Tribute to Timothy Brooke
By Frank Whalley
The master has gone but his masterclass remains
In praise of Timothy Brooke, a magical realist who caught the fleeting moment in paintings and drawings that urged us to conserve and protect the land we have
Old soldiers never die, they say, but only fade away - and fine artists can never die either. They live on to excite us; shock us; amuse, uplift and educate us through their work. And my comrade-in-art Timothy Brooke was among the finest of fine artists. His physical self might have left us but for sure his paintings will continue to snap and sing from many a wall.
Tim was arguably the most technically accomplished painter in the entire region; his grasp of line and form, mass and light, shade and colour rarely surpassed.
It sprang from his ability to draw; a talent often overlooked in this world of video, installations and electronic gimmickry.
Tim was born in England and came to Kenya aged three, shortly after the Second World War; his father the architect who designed the Post Office in Nairobi City Square and the Lenana School chapel. Sent back to the UK to complete his schooling, Tim then worked in an advertising studio and honed his drawing by attending evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art, London, taught by James Dring RA. A noted portrait painter, Dring had himself studied under the formidable Henry Tonks, the Slade Professor of Fine Art in London, whose associates included such storied artists as James McNeil Whistler, Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent. Tonks was one of the first British painters to be influenced by the Impressionists - particularly Degas - and his pupils, as well as Dring, included such Modern British luminaries as David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Augustus and Gwen John, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. It is a roll call of honour that hammers home one of the most decisive factors in Tim’s painting: pedigree; for Tim was rooted in the examples of these Modern British masters and it shows in every painting and drawing he produced, stamping his work like a hallmark that certifies an artist who simply reeked of class. After St Martin’s, Tim went to Farnham, near London, to study life drawing before returning to Kenya.
If you can draw the nude you can draw anything and it remains true that a great strength of Tim’s painting is the solid draughtsmanship that underpins each work. “I learnt to draw freely, using the whole arm,” he told me. With that came a certain fluidity - the knack of capturing the fleeting moment: the essence of the landscape sketch. You see it in all Tim’s work as he caught the lightness of being and held the essence of a vanishing Africa to our eyes. Tim was a master of the moment; of a magical realism that records what, to many, must seem commonplace but which might not be with us for much longer. It stemmed from his ability to seize on the essentials of any place, animal or object with a few economical brushstrokes while imbuing them with their innate characteristics. Whether elephants congregating in a river; big cats on the prowl; the haughty stare of a lone giraffe; or even something once so common as aloes flowering beside a ditch and now as scare as the wooden cart wheel hanging on the wall: preserve this, each painting seems to say.
Tim started work at 7.30 each morning, seven days a week, either in the studio or out and about with his sketchbook, canvas and paints beside him in his old Land Rover. Living in Nanyuki he often drove past Mt Kenya - one of his favourite subjects, in all weathers, times of day and different moods - and took the short drive north, past Isiolo then out into the deserts with their nomads herding cattle, goats and camels; with women at the well and wildlife in abundance. All was grist to his mill: a love of the natural wonders that gained him support from Laikipia Wildlife Forum grateful for his record of what has been around for thousands of years but what we stand to lose if we do not act now.
Tim found an artistic soul mate in Carol Lees at the One Off gallery and his regular exhibitions there became a hunting ground for eager collectors and for other artists who found a lesson in his every work. In fact Tim’s canvases, filled with gorgeous colours applied in lush strokes with a broad brush, were sought by collectors internationally. They fetched high prices too (Tim was a man who knew his worth) but they rarely remained unsold.
Latterly his paintings became pared down; spare, leaving only the essentials and focused on the heart of the matter. This reductive brilliance - that can take a lifetime to achieve - ensured his paintings and drawings created their own reference points and became coherent entities beyond the realities they set out to project.
Tim left his beloved family lost in grief. But his wife Jill and daughters Abigail and Rebecca and his multitude of friends must take comfort because, unlike so many of us, Tim will live on through his work… thousands of paintings and drawings, all of which will continue to delight and be cherished by generations to come.
And always be a masterclass on the wall.
*Some sections of this tribute appeared previously, in condensed form, in The EastAfrican.