Alastair Brotchie

On 20 February I joined a large congregation of mourners at Golders Green Crematorium. We had gathered to mark the death and to celebrate the life of Alastair Brotchie, who very sadly died on 27 January 2023. Looking around the garden at one point, an old friend and I reflected that we didn’t think there was anyone else who could have brought such a broad group of fellow travellers together.

The order of service and enclosures (detail)

It was an auspicious event, in the saddest of circumstances. During the service there were a number of very touching and memorable addresses from Alastair’s family, friends and collaborators.

Milie von Bariter of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, spoke of Alastair being ‘Behind the scenes, where he now resides.’

It was a powerful image: Alastair’s longstanding career as a scenic painter offered as metaphor for the persistence of a lost loved one in our thoughts, in face of death’s cruel vanishing act.

Alastair Brotchie’s scene-painting work had continued alongside his more public work as a publisher at Atlas Press, author, collaborator and Oulipo expert, ’Pataphysician, Jarry biographer, and bookseller, in what was a remarkably productive and extraordinarily energetic life devoted to arts and letters, to literature in translation, and the ‘anti-tradition’ of avant-garde literature in particular.

Read Peter Blegvad’s obituary of Alastair Brotchie here…

Von Bariter’s words reminded me of a couple of visits I’d made to see Alastair, literally behind the scenes, in his studio. (Click-through to see these hi-res images in magnificent detail.)

© Chris Dorley-Brown, 2023

In September 2013, Alastair invited me visit the ‘paint frame’, his studio in the stage house of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. At that time he was painting a gauze for the Verdi opera, The Corsair.

A paint frame is a special type of theatrical scene-painting workshop, as tall and wide as the stage itself, but with deep drops either side. Here, cloths and gauzes can be stretched onto large wooden frames, and those frames raised and lowered at will, so that all parts of the cloth can be reached from a fixed ‘ground’ level. At the time of that visit, I was in the very earliest stages of writing what would become my novel The Fountain in the Forest. I had been looking for a way to write about a revolution in policing that had happened in the immediate aftermath of the UK Miners’ Strike of the mid-1980s, and also riffing on Oulipo, performance, the Battle of the Beanfield, and the French Revolutionary Calendar. I was immediately struck by this huge space, and the deftness with which the frames could be raised and lowered; like great lumbering wooden guillotines. And by the magic of theatrical gauzes, which can conceal or reveal depending how you look at them. I realised that this paint frame, on a historic, theatrical site that predated the French Revolution by a century or more, would make an excellent crime scene.

If there was a murder here, I figured, there would need to be a detective to investigate it. And so Detective Sergeant Rex King of serious crime at the nearby Holborn Police Station was born.

The Fountain in the Forest would not exist in the form it does without Alastair’s friendship and generosity. The opening chapters feature a lightly fictionalised version of both theatre and paint frame (see in particular pp5–11).

After that first visit, Alastair and I went for a pint in the Coach & Horses on Wellington Street, where we traded gossip and stories of largely forgotten artists and writers; forgotten by most, that is, but not by us. Something of the pleasure and velocity of that chat and the setting also made it into the novel, in the character of scene-painter and raconteur Terence Hobbs, closest friend and confidante of DS Rex King:

Terence Hobbs had a good memory, too, which coupled with his raconteur’s knack for spinning out epic tales involving local names and faces long forgotten by the rest of the world, made him very entertaining company. A Mark Twain of the Thames, you could buy him a pint or two and Terry would pick up this Aldwych Iliad where he’d left off last time, whether that had been a week ago or a couple of years. […] Terry’s stories conjured up a pre-regeneration Covent Garden that, if they were to be believed, must have been populated almost exclusively by legendary drunks, entertainers and artistes both celebrated and forgotten. It was different now. Gone were the days when you’d more than likely bump into Danny LaRue walking his ‘golden palomino’ chihuahua in the Phoenix Gardens of a morning. The props men, the wig-makers and costumiers, the makers of fake noses and other prosthetics had all left.

From The Fountain in the Forest, Chapter 1

These two photos were taken by Chris Dorley-Brown on a later visit, in 2016. With the novel finished, I had asked Alastair if I could come to the paint frame again, but this time take some photos. Chris is known among other things for his extraordinary photographs of East London architecture, and I thought that the rare opportunity to see this highly unusual and historic space in central London would appeal to him. I’m grateful to Chris for going back into the files now, to find these two wonderful extra photos from that shoot in 2016.

Welcoming us in, Alastair said that he needed to continue working while Chris took the photos, so we were not to get in the way. He was on a tight deadline, this time painting an enormous theatrical cloth for what was a then highly-anticipated forthcoming production of Blood Brothers. The imagery was commercially sensitive at the time, so Alastair also asked that the cloth not be shown if we used any images from the shoot before the show opened.

I still find it awe-inspiring; not only the paint frame itself, this archaic, cathedral-like space, and the centuries-old tradition of scenic painting on this site, but also the sheer visual virtuosity at scale of Alastair’s paintings, produced by hand and eye alone. The scenic artist’s unique perspective; their ability to work on a cloth so close-up, but to also see it as if from ‘the gods’, the highest, farthest, cheapest seats in the auditorium.

Vale Alastair.

Alastair Brotchie, 20 July 1952–27 January 2023

© Chris Dorley-Brown, 2023

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