‘Staring non-life in the eye’

“It is therefore Death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself.”

Sir Walter Raleigh

Tom Lubbock, chief art critic for the (English ) Independent from 1997 until shortly before his death at 53 in January 2011, was the author of a number of fine and perceptive books about art, including Great Works: Fifty Paintings Explored, a selection from the more than 200 weekly essays, each of 950 words, he contributed to the paper between 2005 and 2010. His last book, however, was one he could never have imagined himself writing while in the full flush of his busy and productive career, and only did so when he confronted the circumstances that drew it out of him.

As his wife, the artist Marion Coutts, whom he married in 2001, explains: “Tom was my husband. Writing was his life and work. But in September 2008 he was diagnosed with a 'grade four' brain tumour, situated in the left temporal lobe, the area responsible for speech and language. During his last year, articulate speech became an effort. He willed words into being as they vanished again …Tom's work was to keep his illness and his life in clear sight.” Or as friend and fellow art critic Julian Bell put it: “How to live staring non-life in the eye.”

The half-joking title of his book, Until Further Notice, I am alive, came to him when he decided he did not want to inflict his condition on others, but also after he reached an acceptance of what was happening to him. “Usually this tumour might give you only a two-year span since its discovery [He wrote this in November 2010]. I have had two operations and one course of radiotherapy and now three chemotherapies … My death is, in a sense, imminent. I say to myself: I am dying. Something in my head is hurrying to kill me.”

Yet, he notes: “I always felt from the start that it would be wrong to complain, to protest, to be outraged. Wrong even almost to treat it the situation as an evil at all. It is partly an acceptance of the human state. It is partly a kind of self-respect.”

Lubbock certainly had everything to live for, and every reason to rage against the unfairness of it all. Not only was he at the peak of his career when the tumour showed up, but he and his wife had an 18-month-old child Eugene. But what seemed desperately cruel was that the tumour gradually eroded his ability to use words, the tools of his trade.

Refusing to surrender easily, he spent much of the two years between hearing the diagnosis and just before his death writing and preparing new works for the press, leaving three manuscripts of completed books: one on Bad Art, one on the English graphic tradition, and The Donkey's Head, on 17th-century painting, and turning his journal entries into a profoundly honest and courageous record of his dying.

It is because of Lubbock’s steady eye on what was happening to him that this book represents, paradoxically, a triumph over the process of dying. There is humour, because he had an enormous sense of fun. There are also passages that break the heart, such as the letter he writes to his young son – “Nobody remembers anything before they were two. You won’t remember me. And I don’t have much idea about who you are – or who you will be, at the age at which you’ll be able to understand this letter … The little chats we have in your bedroom when you wake up at 6am, and I go in, and you’re standing in your cot, pointing something out that’s taken your interest: it’s a great moment in the day.”

Waiting for the results of an MRI scan, the three of them go for a walk. “I will die first. Then Marion. Then Eugene … but my thought is: eventually, one by one, the world will be cleared of us, and I picture it as earth, not the earth one might be buried in, but the surface on which we are now standing … the ground that remains after us, and on which we once lived and from which we drew our life.”

The last entries, in October, as the end approaches, when, as his wife notes “vast holes in language would suddenly appear, great chunks of speech fall away”, achieve the illumination of poetry.

“My language works in ever decreasing circles. The whole of English richness is lost to me and I move fewer and fewer words around …Names are going … The final thing. The illiterate. The dumb … My body. My tree. After that it becomes simply the world.”

Barnaby ffrench


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