouth-watering Sol le Witts, a huge number of Ian Hamilton Finlays (one of the largest collections in private hands - the two men remained cordial enemies for decades) and a portrait by Maggi Hambling (above, top) which he kept in its bubble wrap. The Hiltons, though, were what knocked me sideways - most of them are now in the British Museum. He also had some terrific pictures by Wyndham Lewis. I soon realised that  artworks labelled Private Collection I'd admired over the years in exhibitions and catalogues were, in many cases, his.  

I had planned to see him later in the week he died, with a belated birthday gift. It was a new recording of  Janáček's Káťa Kabanová, which I still have, intact in its cellophane wrapper. I really wish he hadn't died. His is one of the voices I  miss most, growling eloquently about politics, religion, economics and even, sometimes, art.

Here's the obituary:

David Brown. Doc Brown. A good man, and a good friend, and much missed.

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