William Brooker
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I came to know William Brooker well only towards the end of his life, though our paths had crossed from time to time over the years. We had a number of artist friends and teaching colleagues in common and I first met him, I suppose, in the later 1960s, when he was head of painting at the Central School. An initial friendliness deepened somewhat when he became Principal at Wimbledon School of Art, at which I myself had been a student some years before, and we would meet at private views and at his own exhibitions. But it was only when we were thrown together for a day or two, adjudicating the prizes for the Aberdeen Open Exhibition of 1982, that we became actual friends. I remember deep conversations long into the night, about art, and life, and the war. He had amused our hosts at dinner with accounts of his secondment from the Royal Artillery to the Gordon Highlanders and of his having to wear the kilt. He had had, as they say, a ‘Good War’, though it was of its horrors, by which he had been long and deeply affected, rather than any distinction of his own, that he talked. Perhaps it would not be too fanciful to find, in the cool classicism and philosophical detachment that is so much the character of his work throughout his life, something of the working out and continuing resolution of such experiences. In his last years he had taken a studio just around the corner from where we live and my wife and I had looked forward to a growing and easy familiarity. His sudden death, shortly before his 65th birthday, came as a deeply personal blow. But it was far more general a loss than that, to English painting at large and, most especially, to the Royal Academy, in which he would surely have come to hold high office. Goodness, it needs him now.

All art is modern art in its time, in one way or another, whether figurative or abstract – the great and passionate debate of the 40s and 50s – and Brooker’s critical engagement with the work of his contemporaries, national and international, was real and intense. Even though the tradition and the Englishness of sensibility that his paintings represent are alike immediately recognisable, to look at them now is also to acknowledge how true they are to their own time – which is to say how truly modern, how contemporary, they were and still are. And as old controversies die, how fresh they look to us now. Morandi, Rothko, de Stael, and one could add Giacometti too, all are there together, in the coolly observing, analysing eye of one, the abstract, structural simplicity of another, and all of them in the apparently disinterested yet profound and informing spirituality that underlies it all.

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His virtue and, perhaps, his undoing was to stand within and for a tradition of figurative painting at just the moment it was being called broadly into question. His was that dispassionate yet deeply-felt response to the visible world – to the model in the studio, the mundane street outside, the pots and bottles on the shelf – that William Brooker T h e A rc h i t e c t u re o f F o rm looked back to Degas and was given its peculiarly English application variously by Walter Sickert and, in subsequent generations, by such as William Nicholson, Ruskin Spear, Victor Pasmore and William Coldstream. Yet in the modernist hubbub of the post-war years, and with the English capacity for self-deprecation, it had suddenly come to seem old-fashioned and irrelevant.

Brooker was born in 1918 and had been a student at Croydon Art School before the War, but, enlisting in 1940, his more than six years in the army meant effectively a fresh start, at Chelsea and then at Goldsmiths’. With so many ex-servicemen returning to pick up the threads of an education, that was the time, more than any perhaps, of the maturer student. Brooker found himself, in the open freemasonry of the London Art Schools, where students were often older than their tutors, immediately at one with a distinguished and lastingly influential generation of British artists. Taught by such as Robert Medley and Ruskin Spear, friends with artists across the widest range of interests and practice, from such as Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon, William Turnbull, William Scott and Frank Auerbach, and soon himself drawn into art-school teaching, this was the world of which he was to become so much a part. He is remembered still by those he taught as the most generous and open-minded of teachers, if their engagement was as serious and disciplined as his own.

Around 1960, Brooker for the most part abandoned the figure, making still-life and the studio interior his almost exclusive preoccupation, with but the occasional excursion into landscape. Most of the works here are from the early 1960s, in which we see his moving onto, for him, a larger scale, and the evolution of his later manner. The surface is light and open, loosely but subtly worked with broad strokes, in a range of cool blues, greys, pinks, browns, the tone pitched low but with accentuating relative contrasts, either light against dark or dark against light, occasionally quite sharply so. The composition is of a classical simplicity, with shelf or table-top frontally presented, raised rather towards eye-level to make the apparent space comparatively more shallow, and closing it off with a wall rendered as a generalised colour or tonal-field. The forms comprise a little family of boxes, jars and pots, with a jug or glass or two and perhaps a tube. At first they retain a certain individuality, though never yet worked to a close descriptive finish, but by degrees they become reduced to their essential form, a block or cylinder, white, blue or grey. They are set in close order, huddled, sometimes tilted to lean against each other. Balance is all. Indeed in one such canvas, the image is reduced to nothing but a set of nondescript white blocks, set in a raking light and against a dark ground formally divided by a central vertical bar. And how close it is to the one landscape in the group, with its dense clustering of low and box-like houses, with the dark ramparts of the monastery of Patmos rising behind them.

In all of this earlier period, the actual statement is left at a pitch not of inconclusiveness exactly, let alone unfinish, but rather at that precarious point of establishment at which every object reads as being what it is and in its place, the space and form resolved, just enough done. The touch is light, subtle, suggestive, evoking and teasing the forms out of a kind of mist rather than describing them. They are paintings quite as much about what paint can do, and how much or how little it needs to do, as about what things are; how much there is to say, and how much to leave unsaid. By contrast the smaller group from the later 1970s stands out at first as marking quite distinct a change, though the development through the intervening years had been in fact steady and consistent, moving out into the interior of the studio itself as still-life. They show, rather, a shift of emphasis rather than of fundamental interest, from suggestion and sensation to fact. Where before the architecture of the composition was clear enough but understated, it is now sharp and firm, the space and structure marked out and organised in the baldly stated conventions of perspective. The forms of the objects too, though often simplified to a degree, are clear and solid in the drawing and finished to a sharper edge, while colour and tone have moved alike into a higher key and stronger contrast. We read these things for what they are – the flowers in the pot, the jar, the table top – and no less objectively we read too the abstraction which they inform and of which they are a part, of structure and space, arrangement and composition, there on the canvas.

As is so often the way, particularly with artists working within the British context, the regard of one’s peers, earned and retained by the long-sustained and deeply principled quality of one’s work, is not always marked by commensurate and enduring reputation. While the quality may remain evident enough in the works themselves, to those lucky enough to possess them, without the insistent reminder of public exposure in national collections, and curatorial support in anthology exhibitions, the name soon fades. So it is that to the generality even of the interested public these paintings will come as a complete surprise. How can it be that works of such clear and monumental presence and manifest accomplishment be so unfamiliar? Who was William Brooker? Why weren’t we told? Why weren’t we shown? The answer is that, through regular exhibitions at Arthur Tooth’s, from the 50s to the 70s, and latterly at Agnew’s, as well as at the Royal Academy, to which he was elected Associate in 1980, you were. And you took no notice. And then you forgot. This small but important exhibition begins to put the record straight.

William Packer, May 2004