John Banting (OE1913-20) is undoubtedly Emanuel School’s most famous artist alumnus who ranks amongst the leading British surrealist painters of the 20th century, with his work regularly exhibited in permanent collections of national and other major galleries.

John Banting’s brother was also an OE and had a life-long career in the army and RAF, which began in the trenches of World War One with the Surrey Regiment. George Banting (OE1909-15) joined the RAF when it was founded in 1918, and remained in service until he retired in 1951. In the Second World War he trained fighter pilots in Africa, retiring with the rank of Air Vice-Marshall and was awarded the CBE in 1943. There is considerable detail surrounding George Banting’s wartime exploits in the school archive, and many of his service log-books are held at the Imperial War Museum.

By comparison, there was very little about John in our historical collection until quite recently. One of the major reasons is that for much of the 20th Century Emanuel was a militaristic school, with a very strong CCF, and the achievements of a prominent soldier would have been more notable than a struggling artist whose reputation did not truly flourish until his death. John was well-known as an anti-establishment left wing artist, agitator, hoaxer, poet and satirist who was probably not seen as an ideal role model for Emanuel pupils. His brother, on the other hand, was very well known and a regular at school and alumni functions.

John was four years younger than George and was slightly too young to serve in the First World War. The only references relating to him in our school archive refer to an English class prize he won and a few appearances in the school sports day. George was a rugby player, and competed for the school 1st XV before joining the forces for World War One. Beyond school, their lives were radically different.

After leaving Emanuel, John worked as a book clerk whilst attending evening school at Westminster School of Art. He studied in Paris in the early 1920s and frequented the London art scene during the same period. Art critic Louisa Buck calls him “a cheekily handsome, gay working class South Londoner… who in his heyday was a conspicuous presence at parties and pranks where the ‘Bright Young Things’ merged with Bloomsbury”. By the mid 1920s he had his own London studio and knew most of the leading artists of the time. His surrealist paintings were often very inventive and elegant works of bizarre hybrids of organic forms and human body parts. Banting also tried his hand at poetry, and illustrated them with his own artwork – often satires on the class system, and different art movements. Always keen to try something new, he also designed and created book jackets and illustrations for authors such as Virginia Woolf.

George Banting (OE1909-15) in the First World War

John was also involved in one of the most sophisticated art hoaxes of its day, helping in the creation of a fictitious artist called ‘Bruno Hat’. In 1929 many of London’s leading socialites and critics, including Winston Churchill, were conned into believing that ‘Bruno Hat’ was a genuine German painter. The exhibition of Banting’s lesser paintings and rejects (credited to ‘Bruno Hat’) was hailed as a triumphant success in all the newspapers, only to be later revealed as a hoax, throwing custard into the face of the art establishment. Evelyn Waugh, who was yet to find his own success as a novelist, wrote the exhibition notes for John.

Whilst continuing to paint and write prolifically, Banting led an extravagant life. In 1932 he fought against racial hatred in America after befriending a black American poet, was in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War where he met Ernest Hemingway, and tried to join the International Brigade. He became a Stalinist, and during the Second World War, after being declared unfit for service, he worked as Art Director for the Ministry of Information’s Strand Films where he collaborated with the poet Dylan Thomas. John was also involved in the creation of a three-minute film called ‘Birth of the Robot’, an animated piece which advertised Shell Oil and was widely seen in the cinemas. The puppets in this fantasy advert were designed by John, and stylistically, this pioneering mood piece was way ahead of its time.

John continued to exhibit widely into the 1950s and any Surrealist exhibition would not have been complete without an example of his work. However, by the 1960s the new work had all but dried up but he was saved from destitution by a grant from the Artists Benevolent Fund. John produced few paintings in his final years and exhibitions relied heavily on his earlier works.

Art critics believe that this energetic maverick never fully fulfilled his early promise and in later years his work became increasingly uneven and repetitive. Although he died in relative obscurity in 1971, within a year of his death there had already been two major retrospective exhibitions of his work.

A year later, his brother George also passed away. The obituary of John from The Times notes that “he refused point blank to become a prey to the vultures of nostalgia. He preferred to live day to day, delighting with a certain impish glee in the refusal of young people to conform to what many of his contemporaries felt to be right and proper”.

John Banting bucked the trends of his day and must rank amongst the most colourful of Old Emanuels. Two of his most famous paintings, used by London Underground, are on display in the Marquand Room of the Library. If you can afford it, an original Banting will cost you many thousands – but if not, retrospective exhibitions appear frequently.

Tony Jones (Senior Librarian & Archivist)

John Banting in later life