George Painter

b. 1914 – d. 2005

George Painter, known as George D. Painter, was an English author most famous as a biographer of Marcel Proust. His two-volume biography of Proust was published in 1959 and 1965. According to Miron Grindea, this was, ‘rightly greeted as one of the great achievements in literary history’, and it is still widely considered to be one of the finest literary biographies in the English language. Its second volume won the Duff Cooper Prize. His later work, Chateaubriand: Volume 1 – The Longed-For Tempests was awarded the 1977 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.


George Painter remembered – by Richard Davenport-Hines

After taking first-class honours in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, George Painter taught Latin at Liverpool University before joining the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum in 1938. Initially he worked there as a cataloguer, but following war-time service in the Pioneers Corps (he was a conscientious objector), he developed a loving and meticulous expertise in incunabula. In 1954 he was appointed Assistant Keeper of fifteenth-century printed books.

From his early days at the museum Painter was a confidential friend of Angus Wilson. They had many intense, gleeful or subversive conversations about love and life, and Wilson encouraged Painter to resist his doom as a young Dryasdust toiling for the Old Men of the Museum. In 1951 Painter published a slim volume of poetry – said to have sold only 40 copies – chronicling a miserable love affair during the Blitz (during which he was bombed out of his Bloomsbury rooms).

Women hate me, but above,
Wicked planes express their love.
Over my bed the bombers drone
And I never feel alone.

During the early 1950s Painter wrote a short critical biography of Gide, and translated two of Gide’s novels into English.

But his destiny was to become the most influential and enriching of twentieth-century English Proustians. At the age of 14 he had borrowed a volume of Scott Moncrieff’s translation Swann’s Way from a local library, and succumbed utterly to the Proustian universe. The publication in 1947 of an idiosyncratic selection of Proust’s letters by Mina Curtiss focussed his interest on the individuals and real-life incidents that contributed to the characters and plot of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and, as he later explained, he determined ‘to write a definitive biography of Proust, a complete, exact and detailed narrative of his life… based on every known or discoverable primary source, and on primary sources only’. He could scrutinise all the Proustian references in the museum’s printed collections while sitting at his desk, but he lacked the leisure, the funds, the contacts and indeed the disposition to interview Proust’s surviving friends. As a bookman he mistrusted – rightly – oral history; and he perhaps felt that he was insufficiently deferential to make a successful interrogator of the distinguished old men and women who had ‘seen Proust plain’. This approach caused high offence to some distinguished and influential Parisians. They disliked, too, Painter’s over-insistent claims thatTemps Perdu was ‘unique among great novels in that it is not, properly speaking, a fiction, but a creative autobiography’.

The great Proustian Jean-Yves Tadie has described Painter’s biography as an alternative novel to Proust’s own. Certainly, like Proust, Painter’s work became a dominating vocation: he subjugated his life and personality as, amidst his museum duties, he made the first methodical, exhaustive study of all relevant memoirs and letters. He verified the chronology with the painstaking precision of a library cataloguer and the facts with the eager perseverance of a detective investigator ; but his biography is supremely humane: it is as voluptuously peopled as Temps Perdu or a Balzac novel; it felt joyous as well pioneering to its early readers.

Painter began work in pre-Wolfenden days, and his treatment of homosexuality divided reviewers. Jocelyn Brooke, as a gay man, objected that Painter consistently exaggerated the extent of Proust’s heterosexual interests and experience while the skirt-chaser John Davenport harrumphed about the chapter entitled The Pit of Sodomto Spectator readers: ‘One does not need to go into this here. Enough to say that Mr Painter is a perfect guide to [male] brothels.’ Overall, though, Painter’s Marcel Proust had a rapturous reception: ‘Mr Painter does love Proust, and his book…is full of a kind of delighted gratitude,’ said Pamela Hansford Johnson, who never ceased to delight in such ‘a beautifully mannered book, the result of intensive scholarship, imaginative sympathy, love and cool-thinking’. Its publication in 1959 led to an immediate upsurge in English sales of Proust’s novel – always the best index of a literary biography’s successThe second Proust volume was delayed by the obstruction of influential Frenchmen who resented Painter’s identification of ‘character keys’ and thought it impertinent for an Englishman to write about Proust without soliciting their views. Its belated appearance in 1965 ensured Painter’s election as a Fellow of the RSL that year. The completed work has never gone out of print.

In 1965 Painter published (jointly) The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, which upheld the authenticity of a map purporting to be a fifteenth-century copy of a Norse map of the North American coast. He retired from the British Museum on turning 60, and then wrote a biography to mark William Caxton’s quincentenary. In 1977 there appeared the first of a projected two-volume biography of Chateaubriand. Although it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, it lacked the élan of Marcel Proust, and its sequel volume was never completed.

After retiring to Hove, Painter brought out Studies in Fifteenth-Century Printing (1984), and in the closing phase of his life he was a mainstay of Christopher Hawtree’s campaign to preserve Hove Public Library.