James Brand Pinker


James B Pinker
James Brand Pinker
Source not known

Sometimes the subject of a biography is far less well-known than his clients and friends and this is certainly the case with literary agent James Brand Pinker, but please stay with me if only for the names I will drop throughout the piece. James was a pioneer and giant in the literary world at the end of the 19th century and almost all of the first quarter of the 20th century and left the business to his two sons, who carried on representing some big names. Unfortunately, the boys ultimately destroyed everything their father had worked so hard to build.

James Brand Pinker's connection with Epsom and Ewell was that he lived in The Avenue, Worcester Park for some years, at a house called 'The Oaks'. He was born in Westbourne Park (Paddington) in 1863, the sixth of eight children born to monumental mason William Pinker (1823-1882) and Matilda Humphrey (c.1824-1902) - married 1847 Brighton. There were four other boys and all of them were either masons or engineers. It looks as if the eldest son, William Junior, was sent to prison for embezzlement early in 1879 and that his father was acquitted of the same charge.

The Avenue, Worcester Park
The Avenue, Worcester Park.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

James followed a different career path altogether. Accurate details of his early life are hard to find (one allegedly competent source has his parentage totally wrong, which tends to cast doubt on the rest of the information, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that he was born in East London, which would come as a surprise to Westbourne Park), but it seems that he started as a clerk at Tilbury Docks and then went out to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to work at the Levant Herald. He had already met Mary Elizabeth Seabrooke (born 1861 Grays, Essex), whose father owned a brewery in Grays, and apparently the Seabrookes did not think James was good enough for their daughter. However, as soon as James Seabrooke died in March 1888, Mary Elizabeth sailed out to Constantinople and married young Mr Pinker in July. It is said that she brought money into the marriage so that James was free to pursue a journalistic career back in England, which he started as assistant editor of a weekly illustrated magazine called 'Black and White'.

A page from Black and White magazine, 1895.
A page from Black and White magazine, 1895.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The page shown above gives nothing away concerning the 'meat' of the magazine but it featured short stories and serialised novels by well-known writers, such as Henry James, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Jerome K Jerome, as did many magazines of the era. It was entirely normal for great novels to appear initially as weekly instalments. James came to know these authors and their work and, after a brief stint at Pearson's Magazine, was inspired to start up his own literary agency in 1896. His premises were at 9 Arundel Street, London WC2 (off the Strand).

The professional literary agent was a relatively new beast, having been incarnated by Alexander Pollock Watt in about 1880. Until then publishers were largely reliant on being contacted direct by writers, so that aspiring authors had to hawk their works round the publishing houses or persuade someone else to do it for them. A good agent was attuned to the market, knowing what would sell and, by the same token, publishers knew that good agents would bring them saleable material. At that time the golden generation of Victorian authors, such as Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot, had died (or were just about to) and new talent was rising. Watt had the market fairly well sewn-up for years but then young Pinker came along and assembled a highly impressive list of clients: the list is astonishing, containing many of the most famous writers of the time, including H G Wells, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, George Gissing, Oscar Wilde and Somerset Maugham. Wilde apparently fell out with Pinker because the latter could not sell 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' in America, which must have had more to do with Wilde's very tarnished reputation at that point than the poem itself. And, indeed, when it was published in England, Wilde's name did not initially appear thereon.

Pinker's star names go on and on, but we will look at Bennett and Conrad in particular, since they were two very different authors and Pinker nurtured them from early on in their careers.

Arnold Bennett is a great favourite of mine and I still read his novels occasionally. Most of his best work was set in the Potteries district of Staffordshire - the 'five towns' as he called them (although there were actually six - Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall). It was Pinker's great friend HG Wells who recommended Bennett and one day this stammering man from Hanley, who had only recently given up editing Woman magazine (not the same publication that you may be familiar with) to devote himself full-time to writing, showed Pinker 'Anna of the Five Towns', which was his second novel after 'A Man from the North', unless you also count 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' which had been published as a serial.

Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett.
Image source: project Gutenberg

Pinker would lend/advance funds to his client authors, to tide them over when no money was coming in, and in her biography of Bennett (originally published by Faber and Faber) Margaret Drabble says that Pinker agreed to provide him with £50 per month throughout 1904 (this is about £5,000 today).

