Gordon Bryan by Leo Bensemann


This article first appeared as 'Pricking the performer's pompous pose' in The Press on 11 April 2014.

The Gallery is proud to own a small set of caricatures by Leo Bensemann (1912-1986). Never published and therefore undated, they are certainly pre-war, when the artist would himself have been only in his twenties. The one illustrated here is typical in that it shows a remarkable sureness of touch and a devastating wit.

The subject, Gordon Bryan (1895-1957) was a British pianist, arranger and composer. As a music examiner he made regular visits to New Zealand, often presenting piano recitals as well. But in his pompous posture we can read that this is a pianist that Bensemann does not rank highly. There is something in the expressionless face and the immobile hands that tells us that this pianist is a plodder; but worse, a plodder who has an inflated idea of his own abilities.

His obituary in The Times (22 November 1957, page 15) describes his decision not to pursue an orthodox performance career, but instead to concentrate on examining, as stemming from his love of travel. His examining tours took him to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, India and Scandinavia. Has anyone who had the skill and passion to pursue an 'orthodox performance career' ever chosen not to pursue it? Orthodox performance careers themselves involve a great deal of travel so the reason The Times obituary writer gives for his not pursuing one does not quite ring true.

Bensemann's friend Lawrence Baigent described a recital he gave in Christchurch in these terms: 'Mr Bryan bluffed the newspapers into accepting him at his own valuation - which meant that he was pronounced a 'master-pianist,' whilst one Wellington paper went so far as to say of him 'He is probably the greatest pianist we have yet heard.' The truth of the matter is that Mr. Bryan was a poor pianist and no musician, but he was clever enough to pull the wool over the eyes of journalist and concert-goer alike (no difficult task, that!) by playing music with which neither was familiar and by chatting amiably between numbers. Gordon Bryan is the perfect pianist of the drawing-room - the 'artist' who delights Women's Clubs with his arch drollery. Small wonder, then, that New Zealand welcomed him!' (Canterbury College Review, 1932, page 19)

Well of course all reviewers, whether they admit it or not, long to write crushing reviews like that and in the enthusiasm of youth, with the idea of a New Zealand national artistic identity just beginning to take shape, what could have been more delightful than pricking the pomposity of a mediocre British performer and an uncritical audience, both in devastating prose and with a few perfectly placed lines of the caricaturist's pen? One might even imagine the two young men, Bensemann and Baigent, going along to the concert together, rolling their eyes in horror at the vulgarity and hopelessness of it all. It seems a pity that the drawing did not appear alongside the review in print so similar are their observations.

Tim Jones