Waugh’s Hoax on April Fools Day

The Economist in recognition of the importance of April Fools Day has published a list of famous hoaxes. These were not necessarily perpetrated on the day itself. One category was art hoaxes. These included the Nat Tate wheeze concocted by novelist William Boyd in 1998 as well as a Turner look-alike (“Fighting Temeraire”) by painter and decorator Tom Keating. Both of those hoaxes were actually sold at auction as such even after their bogosity was well known. Waugh also gets a mention in this category:

…Before all of these came a canonical hoax: Bruno Hat’s “Still Life with Pears” (1929), auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2009. Hat, his sponsors claimed, was a largely self-taught painter born on Germany’s Baltic coast and discovered working in a village shop in Clymping, West Sussex. It was hard to obtain more details. The moustached artist who rolled by wheelchair into his first London show, in the summer of 1929, spoke very little English. (Mainly because he was actually the socialite Tom Mitford, who spoke very little German.)

The show was a stunt by a sniggering coalition of Bright Young Things. Evelyn Waugh wrote the catalogue notes. (“Bruno Hat may lead the way in this century’s European painting from Discovery to Tradition.”) Brian Howard, a model for Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited”, was the chief curator. (He and the artist John Banting supplied the work.) Their successful joke haunted Howard: his contemporaries saw it as the principal achievement of a wasted life. But the war redeemed him. At the end of 1940, MI5 assigned Howard to spy on his own class. He toured West End grill rooms and English country houses, hunting for genuine Quislings. Only the truly gifted can make a career out of deception.

Perhaps as part of the joke, the article attributes Brian Howard’s role as a character model in Brideshead Revisited to the creation of Sebastian Flyte. Howard is usually recognized as having actually inspired the character of Anthony Blanche, with a little help from Harold Acton.

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