Obituary
Obituary
Obituary

Prize-winning British author and art historian Anita Brookner dies aged 87

She was the first woman to hold the Slade professorship of fine art at Cambridge University and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art

by Anny Shaw  |  15 March 2016
Prize-winning British author and art historian Anita Brookner dies aged 87
British writer Anita Brookner taught at the Courtauld © peter jordan / Alamy
The prize-winning British author Anita Brookner, who was the first woman to hold the Slade professorship of fine art at Cambridge University and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, has died aged 87.

Brookner, who was born into a Jewish immigrant family in Herne Hill, south London in 1928, began her career writing on art and art history before turning her hand to novels later in life. She published her first book in 1981, while teaching at the Courtauld. Three years later she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac. The prize was snatched from under the nose of J.G. Ballard, whose Empire of the Sun had been the favourite to win.

After gaining a BA in history from King’s College London, she did her doctorate in art history at the Courtauld. Following a stint studying at the École du Louvre in Paris, Brookner was invited by Anthony Blunt, the director of the Courtauld who was later exposed as a spy for the Soviet Union, to teach at the university, where she was to remain until her retirement.

In her last interview, published in the Telegraph in 2009 (socially anxious Brookner was a recluse in her final years), the author says she was most at ease working at the Courtauld: “Teaching. Students! Lovely people! Then I did feel integrated. I felt I was doing what I most enjoyed. I loved the company. I loved the ideas, the images. And I loved the conversation! The exchange was valuable. That was authentic. Everything else was made up.”  

Brookner started out by studying 18th-century French art but later switched to the 19th century, the latter influencing her novels. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1987, Brookner explained the difference: “The 18th century believed that reason could change things for the better… After the revolution, people realised that reason could not change anything, that man is moved not by reason but by darker forces.”

Art historians and writers paid tribute to Brookner following the news of her death on 10 March. The Courtauld's Sackler Research Forum tweeted: “We are mourning the loss of Anita Brookner, the remarkable writer of fiction and art history, who died last Thursday.”

Orange Prize-winning novelist Linda Grant tweeted: “Oh, I admired her so much. An underrated master of incisive fiction and laser prose Anita Brookner.”

The author Antonia Fraser said Hotel du Lac was wonderful. “In a strange way it was pathfinding. I much respected her.”

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