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Mark Lawson: how “keepers of the flame” protect an artist’s legacy

From Larkin’s diaries being burnt to the refusal to acknowledge forgotten Jackson Pollocks, literary and art executors run a tight ship.

Real thing: Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, about a woman who discovers a potential Pollock
Real thing: Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, a play about a woman who discovers a potential Pollock

The traffic of theatrical hits between Britain and the US is sometimes blocked by failures of cultural translation but an American import that opened earlier this month should have an easy appeal to UK viewers of Antiques Roadshow. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs dramatises the case of Teri Horton, a former truck driver who bought for $5 in a Californian thrift store a splattered canvas, which a neighbour later attributed to a modern master. Sanitised for cinema frontages, Horton’s reply – “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” – became the title of a 2006 documentary.

The Californian ex-trucker never got the moment of apotheosis for which Fiona Bruce’s Sunday-evening audience tunes in. Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declared her possible Pollock “dead on arrival”, even though a forensic expert found what he believed to be Jack the Dripper’s fingerprints on the back of the painting.

In Bakersfield Mist, Horton and Hoving become abstracted portraits – a sensible precaution in times when lives, like works of art, can be copyrighted by their owners – in the form of Maude Gutman (Kathleen Turner), a retiree living on a Californian trailer park, and Lionel Percy (Ian McDiarmid), a Manhattan curator who has been sent on the Pollock estate’s private jet to validate or trash her find.

In the London premiere, Turner has an easier role than McDiarmid because, as on those TV junk shows, we instinctively want Maude’s picture to be worth the $50-100m that provenance would confer on it. While the audience is left to decide whether the picture is a Pollock or not, most may see Percy as the baddie: a ruthless defender of the Pollock market. The estates of major creative figures are generally cast as the enemy of artists’ fans or academic evaluators, becoming caught up in a sort of custody battle over the work and/or life.

One such recent row involved Jonathan Bate, who was initially granted but then refused access to the private papers of Ted Hughes for a planned book about the poet. Bate has suggested that Carol Hughes, the poet’s widow, broke their deal because she feared he might expose private “secrets” but the solicitor for the Hughes estate responded that Bate had strayed from the literary-critical work he had pitched towards a more conventional biography of a kind that Hughes had instructed his heirs to prevent.

The coincidence of Bakersfield Mist and the Bate-Hughes spat focuses attention on the role of cultural gatekeepers. Their major obligation is control of supply and copyrights, although this function differs intriguingly between visual art and literature.

Painters’ estates generally resist new discoveries – apart from the Horton canvas, there is a dispute over 24 other possible Pollocks – while literary executors tend to extend the shelf: vastly more Philip Larkin poems, for example, have been published since he died than when he was alive. Cynics might see in these opposite attitudes a financial motivation: scarcity makes pictures more valuable, while writers earn more money from big backlists.

But executors, like those of Ted Hughes, sometimes stop books coming out because of the other burden on descendants: control of reputation and perception. Ian Hamilton’s book Keepers of the Flame (1992) fascinatingly traced the way in which literary fame has been shaped by protective followers: from the son of John Donne to the poets Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, who serve Larkin.

Hamilton showed how literary posterity was helped, across 350 years, by the strengthening and lengthening of literary copyrights but hindered by the rise, after Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in 1918, of scandalous and revisionist biographies. The response of authors and their families was to be wary of authorising books about them – Hughes followed T S Eliot in warning off biographers – and to destroy stuff that might help trouble-trufflers. Larkin ordered that his private diaries be burned and Sylvia Plath’s last journal before her suicide was destroyed by Hughes, in his role as her executor (a word to which some writers on Plath have given a different stress).

Running under most legacy controversies is the always problematic question of what a dead person might have wanted. Plath’s final diary would have been a godsend for scholars but would she have wished her children to read it? Why didn’t Larkin have his unpublished poems ignited with the other stuff, rather than trusting to the judgement of his estate? And might not the ghost of Jackson Pollock cackle at the thought of one of his pictures being first sold as scrap and then offered for $50m?

Ian Hamilton’s conclusion was: “No one should burn anything.” I would add that it might be sensible to have more than one flame-keeper. John Updike, for example, appointed his four children and his second wife and as Adam Begley’s excellent biography of the novelist acknowledges the co-operation of the kids but not the widow, it seems there may have been a difference of opinion. But, by spreading the power, Updike ensured that an exemplary writing life was followed by an exemplary “writer’s life”.

“Bakersfield Mist” is at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2, until 30 August