The Divine Mr M: Drawing Mark from Memory
by Ray Bentley
When Nicky asked me to write something for Artipeeps I was thrilled, even though I didn’t have a clue what I could possibly say that would hold anyone’s interest for 2,000 words. I had a look at the blog and there was any number of posts from people about their personal testimony or their artistic practice which I didn’t feel I could match, simply because my own biography and working methods seem utterly dreary by comparison. My first thought was that I should write something called “What is Art For?”, but this was quickly dismissed by partner as the kind of arid mumbling that had been done a million times before on art blogs.
“I know:”, he said. “Why not write about Mark?”.
“That’s not really relevant”, I said.
“No”, he said, “but he is interesting. Why not draw him as well? It’ll be a good exercise.”
The latter would be a challenge, given that Mark made it a rule never to have his photograph taken and that he’s been dead for ten years, but I thought I’d give it a go. I did draw him once before, a long time ago; he commissioned me to do a pen and ink drawing of him at his prime, but that’s long-lost now.
When I settled on Mark as a subject, I was presented with two new problems: firstly, how could I do justice to his extraordinary life, and, more worryingly, how could I do it in so few words?
I wasn’t sure, so I delegated that part of the task to my partner (who’s also called Mark), which means that everything you’ve read so far – and everything you’re about to read – has been written by him (seeing as it was his smart idea). All I did was talk into his voice recorder for an hour and a half, and do some drawings.
Mark was twenty five when we first met, and although he’d reached the pinnacle of his working life a few years previously, the long, elegant decline I saw him play out was as compelling as anything I’d missed. I was eighteen, fresh from the provinces, and he immediately offered me the first of the many stark bon mots which would become his trademark over the years.
“Raymond, darling” he said, with a swish of his dinner-plate hands “if ever you are ill, simply disappear, and come back when you’re well. Aaand – if you have any problems, don’t even think for a moment of sharing them with anyone, because they won’t want to know”.
For the rest of his life he continued to hide behind this ineffable mask, and while he steadfastly refused to advertise his frailties, he never gave himself the time to flaunt his successes either; I only found out from a friend years later, for example, that while peers, dignitaries and heads of state were forced to walk from the cordons to Westminster Abbey on Coronation Day, Mark had been limousined from palace to palace to spray the hair and fix the coronets of the world’s aristocracy. Not-yet twenty-one, and under the soubriquet of Mr M (or “Lil” to his closest customers), he’d become the best-placed commoner at the last hurrah of the greatest empire, without even breaking into a sweat.
If ambition had ever been a part of Mark’s make-up, he hid that well too. As far as I know he’d left his native Cardiff as a teenage hairdresser to move to Manchester after catching the eye of Helena Rubenstein, before quickly heading to London, Paris and then London again to find himself teasing the locks of Queen Mary and Princess Margaret before he was old enough to vote, and without that much in the way of effort.
So: in the absence of any palpable hunger, what was it that tossed a working class boy from South Wales to these heights so quickly? I’m not really sure, but I think it was the combination of his impeccable, unforced manners, his beguiling confidence and, more than anything, his looks that taxied him into polite society, blessed as he was with the pompadour, the quixotic flounce, the traffic-stopping nose, the ambiguous physique and the sheer height that would, by turns, disarm, mesmerise or reassure everyone who met him.
Looking back, now, however, I can see how the same un-neediness occasionally informed against him. Had he been more career-minded I feel sure that he would have found it in himself not to throw a chair at one of his more celebrated clients after her late arrival to an appointment. His inevitable dismissal as a result of this naturally curtailed his trajectory, but after retreating to Cardiff to let the dust settle he was quickly lured to London afresh by Oxxxxxx just before they moved to Knightsbridge.
So: less than two years after his expulsion he was preening the elite again, just as his sins were slipping from polite memory, and with the instinct and renewed energy to try something new.
Wigs had slipped out of fashion in the 1920’s, but with the advent of new technology, greater prosperity, and some fledgling interest on the continent, Mark decided that he would bring the revival to the London, and he successfully and somewhat doggedly re-introduced the capital to a passion for hairpieces that would last well into the sixties.
This was another of his unique qualities: he could learn his way into a position of unparalleled expertise on whatever appealed to him at any given time: wigs, clocks, antiques, quadrophonic sound, chimpanzees, his Borzois, exotic African gentlemen or Lord Byron (whose style he comprehensively appropriated) , and this always kept adversity at bay long enough for him to keep the Mark industry ticking over. Such was his authority on the aforesaid poet that he was consulted by Peter Hall – director of the West End première of “Camino Real” – to ensure that the young Robert Hardy played him with exactly the right hair colour.
His passions weren’t always so durable, however. He returned his chimp to Harrods just hours after its purchase when it became evident that the constant screeching and poo-throwing would play havoc with his hosting prowess.
He was also blessed with a selective practicality which, to all but Mark, appeared utterly extraordinary: for example, he thought it perfectly natural that everyone should have at least one overgrown fingernail for those times when there wasn’t a screwdriver to hand. He also thought it was the obvious career move, when, aged just twenty, he received a series of injections from a doctor boyfriend which successfully protected him from hereditary baldness, even if it meant that he’d be forced to live with a pair of perfectly formed but debilitatingly substantial breasts for the next thirty years.
I can’t say exactly what it was that made him leave hairdressing in the early 1960’s, but he made a well-timed exit just before the kid-next-door renaissance of that era turned Mark’s brand of exoticism into a quaint impediment.
