Few people will know that the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson lived in Dulwich for two years in the 1920’s and even fewer will have heard of Marcus Brumwell who played a major role in the promotion (amongst many other things) of British Modernism. Surprisingly, what brought them together was a local tennis club. Family memory says it was named the East Dulwich Tennis Club, although the Camber Tennis Club was situated only yards away from the Nicholsons’ house at 20 Dulwich Common. Most likely, however, it was the Gallery Tennis Club, once situated at the corner of Gallery Road and Thurlow Park Road and which was founded in 1885 and claimed to be the oldest tennis club in Surrey. Today the ground is covered by the car park and appropriately, the existing tennis courts in Belair park. Each year the Gallery Tennis Club would stage a prestigious challenge tennis tournament and in 1924 and 1925 the Ladies’ Singles Champion was Irene Strachan who lived in Elmwood Road. It was at the tennis club that she and her fiancée, Marcus Brumwell, met another young couple, the Nicholsons, who had recently moved into the newly built house on Dulwich Common.

The friendship blossomed and the following year Irene and Marcus married, honeymooning at picturesque Pill Creek at St Feock in the Carrick Roads near Truro, Cornwall, where Marcus had been introduced to at an early age by an aunt. In 1928 they invited the Nicholsons to stay nearby, at their uncle’s bungalow and they too fell in love with the area and rented their own house, Haylands. It was there that fellow artist Christopher Wood (1901-30) joined them, and all three would paint the local landscape together, each painting a view of Pill Creek. A 1928 painting by Ben Nicholson of Pill Creek sold at Bonhams in 2016 for £722,500. Another artist to join the group was John Wells who was staying with cousins nearby. On a visit to St Ives, they made the acquaintance of Alfred Wallis, a self-taught local man. His primitive form of painting inspired Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood and they made a point of promoting Wallis’ work. Summer stays at or near the Brumwells’ Cornish retreat continued although a move was later made to St Ives. Marcus, meanwhile, had already begun to buy Ben’s works.

Marcus Brumwell (1901-83) was born in Dorset in 1901 and his father tragically died when he was an infant, according to one report, he fell off his horse on his way to register Marcus’ birth. His mother remarried five years later and with her new husband moved into 22 South Croxted Road. Marcus’s step-father was a a comfortably-off meat purveyor and, as his family grew; Marcus would have two step brothers and a step sister, moved to a more spacious house, 34 Alleyn Road where Marcus grew up. After education at Rugby he had a couple of jobs, including the publicity for AC cars. This job might well have come from contact between the founder of AC cars, James Portwine, who as Ian MacInnes wrote in the Spring 2016 edition of the Journal, lived in College Road and like Marcus’ step-father was a wealthy butcher. In 1924 Marcus joined the company of Hugh Stuart Menzies the proprietor of a small advertising agency which Menzies had started two years earlier. The agency initially only handled the Fortnum & Mason account, for which it developed stunning Christmas catalogues, however, two years later, by which time the young Brumwell had became company secretary and later a partner in the agency, It had become one of the country’s leading agencies with Elizabeth Arden, Toblerone, Shell-Mex, Crosse & Blackwell and many other major companies as clients. Marcus became managing director when Menzies retired in 1938, remaining in active control until the agency was sold in 1962.

Marcus Brumwell was a keen art collector with an eye for the avant- garde, almost an earlier incarnation of Charles Saatchi. He liked abstract and modernist art and bought such works during the 1930’s when such forms were branded degenerate by Nazi Germany. Artists such as Mondrian and Gabo, Moore and Hepworth were friends of the Brumwells and their works featured in Brumwell’s growing collection. In 1936 he helped financially to support Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and John Piper, among others, in financing Nicolette Gray’s exhibition Abstract and Concrete which travelled from Oxford to London via Liverpool, Newcastle and Cambridge. The exhibition also exhibited works by Piet Mondrian. Brumwell’s friendship with Mondrian led to the then struggling artist giving Marcus his Composition 1937 when Marcus visited the painter in 1938, just before Mondrian went to the USA. The gift was for paying off the artist’s rent arrears amounting to £31.5s or as Marcus liked to say, that he got the painting for 30 guineas.

