JOHN BANTING (1902-1972)
BRUNO HAT Also known as JOHN BANTING (1902-1972)
SURREALISM (founded c.1924)
Still Life With Pears (United Kingdom, 1929)
Oil on canvas
signed Bruno Hat and dated 1929
81.00cm framed width
60.00cm framed height
2.50cm framed depth
(31.89 inches framed width)
(23.62 inches framed height)
(0.98 inches framed depth)
A.R. de T. (Evelyn Waugh), Approach to Hat, Introduction to the exhibition catalogue, London, 1929
Description / Expertise
THE BRUNO HAT HOAX
The period between the mid-twenties up until the early thirties -when the escalation of events on the continent gave rise to more serious considerations - marked the heyday of the 'Bright Young People'! This title applied to a flamboyant elite which merged artists, aristocrats and writers, where Bloomsbury blended with Bohemia. They made a point of enjoying themselves in as lavish and conspicuous a way as possible; and whenever this involved thumbing their noses at establishment respectability so much the better. They threw extravagant parties: often in eccentric places and with specific themes such as the Bath and Bottle party at St.Georges baths, where a special bathwater cocktail was created for the occasion; Norman Hartnell's elegant Circus party; or the boat party where the guests dressed as 'Stokers, third class' and were carried from Chelsea Pier to Tilbury. Another favoured means of entertainment was the planning and staging of highly elaborate hoaxes which were then widely publicised for maximum amusement and impact. Among these, one of the most scandalous was what the Daily Express dubbed An Amazing Hoax on Art Experts - the Bruno Hat affair.
This celebrated hoax involved all the leading social figures of the time, and was the brainchild of Brian Howard, the effete socialite dilettante, upon whom Evelyn Waugh modelled the languid Anthony Blanche of Brideshead Revisited. Flushed with the success of his twenty-fourth birthday party, a 'Great Urban Dionysia' with Greek mythology as its theme, Howard then dreamed up a project that would not only be a good prank, but might also serve the dual purpose of launching him as an artist.
With his great friend Bryan Guinness, who was at that time married to Diana Mitford later to become the wife of Oswald Mosely, he carefully planned an exhibition of paintings by an imaginary artist. The show opened on July 23 1929 at Bryan Guinness' house at 10 Buckingham Street, London SW1, advance information having been leaked to the press. Lady Eleanor Smith was suitably duped when she reported in the Sunday Despatch:
BRUNO HAT. What will be almost a cocktail party, is 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.
This natural, intuitive modern artist was in fact Tom Mitford, Bryan Guinness' brother-in-law in heavy disguise and with a very affected German accent, who sat in a wheelchair and answered questions during the packed private view. Tom Driberg, writing as 'The Dragoman' of the Daily Express' gossip column The Talk of London describes the artist's unorthodox appearance:
Mr.Hat sat in a wheeled chair, a morose, taciturn figure, with a marked German accent, a moustache worthy of Harry Tate and smoked glasses. In one hand he held a thin cheroot, in the other a glass of iced coffee, and as he sipped and puffed he grumbled about the colour of the walls and about the publicity he was receiving. Admiring connoisseurs crowded about him: "I do so admire your rope frames Mr.Hat," said one. "Ja" said Mr.Hat, "it ees mine own idea". However there was a difficult moment when a young Oxford don started to talk to the seated artist in fluent German - according to Driberg, Tom Mitford responded by making a "gesture of distaste" and declaring "Ach, I am naturalised Englisch. I do not care to remember that I speak German."
Every detail was observed: there was a catalogue, its introduction Approach to Hat, being the work of Evelyn Waugh. It dubbed Hat 'the first English Abstract Painter' and discussed his status in deliberately laborious language, parodying the style of pompous art critics with phrases such as 'Bruno Hat is the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form'. The final touch was the signature to the piece: A.R.de T. Probably the press were the only people to be taken in by Bruno Hat. Certainly, everyone at the private view knew what was happening; Bryan Guinness remembers: 'it seemed to me a charade rather than a hoax since everyone appeared to be in the secret. Nobody betrayed it: to some extent the hoaxers were perhaps hoaxed in thinking anyone deceived.'
Nevertheless, there was a big splash in the papers the day after the opening. The Daily Express exposed the hoax, describing it as 'an excellent hat trick', and The Graphic described it as 'Art Hoax of the Week'.
The important factor which separates Bruno Hat from the other high jinks of the period is the quality of the paintings. There are contemporary reports of the work being painted on cork bathmats (supplied by Bruno Hat's village shop,so the story went...) but all the Bruno Hat paintings in existence are on rope-framed canvasses. Some controversy exists as to who actually produced these works. Brian Howard, whose initials deliberately matched Bruno Hat's, has always been on record as their author. Howard's father was an artist, art dealer and, with Whistler, founder of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers so although Brian was more literary than artistic by inclination, there was a family precedent. But it is doubtful whether Howard was capable of producing the Bruno Hat paintings singlehanded - his only artistic foray being some drawings for a ballet by Dolin and various party designs. There is no doubt that the work owes a great deal to Brian's great friend and ally-in-crime, the artist John Banting.
