Art Critic and Sportswriter Jasper Rees has posted an article on a blog called The Arts Desk in response to the death yesterday of David Bowie. According to Rees, Bowie and novelist William Boyd (both Waugh fans and art lovers) were involved in the creation of the fictitious “artist” Nat Tate in the 1990s. This is when they were both on the editorial board of a magazine called Modern Painters. It was Bowie’s idea that Boyd’s 1998 mock biography of the artist be published as a book where it would receive more attention that as an article in the magazine as originally planned:
[Bowie] not only brought it out in his own imprint, he also supplied the blurb on the jacket: “The small oil I picked up on Prince Street, New York…must indeed be one of the lost Third Panel Triptychs. The great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the artist’s most profound dread – that God will make you an artist but only a mediocre artist – did not in retrospect apply to Nat Tate.”
Boyd himself produced drawings alleged to be the work of Tate, and one of them (Bridge No. 114) was actually put on auction by Southeby’s in 2012.
This is where Waugh comes into the scheme. Southeby’s idea for an auction of the cod drawing was inspired by their earlier sale of a work by Bruno Hat, who was part of a similar hoax by Waugh, Brian Howard and their friends in 1929:
Nat Tate eventually penetrated the ultimate inner sanctum of Sotheby’s, with the proceeds going to the Artists General Benevolent Institution. Sotheby’s were game, having recently sold a Bruno Hat, the artist fabricated in 1929 by Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford muckers. The framed work was a small line-drawing showing a bridge depicted with childlike directness. Under it was a dense mess of black fingerprints – Boyd’s, of course. [A copy of the drawing accompanies Rees’ article.]
The Bruno Hat painting was probably by Brian Howard. Waugh and Howard collaborated on the catalogue for the 1929 exhibit of Hat’s works. Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1994, p. 218). Bruno Hat never quite rose to the level of a published biography as happened with Nat Tate, but his career as an artist was certainly created and celebrated in the same tradition.