Obituary: Geoffrey Houghton Brown
GEOFFREY Houghton Brown was in no sense a public figure. A hundred years ago he would have been considered quite simply a cultivated English gentleman.
Actually he was considered an eccentric. Never very rich, he was comfortable enough not to work for a living. Before and even during the Second World War, he seemed to be perpetually moving house. Moving was the breath of life to him. He would take on rather derelict great houses - Clouds, Oving Hall, Felix Hall, Winslow Hall - which, for he was a somewhat ruthless improver, he was wont to leave less great than he found them. He filled them, as later he filled his London houses, with exquisite Boulle, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, porcelain, holy reliquaries and full- length portraits of Persian noblemen, all of excellent quality. As a connoisseur, he was respected by scholars like Sir Francis Watson, although he never submitted his own expertise to public scrutiny. He was a voracious reader: a man of eclectic tastes and talents.
During the war - he was far too delicate to be enlisted by the services - he was always ready for any expedition or adventure with an aesthetic purpose. Yet he spent night after night during the Blitzes voluntarily fire-watching and extinguishing incendiary bombs on the roof of Westminster Abbey.
Very unassuming and self-deprecating, Houghton Brown would disappear to a secluded studio (to which no friend was permitted) near the Tottenham Court Road, where he assiduously painted religious pictures in the Byzantine- Cubist style of his friend and artistic monitor the Australian painter Roy de Maistre. Unorthodox and strange, they were often imaginative and inspired. In 1946 he was persuaded to exhibit some of them under the title 'Sacred Abstract Art' in an Ebury Street gallery. Not a single picture was sold.
Undoubtedly his chief devotion was to the Roman Catholic faith, to which he was converted when a very young man. But the disruptive consequences of the Second Vatican Council were a devastating blow, and he seldom went to Mass again. Like many older Catholics, of whom Evelyn Waugh is the best known, he felt betrayed by his church. He became a strong supporter of the Latin Mass Society, of which for a time he was the chairman, but committees and speech-making were not in his line.
He loved entertaining a handful of intimates. One would find round his table such disparate friends as the formidable Father Martin D'Arcy SJ and the rococo stage designer Oliver Messel. Houghton Brown was totally indifferent as to who his friends were. It was what they were that mattered to him. Not so with his lifelong companion, the decorator Ronald Fleming, who had, among his other virtues, a fine instinct for breeding and correct forms of address. Once, having invited a Balkan princess to tea, Fleming tutored Houghton Brown how he ought to behave. Intensely shy, Houghton Brown remained silent in the royal presence until he thought fit to say: 'And now won't you have some ma'am, Jam?'
Towards the end of his life he composed and had printed an apologia of the 16th-century French astrologer Nostradamus, whose prophecies, notwithstanding the ambiguity of their utterances, Houghton Brown implicitly believed came to pass. What is more, such was his enthusiasm he sometimes constrained his friends' credulity to agree with him.
He had a wry humour and a sort of despairing cynicism which was very engaging. In the post-war age, he was a refreshing anachronism.
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