A lifelong friend, Banting was even present at Brian Howard's deathbed where Brian died in his arms from a morphine overdose in 1958, and throughout this time they were virtually inseparable while never being lovers. Banting was receiving considerable recognition as a young painter with a decoratively modernist style which owed a great deal to his observations of Picasso, Braque and Cocteau while staying in France in 1923. He was a familiar figure in Bloomsbury circles - two works of his hung in Hamspray House and many figures, including Brian Howard and Diana Guinness, were painted by him. Shortly after the hoax he was to produce an important series of murals for the novelist Rosamond Lehmann, and then went on to become one of Britain's most significant surrealist painters.
The Bruno Hat pieces correspond to his own particular kind of ironic synthetic cubism, and the rope frames were probably his idea as the motif appeared in several of his works directly before this time. Bryan Guinness remembers his collaboration on the works, but in later life Banting played down his part in their execution. In 1964 he was to write:
as there was not quite enough work to show, I filled in the empty spaces in Brian's unfinished canvases, but completely under his instruction. I did not interfere with any of his ideas but turned myself into his assistant.
The show was not intended as a lampoon of modern art ... the actual paintings had some influence of the earlier Braque and Juan Gris ... yet they could not be called derivative. I think no one was deceived.
Banting, in later life was reluctant to be branded as a social artist and doubtless felt that admission of his direct involvement would trivialise his position. Certainly, whoever played the greater part in their creation, the paintings were a great success. Diana Guinness remembers them as being 'lovely, amusing and decorative', and Lytton Strachey was sufficiently impressed to purchase one. The Graphic, having discussed the hoax then went on to say that Brian Howard was a young artist of genuine promise and many of the paintings had intrinsic merit. But although the hoax did not rocket Brian Howard to artistic celebrity, if indeed that was what he wanted, it provided an encapsulation of an age whose lighthearted attitude would never be resurrected after the Second World War.
APPROACH TO HAT
Taken from A.R. de T. (Evelyn Waugh), Bruno Hat, introduction to the exhibition catalogue, London, 1929.
This is no sense (except the Christian) a Charity Exhibition. In overcoming for the first time what the artist himself admits as his extraordinary shyness, and opening her house to those who wish to see the works of Bruno Hat, Mrs.Guinness is attempting to do a service less to him than to the artistic public.
Now everyone is aware that what has come to be termed "abstract" painting has only just begun to be "taken seriously" in England. Some years ago Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wyndham Lewis achieved a certain success in that direction, but the acknowledged masters, such as Picasso, Gris and, perhaps, Marcoussis, have only recently found a market in this country. Artistically, we are incurably unpunctual. Co-incidentally, however, with this awakening on the part of England towards the most important artistic discovery of our time - namely, the progression from "significant" to "pure" form, appears the first English abstract painter. This rather startling phrase is not my own invention. (A naturalised Englishman, preferring to live in England, he wishes to be considered English, and was spoken of as such in Paris, when some examples of his work were taken there some weeks ago.) It was used of him by several of the French authorities to whom his work was submitted.
The painting of Bruno Hat presents a problem of very real importance. He is no Cezanne agonisedly tussling to reconcile the visual appearance of form with his own intuitional perception of it. Like Picasso, he creates it. Though the experienced eye can see at a glance that his work is entirely free of Picasso's influence, it is to that artist that we go so far as to compare him. Picasso is the greatest painter of our time for one reason: this reason is that he is the most inspired of all the creators of abstract pictures. Those experts who have seen Bruno Hat's work definitely accredit him with a similar power, developed, because of his youth only, to a less degree. The significance of this cannot be sufficiently stressed. It means, among other things, that Bruno Hat may lead the way in this century's European painting from Discovery to Tradition. 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.
Evelyn Waugh, Approach to Hat, catalogue introduction to 1929 Bruno Hat exhibition at 10 Buckingham Street, London SW1.
The Dragoman, The Talk of London, Daily Express, London July 24th 1929.
Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, London, Penguin 1967.
Marie Jaqueline Lancaster, Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure, Blond 1968.
Bryan Guinness, Potpourri from the Thirties, Cygnet Press 1982.
John Banting: A Retrospective, exhibition, exhibition catalogue, James Birch and Oliver Bradbury Fine Art, May 1984.
Londoner's Diary, Homage to Hat, The Standard, December 18, 1984.
William Hickey, My goodness, Jonathan, Daily Express, December 20 1984