When Naum Gabo was experimenting with clear plastics and an industrial thread for his sculptures it was Brumwell who was able to put the artist in touch with ICI who played a key role in making Perspex for aircraft cockpits. Brumwell even managed to send Gabo the glass thread he needed.

In 1943, following discussions with the poet and writer, Sir Herbert Read a year earlier, Brumwell founded the Design Research Unit, a design consultancy dedicated to combining expertise in architecture, graphics and industrial design - “ a service equipped to advise on all problems of design”, addressing the needs of “the State, Municipal Authorities, Industry or Commerce”. The DRU anticipated a time of post-war reconstruction; the reconditioning and redesigning of public utility services, especially railways and transport generally. Not all the projects would get off the ground; the car designed by Naum Gabo for Jowett was abandoned by that company. Headed by Herbert Read and sharing offices with another Marcus Brumwell supported project - Mass Observation, in Kingsway, the DRU got underway. It had great success at the wildly popular Britain Can Make It exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in 1946, in the rebranding of the newly nationalised British Railways and in 1951 for The Festival of Britain when it was involved with the design of the Regatta Restaurant and a series of displays in the Dome of Discovery.

The DRU still exists and continues to work on a wide range of projects with numerous well-known companies, and more recent work has included the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee Line extension. Marcus Brumwell remained one of the partners for twenty-nine years. In 1968 he was awarded the Royal Society of Arts Bicentenary Medal. The citation reads “ as a person who in a manner other than an individual designer has exerted an exceptional influence in promoting art and design in British industry.” In the Silver Jubilee Honours list he was awarded the CBE for services to art and design.

The Mass Observation project, mentioned as sharing offices in Kingsway with the DRU, had been started in the late 1930’s by the anthropologist Tom Harrison to study the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Britain. During the war, Mass Observation was financed by the Advertising Services Guild, a collection of half a dozen advertising agencies who pooled resources when advertising revenue had sunk. Marcus Brumwell was one of the main backers and it is clear that MO could be of immense value to the advertising industry - indeed it was able to identify social trends decades before today’s algorithm identification through social media. Harrison would report on his recent surveys at the Advertising Services Guild luncheons. These were particularly useful in the ASG’s work for advertisements for the Ministry of Information. Topics like ‘Reaction to Clothes rationing’, ‘Problems of demobilisation’, ‘How will people react when Peace comes?’ and ‘post-war housing’ were all addressed by Harrison’s Mass Observation studies.

Marcus Brumwell was also at home in the world of politics and became chairman of Labour’s Arts and Culture committee. He played a central role in promoting the discussions between Labour politicians and leading scientists which culminated in Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’’ stance in the 1964 election.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) would remain a friend for fifty years and the pair maintained a frequent correspondence when Nicholson settled in Switzerland with his third wife. In the 1930’s Nicholson had left his wife Winifred, for sculptor Barbara Hepworth and they set up home in Hampstead where Nicholson had a house. When World War 2 was about to break out, Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth loaded their triplets into a small car and drove to Cornwall. Marcus offered to clear their Hampstead house of all of Nicholson’s artwork in case it was bombed. This then adorned the walls of the Brumwell home near Dorking which delighted Marcus who wrote to Nicholson that he was now surrounded by beautiful things.

Ben Nicholson was a sports lover, indeed while he was living on Dulwich Common he leased the land behind his and some of the other houses, whether it was for tennis or perhaps to use to practise his golf swing, is uncertain. However, his enthusiasm for games encouraged him to invent a new form of table tennis which he called Tablehazard or Bridgepong. The game involved using a raised platform instead of a net with the ball allowed to roll off the top of the platform to the opponent’s side. He was convinced it would catch on and enlisted Brumwell’s support to approach various games manufacturers. Suzy Gauntlett says that in his correspondence with Brumwell, Nicholson included little annotated drawings of his idea. He also wondered what to call it. In one note he wrote: “Can’t think of a good name. Bridgepong is too like cards. Hazardpong might do. It is long but conveys the idea...Demonstrations arrangeable at short notice as Henry Moore has got very good”. Sadly the game was not taken up despite several meetings with top games companies.

In 1939 Nicholson and Hepworth, together with Naum Gabo and the potter Bernard Leach joined the St Ives Art Society. They were to form the nucleus of a modern art movement and come into conflict with the traditionalist members of the Society. By an odd coincidence, also drawn to St Ives at this time was the former head of art of Dulwich College, the portrait painter Leonard Fuller (1891-1973).

Fuller, who had also gone to Dulwich as a schoolboy, served in France in the Royal Fusiliers and later the Machine Gun Corps in World War 1. He served in the same regiment as fellow painter, Robert Borlase Smart and they became firm friends, and, deeply affected by the war, made a pact that after the war they would set up an art school in St Ives, where Smart painted.

Almost twenty years elapsed until in 1937 Borlase Smart wrote to Fuller reminding him of their pact. Together they founded the renowned St Ives School of Painting and went on to teach and work alongside some of the great St Ives painters like Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and Peter Lanyon. The School’s stated aims were “To assist the many resident and visiting students in attaining the requisite proficiency to enable them to express themselves adequately in various mediums: especially to enable them to combine their studies in landscape with figure and portrait work, carried on simultaneously.” Terry Frost recalled “We young painters used to go to the painting school, it was the cheapest way we could get a model. There was Peter Lanyon and Sven Berlin. We were some of the early pupils that went along to draw”.

Fuller, a traditionalist was nevertheless sympathetic to new ideas and together with Borlase Smart, welcomed Nicholson and his fellow Modernists and later other younger artists to join the long-established St Ives Society of Artists which Smart had helped to invigorate. A lid was kept on the division between the conservative and modernist members but a rift occurred when Borlase Smart died in 1947 and the conservative members called a meeting at which they criticised the inclusion of the modernists. As a result 24 modernist members resigned, including Leonard Fuller, Nicholson and Hepworth and they decided to form a breakaway society to include craftsmen and named it The Penwith Society of Arts. Leonard Fuller was elected chairman and Herbert Read its president.

The Society was a great success and later Nicholson claimed that.... “outrageous as the present art establishment in London would find it, a case could well be made for considering St Ives the most influential centre of Western painting during the late Fifties”.

Brumwell was friendly with several successive directors of the Tate, inviting them to stay with himself and Rene in Cornwall. In 1962 he told the director, John Rothenstein that he wanted his Mondrian to go to the Tate - “I love it dearly and do not want to part with it, against which I feel selfish and nervous about keeping such a valuable thing in the house, because I am not a suitably wealthy type - in short if I do consider selling it, I will give you the first refusal.” Soon after he commented “It begins to be very difficult for a private individual of my comparative small stature to own such an expensive painting. In 1965 he solved his dilemma by selling the Mondrian for £18,000 to the Marlborough Gallery in order to finance the building of his house at St Feock and in doing so helped launch the careers of some of Britain’s best known architects.

The Brumwell’s daughter Su had married the architect Richard Rogers and had gone with her husband to study architecture at Yale where they teamed up with Norman Foster and his wife to form an architectural practice - Team 4. Su, who would later co-design the Pompidou Centre with Rogers, persuaded her parents to give Rogers and Team 4 the commission for the new house, named Creek Vean House. The design has two wings connected by a corridor which served as an art gallery for the Brumwell’s extensive collection. It remained in family until 2004 following Rene’s death.

Friendship and hospitality in Cornwall by the Brumwells to Sir Norman Reid, Director of the Tate, led to Reid becoming president of the Penwith Society following the death of Herbert Read. In 1964 Marcus Brumwell gave Barbara Hepworth’s Three Forms (1935) to which he was very attached, to the Tate. In 1969 he was elected chairman of the Penwith Society and under his stewardship the gallery premises were extended by acquiring a neighbouring building.

Marcus Brumwell’s friendship with Ben Nicholson and other artists survived through the years. Many he commissioned to illustrate his company’s advertisements. Sarah Fox Pitt wrote at the Tate in 1981: “Without your own brilliant insight and your great support many of the artists would have a much harder time, and for all of these it was a great struggle.”

The author is grateful to Frances Twinn in drawing his attention to the Nicholson connection, and also to Tate Archives, Sharon O’Connor, Richard Deacon and Rita Green.

Bright Ties Bold Ideas - Marcus Brumwell, Pioneer of C20 Advertising, Champion of the Artists by Joe Brumwell has been invaluable in compiling this article.