If you are a genius in one artistic genre, surely you must be pretty decent in others. That’s what Sotheby’s is hoping, at least, with regard to its forthcoming sale of more than 100 drawings, sketches, cartoons and poems by John Lennon, which are to be auctioned in New York on June 4th.
The collection belongs to Tom Maschler, the legendary publisher and editor who, in 1964, persuaded Lennon to compile some of his drawings and writing for a book, In His Own Write, published by Maschler, with a follow-up, A Spaniard In The Works, a year later. He enjoyed wordplay as well as drawing. This was at the height of Beatlemania, yet the books make almost no gesture to the author’s global stature, (although the foreword was written by Paul McCartney, his stablemate on vinyl). They are lyrical, whimsical and fantastical; drawings of tiny people, a four-eyed guitarist, boys with birds and one showing a vicar gazing at a naked couple.
It’s said that Maschler first came upon the drawings without knowing of their provenance, but either way, the lack of Beatles referencing in the art work indicates a certain confidence from the publisher (indeed, both books have never been out of print). But that was then. Now that the late John Lennon is so fêted that he even has an airport named after him, one must ask whether the drawings are, in fact, any good.
Very good, according to Len Massey, drawing tutor at the Royal College of Art. “They are gorgeous. Really lovely.” To Massey, they simply underline the massive artistic importance and ability that Lennon had, across the cultural spectrum. “The Beatles were at the forefront of art at that time. Not just in terms of sound art but also visual art. They had gone somewhere where the art schools could only try to catch up. Lennon was a person who was simply incredibly creative. And creativity comes out all over the place. I think artistically labelling people is such a bad idea; and I think Lennon knew that, perhaps even without articulating it.”
Indeed, Massey thinks if Lennon hadn’t been in the world’s most famous pop group, he could have gone further with his art. “These drawings are hilarious, sweet, and very well done. They are way more than doodlings, in fact I think they would make fantastic animations. If you think about it at the time, Britain was at the forefront of animation and the classic animation was of course Yellow Submarine.”
“People are obviously familiar with Lennon as a lyricist, so the verses and comic stories in the sale fit in easily with our idea of him,” says Philip Errington, a director in Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department. “But they shouldn’t overlook him as an illustrator. The crucial point is that Lennon went to art school, and had a couple of years where he was training to become an artist. Fate took him in another direction, but that he has an artistic skill should be no surprise.”
Errington compares the drawings to the work of James Thurber. “If you look at them briefly they seem like doodles, but if you take the time to look carefully, there is a lot of technique there. The clarity of line shows that this is someone who knows exactly what they are doing.”
The size and depth of the collection, which will be sold in 89 lots, is a testimony not only to Lennon’s artistic ability but also to the flair and drive of Tom Maschler himself. A Jewish immigrant who fled from Vienna with his parents on the outbreak of war, Maschler became a giant of British publishing, rising to become chief executive of Jonathan Cape. During the 60s, he built up an extraordinary artistic salon in London; a photograph snapped at the wedding of playwright Sir Arnold Wesker shows the dashing Maschler surrounded by the cream of London’s literary and artistic scene.
Maschler published Wesker’s first play, and each was godfather to the other’s daughter. According to Wesker, Maschler’s influence on the British cultural scene is impossible to over-estimate. “Tom blossomed into a maverick publisher of the 60s and 70s, building a small, quiet publishing house into one of aggressive majesty,” he says of his friend. “His risk-taking was rewarded with millionairedom. He was lean and hungry, an entrepreneur with a nose for what was in the air. And he always had fresh thinkings about old notions.”
Fresh discoveries, too. This was the man who discovered Gabriel García Márquez, encouraged Bruce Chatwin to write and founded the Booker prize for fiction. So getting the most famous pop star of the era to sit down and create an artistic world in pen and ink was, presumably, just the sort of thing that Tom Maschler did.
Who will be expected at the sale? Errington is anticipating hordes of Lennon aficionados turning up, keen perhaps to own a bit of pop history, but also hopes collectors of book illustrations will be there too. “These are legitimate art works, and should be seen as such.” Bidders from whatever background will need to have reasonably deep pockets, however; it’s expected the pieces will go for anything from $500 to $70,000 each.
Why is the sale in New York? Surely London – or even Liverpool – would be more appropriate. “Well, you could sell this collection anywhere,” says Errington, with a touch of understatement, “but we felt New York was fitting. He chose to live there at the end of his life, and he has a huge following there.” Is Yoko Ono expected to be there? “She knows about the sale, of course. Draw your own conclusions.”
Len Massey from the Royal College of Art probably won’t be there, but wishes he might. “Seeing this collection made me go back and look through my Lennon box set. He might not be so much in fashion at the moment, but he is still a massive influence on artists and musicians. He was inspiring.”
Errington sums up the power of what is sure to be an extraordinary sale. “It’s a little window into John Lennon, by Lennon himself.”