Mark’s first attempt at reinvention shrewdly mirrored the entrepreneurial hipness of that age, and he utilised his contacts within the music industry to repackage himself as The Mystery Singer. His plan was to release a beat version of “Come Into The Garden, Maude” which would be sang from behind a screen, upon which a back light would silhouette Mark’s unmistakable profile and trademark cigarette holder. Although he couldn’t actually sing a note he considered this wholly unimportant, as he was well aware that they could “do marvellous things in the studio” to rectify this. Unsurprisingly this project never came to fruition in the way he’d hoped, although the concept remains strangely compelling.
It’s from this point onwards that I lose track with the chronology of Mark’s life, because when he didn’t visit he would limit contact to occasional, superficial telephone calls if things were going either extremely well, or extremely poorly. Given that I hardly ever saw him, this will give you some idea of what lay ahead.
His father – who’d diligently tithed Mark’s earnings for over a decade to ensure he didn’t fritter everything away – moved to London from Cardiff in the sixties, and together they relied on Mark’s knowledge of clocks and his father’s engineering prowess to make a comfortable living – for a while, at least.
It was about this time that he also embarked his longest, but most unsuccessful career, as an inventor. His single-mindedness remained as formidable ever, but for the first time, perhaps, the world resisted Mark in ways he couldn’t negotiate. The financial pressure of retaining patents on his ideas, coupled with his unerring taste for the good life meant that his capital was eaten away, and he could do nothing as his better innovations were picked off one by one as his rights expired.
To an inventor, determination is as combustible as oxygen, and the drive that allows you to knock unflinchingly on a multitude of doors eventually blinds you to the limitations of the products you believe in – and invest in – the most.
In Mark’s case he came unstuck because of his unwavering belief that disposable, self-adhesive glove-pads for caterers and car mechanics were the future, and he spend a king’s ransom on research and development until it became clear that it would cost him too much to get his glue to both work effectively and reliably whilst also meeting unsurprisingly stringent trading standards.
A substantial inheritance and the generous returns from the sub-letting of a sitting tenancy in the heart of the West End kept things ticking over financially, and he was able to mask his adversity from the mavens of London life for well over a decade, during which time he continued to make some very important friends despite any tangible success in his professional life.
Consequently, he was invited onto “Clive Anderson Talks Back” in the mid-80s to talk about his inventions, and he proved so popular that he was hurried back for a repeat performance on a following episode.
This flurry of interest in both his ebullient charm and his unlikely devices coincided with the removal of his breasts, but instead of freeing him to enjoy his eminence, it precipitated a deterioration which made it almost impossible for him to fully savour the rest of his life. His demeanour never changed, however, and he remained as dashing, imposing and as infectious as ever, even if he could no longer walk without assistance.
The last time I saw him was about twelve years ago, and even though the money was all but gone, he was living in a grace and favour house in the sticks that was nothing less than palatial, and was able to call on the services of a housekeeper to tend the needs of Mark, his partner, his ever-decreasing circle of friends, and his two enormous Borzois. He talked about how he’d recently appeared on Esther Rantzen’s new daytime show, but was somewhat discomfited by the way in which he and his fellow inventors were now been presented as eccentrics worthy of nothing but ridicule.
Between this visit and his subsequent death, two years later, I spoke to Mark only sporadically. His telephone calls were short, breezy postcards which were as engaging and as occasionally infuriating as ever, but they were never long enough to betray the new realities of his life.
When I went to his sparsely attended funeral I found out that both the house and the housekeeper had been gone for some time, and that he, his partner and his pitifully out-sized dogs had been forced by penury into a council flat which was hardly big enough for one giant, let alone four. A handful of people – mostly local – paid their respects at his service, but there was only me there that knew the many truths about Mark that would otherwise have remained locked away, even from his partner.
The fifty-year-long sunset on his own private empire was finally over, and with it, another un-Google-able life had been lost to history. For all I’ve gone on, you still don’t even know the half of what he got up to.
From this point onwards Me – Ray – the narrator, and Mark (my partner) the writer, differ: given the colour and unthinking vitality of Mark’s life and my own experience of his outlandishness, I only see tragedy in his quiet end.
My partner, however, only sees triumph, given that almost every life, be it eventful or otherwise, usually ends with the same unseemly bathos. Mark, he claims, lived “to the max”, and he feels sure that were he presented with the circumstances of his late penury, death and quiet exit exit fifty years earlier, he would gladly have taken it in return for the richness of the life he was gifted.
I’ve attached three drawings I did of Mark: the first was a pencil sketch I did as a refresher; the second was a profile based on that and further recollections, and the third was a much more impressionistic rendering I did after this article had been written; none of them, it has to be said, do him justice. If, on your travels, you ever chance upon a pen/ink sketch of a tall, naked reclining man with pendulous breasts, spectacular cigarette holder and an even more spectacular male appendage then you’ll have completed the set, and you’ll have a much better visual analogue for what it was that made this man so unique.
So: in a roundabout way maybe I have addressed my initial conceit, and I’ve perhaps unintentionally demonstrated just what it is art is for and what it can aspire to. It can reach up to the condition of excellence that makes humans so special, even when they’re maddening, frustrating, inscrutable or just too plain big to be pinned down.
We will almost certainly fail to do that as artists, just as we invariably fail as humans to reach our full potential, but when it gets close to the truth, it’s always worthwhile.
You can find more about Ray and his painting here: