This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
1928 - 2016
BA 1949, PhD 1952
If the average person were to do only one of the things that Anita Brookner achieved, they would be considered a great success. In her early years Brookner could be found in Dulwich Picture Gallery, where she first fell in love with art while contemplating Poussin’s Triumph of David. During her time studying French and History at King’s College London, she would regularly skip a module (she later said she forgot the name of it) to attend public lectures at the National Gallery. After beginning studies at The Courtauld, her talent for art history was recognised by Professor Sir Anthony Blunt, who thought her MA thesis on Greuze worth upgrading to a PhD. She went on to write exhibition reviews for the Burlington Magazine and worked as a French and Italian translator. Her time spent researching Greuze in Paris, an opportunity afforded by a French government scholarship to study at the École du Louvre in 1950, was reportedly the best time of her life.
Photograph by Jerry Bauer, 2004
Brookner continued her academic career when she became lecturer at Reading University in 1959, before returning to The Courtauld in 1967 and serving as the first female Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge for 1967/68. Her writing career started with art history – early books include now canonical monographs on Greuze and David. It was not until 1981, however, that she made her first foray into novels with A Start in Life at the age of 53, subsequently averaging a book each year over the next two decades and often staying in her office at The Courtauld during the summer break to work on her novels, acclaimed for their exploration of loneliness in London.
Brookner’s career stands out among Courtauld alumnae as one of the few to excel in fields both creative and academic. Despite her success, however, she often spoke of her loneliness – she rarely attended literary festivals or parties – and discussed how writing fiction gave her motivation to live, describing it as not enjoyable but addictive. Brookner won the Man Booker Prize in 1984 for her novel Hotel du Lac, later adapted into a BBC mini-series, and was awarded a CBE in 1990. She eventually became a Reader at The Courtauld, accompanied by honorary positions at Cambridge and at her alma mater, King’s College. Laudable as the long and varied list of her achievements undoubtedly is, however, Brookner dismissed praise as “irrelevant”.