Adoration of the Magi, 1929
Inscribed lower left verso 'Bruno July 1929
oil on canvas in original rope frame
19 3/4 x 23 3/4 inches
50.3 x 60.4 cm
50.3 x 60.4 cm
Lytton Strachey: Purchased from the house of Bryan and Diana Guiness 23 July 1929
The Graphic (Journal) August 3rd 1939, illustrated
DescriptionThis small and extremely rare group of paintings, carrying the signature Bruno Hat, are amongst the more enigmatic manifestations of British art in the years between the two World Wars.
In the summer of 1929 an exhibition of the work of the ‘unknown’ artist Bruno Hat was announced, to be held at the London house of the socialite Bryan Guinness. Having been apparently discovered by Guinness working in obscurity in a village near Clymping, the exhibition was announced to the press as a coup for English modern art. The event was in fact a complete hoax, the brainchild of Guinness’ dilettante friend Brian Howard (a model for the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s later novel, Brideshead Revisited). However, it was planned with meticulous exactitude, with a parody catalogue introduction, ‘Approach to Hat’, written by Waugh under the nom de plume A.R.de T. and Guinness’ brother-in-law Tom Driberg in heavy disguise masquerading as the artist at the private view. It is also possible that the event was in part a deliberate parody of the recent genuine discovery of an unknown painter, Alfred Wallis, in the autumn of 1928 by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. That this could have at least been in mind is perhaps suggested by the fact that Wood, whose work consciously aimed to throw off the signs of slick painterly handling and replace it with an informed naivety, had until a little before, been involved in an affair of sorts with Meraud Guinness, a relative of one of the main figures in the hoax and an event much disliked by her family.
The event seems to have been considered a great success by all involved, particularly as some of the reviewers apparently took it seriously, much to the delight of the perpetrators. However, in order to have a show, they needed paintings and it is the authorship of the paintings, which whilst self-conciously parodying contemporary continental art never wholly drop into pastiche, has been most in obscurity. The paintings were initially believed to be the work of Brian Howard (whose initials mirror those of Bruno Hat), a story presumably aimed at gaining Howard some form of artistic notoriety. However it seems unlikely that Howard was capable of producing works which exhibit the accomplishment and style as is seen in the present work and thus his acknowledged collaborator on the project, John Banting, comes to the fore as the likely author. A lifetime friend of Howard, Banting later played down his involvement, claiming he was merely an assistant to his friend, but it is possible that this protestation was due to Banting, whose later career as a distinguished surrealist is well-known, wishing to disassociate himself with a frivolous society prank. The stylistic elements of the pictures, right down to the rope frames which surround them, all fit well with Banting’s work of that and subsequent periods, and they were clearly well-received as even Lytton Strachey bought one.