Rick Poynor

David King’s Bust Of Karl Marx

This weather-worn bust of Karl Marx, a fibreglass prop from the film Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), occupies a corner of the backyard of one of David King’s close friends. For many years, the political philosopher’s massive brow and burgeoning beard nestled among the shrubbery in King’s back garden. I glimpsed the head through the window of his writing room on one of my earliest visits to his house. I was an admirer of the film and duly impressed, though not entirely surprised. King had collected many remarkable treasures relating to the history of communism, so why not this one? The discarded head had found its natural home. 

Images of Marx and Russian communist leaders turn up throughout Karel Reisz’s film, which is adapted from a play by David Mercer originally shown on television. The story is told from the viewpoint of a disaffected artist, Morgan Delt (played by David Warner), whose marriage to upper-class Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave) has broken down due to his erratic behaviour. Unable to accept their divorce, Morgan behaves badly and only seems at ease when fantasising about gorillas. As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that he is descending into mental illness. 

Marx’s tomb at Highgate Cemetery, London. Sculpture by Laurence Bradshaw, 1956

In the scene that concerns us here, Morgan and his die-hard communist mother (Irene Handl in shining form) visit Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery on the great man’s anniversary. Reisz frames the huge head from high up, as they wend their way between the graves, followed by close-ups when Morgan approaches the plinth and reads the famous words of the inscription to his mother: “Philosophers have tried to understand the world. Our problem, however, is to change it.”* Then he growls and beats his chest like a gorilla. As Jon Savage writes in 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded: “the gulf between [Morgan’s] hardcore Stalinist upbringing and the new, apparently classless metropolitan consumer culture is beginning to tear him apart.”

For the brief moments the bust appears on screen it is a convincing substitute for the bronze original created by Laurence Bradshaw, sculptor and communist. “Although the colour is bilious and the inflated proportions are monstrous at close quarters, it is not without grandeur,” noted the Guardian in 1956, when Marx’s new memorial was unveiled. The film version measures 89 cm high × 104 cm wide, while the original, by my estimate, is around 120 cm high (based on a total height, including plinth, of 3.7 m). The copy is not so finely detailed, for instance in the treatment of the hairs of the beard, and the moustache is slightly less pronounced. It is not known why the film-makers didn’t shoot the scene around the original bust; they may simply have been denied access. In Morgan, the tomb is set closer to the path than it is in reality and we never see a complete view of the memorial in its location. This could either be in another part of Highgate, or in another cemetery entirely. 



Morgan (David Warner) and his mother (Irene Handl) visit Marx: Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, 1966

The circumstances in which King acquired the head are mysterious and even his closest friends don’t know the story. No photographs of the bust in his garden have come to light. King’s daughter, Josephine, says her parents saw the film together some time before 1974. “I only remember my father saying that the Karl Marx prop was lying around and that nobody wanted it, and that he managed to acquire it for free.” She suggests this might have been at a film studio – Morgan was produced by Quintra Films for British Lion. Josephine left the house in 1976 when she was 10 and says the head appeared after that date. Judy Groves, King’s new partner, recalls his excitement when the head arrived, though not when that was. However, it must have been before 1983, the year John Heartfield’s third wife Gertrud (known as Tutti) died. 

Around 1980, King and Groves visited Gertrud, a member of the German Communist Party, in her flat in East Berlin, and she took them to see the archive of photomontages by Heartfield she had laboured to assemble. In return for her generosity, they invited Gertrud to stay with them in London. Groves recalls the visit: “Tutti’s delight at learning that David had a bust of Karl Marx in his garden turned to outrage when she actually saw it. By this time, it was covered in ivy, moss and weeds. We thought it looked wonderful, as though it had been there forever. Tutti didn’t agree and demanded scissors, scrapers and a bowl of soapy water. She then set about cleaning off every last bit of vegetation, scrubbing and polishing the head until it looked like what it was – a fibreglass copy of the original.”




A parade of communist luminaries and leaders: Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, 1966

King may have seen Morgan when it was first released. If so, his viewing of one of the key British films of the 1960s predated the first major published sign of his interest in Russian and communist history, “A Dictionary of the Revolution”, which he designed for The Sunday Times Magazine (8 October 1967). The classic portrait of Marx seen early in the film appears on the magazine’s front cover under “October 1917”, the date of the Russian Revolution. The film’s graphic and environmental use of poster-sized images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin as avatars of revolution (and revolutionary failure in Stalin’s case) is striking even today. In the film’s final fantasy sequence, blow-ups of their faces appear like a kind art installation in a junkyard that externalises Morgan’s mental confusion. In the rooms of Morgan and Leonie’s house, the faces merge into a Pop Art assemblage of images, including Morgan’s drawings of gorillas and pictures and ornaments of other animals. 

“A Dictionary of the Revolution”, The Sunday Times Magazine, 8 October 1967. Design by King
“Lenin Part 2”, The Sunday Times Magazine, 19 April 1970. Design and research by King

Morgan, like The Sunday Times Magazine in those years, captured the spirit of a moment when everything was open to question. In the late 1960s, King developed a graphic style at the magazine in which historical pictures were made more immediate using techniques of visual enhancement derived from the graphic language of Pop. Even if he didn’t see Morgan until a few years after its release, it is easy to imagine the sense of corroboration its fusion of contemporary aesthetics and political imagery might have supplied. By the mid-1970s, King was firmly set on his path as collector and researcher of revolutionary history, and the bust of Karl Marx, which rested in his garden for four decades, must have seemed to him a great prize when he found it. 

* This is the screenplay’s paraphrase of the wording, which isn’t seen in the film. Marx’s words, as given on the tomb, are: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.”