Brian Howard and the Bruno Hat art hoax: a kind of genius

On November 11th 2009, Sotheby’s sold this painting for £18,750, including commission, lot 138 Still Life with Pears by Bruno Hat, signed and dated 1929.

Bruno Hat, Still life with pears, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 76.5 cm, signed and dated Bruno 1929 © Peter Nahum at Leicester Galleries

I didn’t know any of Bruno Hat’s work had been on the market. He was a five minute wonder in July 1929. According to the Sunday Despatch: the private view of the exhibition of paintings by Bruno Hat to be held in London next week. Bruno Hat is a painter of German extraction, and his work is mainly of the abstract type, seemingly derivative from Picasso and De Chirico. But the queer thing is that his work is not derived from any painter – he was discovered by Mr. Bryan Guinness near Clymping. Bryan Guinness went into a village general store, and entering by mistake the wrong room, he found a number of very good paintings in the modern French style. The paintings were done by the son of the old lady who keeps the store. His father was a German, and he paints quite naturally thus without ever having been to Paris. In fact he has only been to London about twenty times in his life, being very shy and retiring. So good were the paintings that they are to be on exhibition at Mr.Bryan Guinness’ house in Westminster. I have seen one or two and they are surprisingly clever.

The catalogue written by ‘A.R. de T.’ described Hat as Uninfluenced, virtually untaught, he is the first natural, lonely, spontaneous flower of the one considerable movement in painting to-day. Hitherto, good abstract painting has been the close preserve of its Hispano-Parisian discoverers. Bruno Hat is the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form.

The exhibition opened at the Bryan and Diana Guinness’s house on July 29th. Five days later in The Graphic said it was the ‘art hoax of the week’.

Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster, The Graphic, 3 August 1929 © United Archives

Bruno Hat who sat barely speaking in the corner of the room was really Diana Guiness’s brother Tom Mitford dressed up. He spoke heavily accented English when he was spoken to and Diana encouraged the viewers to look at the pictures not the painter. A.R. de T. was Evelyn Waugh in full modern art bashing mode.

Waugh knows art, and he was right about the British and Picasso. About the British and modern art generally. At around the same date that the Guinesses were launching Bruno Hat on London, Francis Bacon had his first transformative experience of Picasso in Paris. Vorticism, Britain’s homegrown modern art movement fifteen years earlier was worthless at auction by this date and in one case a Vorticist painting was literally used as lino. When Waugh, again, describes Poppet Green a trend-following British painter in Put Out More Flags (1942), Picasso doesn’t get a look-in: ‘Eighty years ago her subjects would have been knights in armour; ladies in wimples and distress; fifty years ago ‘nocturnes’; twenty years ago pierrots and willow trees; now, in 1939, they were bodiless heads, green horses and violet grass, seaweed, shells and fungi, neatly executed, conventionally arranged in the manner of Dali.’

So July 1929 was exactly the right moment to launch modern art in London. Waugh and his friends were bang on time. And Hat’s paintings are not such a ridiculous pastiche. The Adoration of the Magi was bought at the exhibition by Lytton Strachey. He was in on the joke but still it’s not a terrible picture bottom left in the Graphic page above. Hat’s pictures were painted by someone not untalented who appreciated what they were sending up.

So who was it? Who was Bruno Hat? Sotheby’s and Leicester Galleries attribute Still-life with pears to John Banting (1902–1972). Banting was certainly a capable enough painter – he made it as an artist shortly after the Bruno Hat show. He is a serious painter whose work is in the Tate and he always denied being Bruno Hat. He said his involvement was limited to painting some backgrounds and designing the frames. The same rope arrangement can be seen in his portrait of Alix Strachey (National Portrait Gallery).

Alix Strachey by Barbara Ker-Seymer and John Banting © National Portrait Gallery

As a serious painter he might have every reason to deny involvement in a fashionable prank. It depends what he was like. Would he be embarrassed or would he revel like Duchamp in the wit and the sheer art of it. Are the Bright Young People marmite hooray henries or artists? Both? Prank or happening? Is there a difference, really?

I wonder if Banting told the truth about not being Bruno Hat. He wasn’t a member of Waugh’s circle. He was on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and a friend of a friend of Waugh’s, Brian Howard. Howard was the model for the flamboyant gay men Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags and Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. The Bruno Hat hoax was Howard’s idea, and they share initials.

John Banting’s photograph of Nancy Cunard and Brian Howard © Tate Archive

Howard died in 1958. He committed suicide after the death of his long-term partner. It was the end of an extraordinary life as a poet, aesthete, and writer. The highs included being published as a poet while still at university, his part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, working for MI5 and writing for the New Statesman. The lows included alcoholism and drug addiction and a private life considered so outrageous – at that time – that he was expelled from four Mediterranean countries for ‘dubious morality.’ His friend Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster wrote a biography of him called Portrait of a Failure – a description of Howard that another of his friends the writer Allanah Harper rightly took issue with.

It’s a matter of opinion whether or not Howard was a failure – he certainly had a kind of genius – but Lancaster knew Howard well enough to be a good judge of fact. Her word on the Bruno Hat must be taken seriously. In 1995 she wrote to the Independent stating categorically that Howard was Bruno Hat, and that he had hoped to be discovered as a painter in his own right.

From Mrs Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster

“Sir: It is Michael Parkin (letters, 4 October) who has got it wrong concerning the correct attribution for “Bruno Hat”, not the caption to David Ekserdjian’s book review “The art of lying” (23 September). As my biography Brian Howard – Portrait of a Failure (Blond, 1968) recorded, the “Bruno Hat” exhibition was devised by Howard to dupe the newspaper diary columnists of the day. Howard created and painted all the “Bruno Hat” pictures on cork bath mats while his great friend John Banting filled in some of the backgrounds when time was running short and framed the cork mats in rope.

“Banting told me, and confirmed in writing, the limit of his responsibilities as above. He was decidedly piqued to think that these Bruno Hat/Brian Howard pastiches could have been attributed to him, a known surrealist artist at the time. In a letter to me in the 1960s, Lady Mosley (who, as Diana Guinness, was the hostess at the “Bruno Hat” exhibition party in 1929), wrote that she thought Brian was secretly disappointed at not being hailed by the critics as a great new discovery! John Banting’s work is represented in the Tate and sells for thousands of pounds, whereas Bruno Hat/ Brian Howard fakes would only fetch a few hundred pounds for their provenance interest.”

Independent, 5th October 1995.

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