David Sylvester reminisces about ELT Mesens, Magritte's friend and tireless promoter, the subject of a new book by George Melly
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E L T Mesens was a plump, spruce surrealist from Belgium with a capacity for bouncing back that did not desert him even when the last five years of his life were rendered desolate by the death of his wife and sparring-partner Sybil. Visiting him one morning in a London nursing- home a year or so before his own death at 68, I found him in a buoyant mood induced by a pass just made at him by a male nurse. In fact, he got out of bed to prove to me that the nurse was no fool by dropping his silk pyjama trousers to expose a pair of well-preserved white buttocks.

The bounciness became even more sad in proportion to how much drink had gone into generating it that day. I often dined with him at the excellent restaurant of the Hotel Canterbury in Brussels. By the time we finished the main course he was usually engaged in conversation with some nouveau- riche couple or family at one of the adjacent tables; by the time coffee arrived, he was likely to be seated at their table, swanking at length about the sizeable fortune he had amassed through dealing in modern art.

So this distinguished member of the surrealist movement, that movement dedicated to subverting bourgeois and petit-bourgeois values, spent many of his evenings in the evening of his life trying to impress adherents to those values who probably didn't believe him anyway.

Mesens had always sought in one way or another to impress, but within limits imposed by surrealist principles. He had been one of the key organisers of London's great International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, along with Herbert Read and Roland Penrose. In the course of time Read and Penrose both let the side down by accepting knighthoods; while it is safe to assume that Mesens would never have been offered an honour, it is even more certain that he would have turned any such offer down. During an exhibition at the Tate in 1969, there was a visit from a Belgian prince and his beautiful Italian wife, accompanied by Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon. Those designated to take the royal party round were Jennie Lee, the Minister for the Arts, Arnold Goodman, the Chairman of the Arts Council, myself as curator of the exhibition, and Mesens, who had given indispensable help in realising it. Mesens declined: he was a republican.

The exhibition in question was the first museum retrospective in Britain of Magritte. Mesens's participation had been essential because he knew more than almost anyone about the artist and because he owned easily the biggest and finest collection anywhere, private or public, of the artist's work. In fact, Mesens's entire career was dominated by his multi-faceted relationship with Magritte, while Magritte's career was deeply dependant on Mesens's promotion of his art.

Their friendship began in Brussels in1920, when Magritte was a 21-year- old art student and Mesens a 16-year-old music student, both sons of small businessmen. Soon Mesens gave up music and started exercising a modest talent as a poet and critic and collagist and an exceptional talent as an editor and exhibition curator and art dealer. (Dealing in art, especially from home, was never considered within the movement to be an unworthy occupation for a surrealist; it was how both Breton and Eluard survived.)

Magritte and Mesens's first collaboration was in publishing two short- lived but interesting Dada reviews, but from 1927 on Mesens was involved in marketing his friend's work - initially as manager of one of the two galleries with which Magritte had a contract - and this, of course, ensured a fiercely ambivalent relationship. It lasted till death parted them and included a lot of infighting, conducted in public, which Mesens often cheekily managed to project as a struggle between Magritte's materialism and his own integrity as his friend's surrealist conscience. But despite intermittent ruptures, the relationship did endure; many of Magritte's friendships ended in permanent estrangement.

The key factor in the relationship was Mesens's absolute faith in Magritte's genius, a faith maintained in the face of powerful scepticism on all sides and ultimately rewarded by substantial wealth and still more by knowing that he had been right. It may be forgotten today, when Magritte is almost as popular as Monet, that he was not really accepted until the 1960s, not only in the world at large but even within the surrealist movement. Incredibly, it was only then that Breton first wrote about him. Magritte had migrated to Paris in 1927 in order to be near the surrealists, only to find that it was two years before they took him into the fold. Even then relations with them were uneasy and, shortly after the Wall Street crash of 1929 undermined the art market, Magritte, seeing no future for himself in Paris, retreated to Brussels.

The retreat itself was made practically possible by an act of faith from Mesens. Magritte had just produced for a one-man show in Paris a batch of pictures which in my view was the finest he ever produced in his life; it included the famous Nude in Five Parts and the Tate's marvellous The Annunciation. The exhibition was cancelled, the pictures were left on Magritte's hands, he hadn't any money to get himself and his wife and his chattels back to Brussels; Mesens, now an independent dealer, bought all the pictures for cash.

A couple of years later, the continuing Depression enforced the liquidation of the stocks of two Brussels dealers who between them held nearly 200 paintings by Magritte. It was felt that these would go for humiliating amounts if put into the saleroom along with stocks of other artists, so they were made available privately at knockdown prices and Mesens bought more than 150 at a probable average price of pounds 6 (about pounds 100 in terms of today's purchasing power in Belgium). Today, some of them are worth millions, but they took 20 years even to become saleable and a further 20 to become valuable. (Till almost the end of Magritte's life in 1967, collectors of modern pictures, and the experts they listened to, thought he was just an illustrator of amusing paradoxes and wheezes.)

