Obituary: Ern Brooks
Monday 09 August 1993
ERN BROOKS was a talented painter and illustrator, and an enthusiastic worker for the British Labour movement.
He was born of a large Manchester working-class family and gained his craftsman's skills as an apprentice lithographer with George Faulkner, who headed a firm of local printers, and who gave many a young aspiring artist a kick-start in their professional life. Brooks received his training as a painter and draughtsman at Manchester Art School.
He was a gentle shy person, a sensitive painter and graphic artist who followed the major developments in European painting, changing his style, but had little affinity with the extremes of Pop Art, heartily concurring with his lifelong partner, Barbara Niven, also a painter, when she described Roy Lichtenstein's output based on comic strips as 'head- shrinking' art. He admired Picasso, perhaps too much, and was horrified when John Berger's controversial and critical book on Picasso was published in the Sixties.
Brooks never fully realised his potential and often lacked the energy to follow through and develop his ideas. This was perhaps, because, like so many others, he had to earn a living, in his case as a freelance commercial artist, doing extremely exacting work to strict deadlines - he found the pressure energy-sapping. But he did produce some very fine work: one of his best was his 1951 linocut Men of Tolpuddle, dedicated to the trade- union pioneers deported to Australia, and sold as a print to raise funds for the Daily Worker. His drawings to illustrate Garcia Lorca's poem 'The Death of a Bullfighter', in the late Fifties, were exquisitely drawn, and eventually in the Sixties he found a subject that haunted him for the rest of his life - the field gate. He produced a series of canvases showing a black gate, closed against a field or opening to a field - sombre unpeopled paintings that asked a question about the future.
He was a member of the Artist International Association and during the Forties he exhibited frequently at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London and in the early Fifties he was among painters included in the Arts Council exhibitions of realist painters and graphic artists at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Like many of his contemporaries in the Communist movement, Brooks loathed the gallery system and the art-dealer world. This was his dilemma for, with no private patronage, he lacked the stimulus that exhibiting provides.
Brooks and Niven were lifelong members of the Communist Party and in the Thirties had helped found the Manchester Theatre Union, child of Joan Littlewood and the folk singer Ewan McColl. Every month for over two decades Niven wrung money out of supporters for the Daily Worker Fighting Fund. Both were members of the informally organised Communist Party's Artist Group, which brought together a diverse band of people engaged in the visual arts.
This was not just a talking shop; one of its major functions was the preparation of banners and posters for movement demonstrations and conferences - and Brooks was a keen maker of banners. Our workshop was the former Garibaldi Restaurant in Theobalds Road, Holborn, London, where we had the use of the first floor after the clients had left.
Sometimes we worked till the early hours of the morning, as on the occasion when we prepared the banners and a decorative backcloth for the Sheffield Peace Congress in 1950 - which had to be diverted to Warsaw because of the government bar on the entry into Britain of prominent personalities like the French scientist Frederic Jollot-Curie and the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg and East European delegations.
Ern was deeply attached to and relied a great deal on Barbara. When she died in 1971 he was devastated, and as time went by, he increasingly cut himself off from friends. Ern Brooks and Barbara Niven were typical products of the British Labour movement and in their turn contributed their human warmth and rich talents to its development, all part of our history.
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