Mesens was indefatigable in his efforts on Magritte's behalf, not least in the country of the artist's spiritual ancestor, Lewis Carroll. Once he had come here to hang the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition (setting an example, Penrose told me, of how to install a group show), he operated increasingly from London. He played a considerable part in Edward James's commissioning of Magritte to paint large pictures for his house in Wimpole Street. And having taken over, in partnership with Penrose, the London Gallery in Cork street, he soon gave Magritte an important one-man show. At the same time he was organising exhibitions of his work in Belgium and Holland.

The War shut down the London Gallery. Mesens had to do work of national importance. Following a brief recall to Brussels he was lucky enough or cunning enough to get a job in London with the BBC. He was thus able to preside over the meetings at the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho of the Surrealist Group in England. A naval rating stationed at Chatham, George Melly, who while at Stowe had become enamoured of surrealism, contacted the Group and was invited to one of those meetings. So began a friendship which Melly has commemorated in a vivid, delightful, touching book, Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of ELT Mesens (Heinemann, pounds 17.99).

There were many aspects to this long friendship. Mesens was a hero. Mesens and Sybil were a second pair of parents. Melly already had a highly satisfactory pair, but with the second lot there was no impediment to incest, with either party or both together. For a time Mesens become Melly's boss and as such was an impossible tyrant; some- how the friendship survived that. I suspect this was because one of its main ingredients was Melly's deeply maternal feeling towards his mentor: Mesens was a bawling, bullying baby, and Melly endured this with an inexhaustible forgiveness and acceptance.

The most interesting part of the book, indeed, is that which covers the years of his employment as an assistant at the London gallery from the time it was resurrected after the War till its final demise in 1950. His account is fascinating in two ways. It's a highly instructive chapter in the social history of British art and patronage. And it's an absorbing blow-by-blow description of an employee's "nightmare years" coping with an idle, pernickety, drunken oaf with a keen intelligence and winning ways who made uninhibited claims upon him as a loyal friend and sexual partner. All the same, it seems likely that Mesens was in order in his constant carping at Melly's cavalier ways, if this book is anything to go by. For Melly is quite outrageously careless in his treatment of the published sources that he uses.

After the War Mesens was little involved in marketing Magritte's current output. Magritte put himself into the hands - except when he cheated and sold pictures surreptitiously, having inscribed them falsely with old dates - of a Greek gallerist operating primarily in New York, an ex-ballet dancer with a lot of personal charm but little understanding of art. Mesens did, however, organise several important retrospectives and was also gradually selling off pieces from his own holdings. Magritte resented receiving no percentage of the profits.

When Magritte died, a year after Sybil, Mesens repeatedly proposed to his widow, she told me, but Melly reports that he also repeatedly proposed to two barmaids at Lord's Tavern, opposite his flat. Another sad habit, with Sybil gone, was will-rattling; indeed, he said more than once that he might leave a picture to me; doubtless he said this to many others. He played with the idea of dividing his entire fortune between George and his sister Andree Melly, or leaving it to a girlfriend called Ruth, or giving the art to a museum or museums. The problem was that he couldn't bear to face the thought of giving away, even posthumously, anything more substantial than a restaurant meal.

He did, however, summon up the courage to give away one picture while he was still alive, though only just. In 1948 he had promised Melly that he would give him a Magritte. In 1970 he fulfilled the obligation, with hesitations and complications that make a hilarious read. But even then he fulfilled it by handing over a rather indifferent piece. Melly, forgiving as ever, expresses gratitude for a "beautiful minor work"; I can only feel appalled that after all that time a man on his last legs could not present a faithful friend with a masterpiece, for he still owned a considerable number of truly great works by Magritte as well as several by other artists.

So his masterpieces were undiminished in his estate when he died intestate a year later. The estate was divided, as he knew it would be, between two cousins, a "nice cousin", a simple and good man whom he was friendly with, and a "nasty cousin" whom he deliberately hadn't seen for years. When this cousin was telephoned by a solicitor and informed that Mesens was dead, he said: "What's that got to do with me?"

The pity is that anyone who owns important works of art probably has a certain moral responsibility to members of the public who might get something out of having access to them. During his lifetime Mesens was a generous lender to worthwhile exhibitions because he recognised the spiritual value of his loans. Since he died, intestate, people wanting to borrow those same works for exhibitions have had to explain the need to people who seem to recognise primarily their financial value. The "nice cousin" tended to be helpful; his heirs have been somewhat less so. The other cousin has been among the least obliging of all important owners of Magrittes. I have found that when he lent a work it was on condition that I also borrowed an unwanted one. (Its value would be substantially increased by inclusion in a museum exhibition.) But above all some major works in his possession have been simply unavailable - so that for 25 years now some of Magritte's greatest pictures have not been released from their bank vaults. Mesens certainly found a wickedly warped way to avenge himself upon us.

David Sylvester is the editor of the Rene Magritte Catalogue Raisonne and author of a monograph, 'Magritte', and has curated three major retrospectives of the artist.