Bennett's books are predominantly parochial character studies, containing minute domestic detail. In 'Riceyman Steps' (1923), for example, the action rarely moves very many yards from Henry Earlforward's second-hand bookshop in Clerkenwell. Earlforward was a miser (based on Bennett's own father, as were Ephraim Tellwright in 'Anna of the Five Towns' and Darius Clayhanger in 'Clayhanger') who married a widowed shopkeeper and allowed her to die of malnutrition through his meanness, although he didn't realise what he was doing. I have recently read this for the first time and the plot is so slight - just as I said in the previous sentence, nothing much more than that - but it is as good a page-turner as any thriller. Pinker recognised a winner when Bennett brought him 'Anna of the Five Towns'.

The steps in Granville Place
The steps in Granville Place (now Gwynne Place), London WC1. These were the model for 'Riceyman Steps' and I include the photo to demonstrate how Arnold Bennett could take a mundane setting like this and, through the mastery of his prose, turn it into something very real and central to his characters, just as he did with the Potteries towns.
Image by George Free via Wikimedia Commons.

'Riceyman Steps' opens like this.
"On an autumn afternoon of 1919 a hatless man with a slight limp might have been observed ascending the gentle, broad acclivity of Riceyman Steps, which lead from King's Cross Road up to Riceyman Square, in the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell. He was rather less than stout and rather more than slim. His thin hair had begun to turn from black to grey, but his complexion was still fairly good, and the rich, very red lips, under a small greyish moustache and over a short, pointed beard, were quite remarkable in their suggestion of vitality. The brown eyes seemed a little small; they peered at near objects. As to his age, an experienced and cautious observer of mankind, without previous knowledge of this man, would have said no more than that he must be past forty. The man himself was certainly entitled to say that he was in the prime of life. He wore a neat dark-grey suit, which must have been carefully folded at nights, a low, white, starched collar, and a "made" black tie that completely hid the shirt-front; the shirt-cuffs could not be seen. He was shod in old, black leather slippers, well polished. He gave an appearance of quiet, intelligent, refined and kindly prosperity; and in his little eyes shone the varying lights of emotional sensitiveness.

Riceyman Steps, twenty in number, are divided by a half-landing into two series of ten. The man stopped on the half-landing and swung round with a casual air of purposelessness which, however, concealed, imperfectly, a definite design. The suspicious and cynical, slyly watching his movements, would have thought: "What's that fellow after?"
James B Pinker (left)
Newspaper photo of James Brand Pinker (left)
with author Arnold Bennett at Cannes.
The lady in the picture is quite possibly
Bennett's French wife, Marie Marguerite.

Now we turn to Joseph Conrad, who was a very different person and author altogether, but at the end of the day his novels were about people, just as Bennett's were. Conrad was Polish and, considering that English was not his first language (it was his third tongue, Russian intervening), he did an amazing job. His canvases were bigger and more exotic than Bennett's, thanks to his past experiences of foreign countries and many years in the Merchant Navy. He struggled as an author, both mentally and financially, and Pinker was one of those who helped him out with money (as did Conrad's old friend John Galsworthy, author of 'The Forsyte Saga').

Joseph Conrad.
Joseph Conrad.
Photo by George Charles Beresford via Wikimedia Commons

Here is an example of Conrad's evocative prose from 'The Nigger of the Narcissus' (1897). (The story was called 'Children of the Sea' in the US, owing to concerns that the original title was offensive.)
'Outside the glare of the steaming forecastle the serene purity of the night enveloped the seamen with its soothing breath, with its tepid breath flowing under the stars that hung countless above the mastheads in a thin cloud of luminous dust. On the town side the blackness of the water was streaked with trails of light which undulated gently on slight ripples, similar to filaments that float rooted to the shore. Rows of other lights stood away in straight lines as if drawn up on parade between towering buildings; but on the other side of the harbour sombre hills arched high their black spines, on which, here and there, the point of a star resembled a spark fallen from the sky. Far off, Byculla way, the electric lamps at the dock gates shone on the end of lofty standards with a glow blinding and frigid like captive ghosts of some evil moons. Scattered all over the dark polish of the roadstead, the ships at anchor floated in perfect stillness under the feeble gleam of their riding-lights, looming up, opaque and bulky, like strange and monumental structures abandoned by men to an everlasting repose.'
The Pinkers had three children, who were Eric Seabrooke (born 29 November 1891 Chiswick, West London), James Ralph Seabrooke (born 1900 Worcester Park) and Mary Oenone (born 1903 Worcester Park).

By 1911 the Pinkers had moved to Holmwood, near Dorking: this seems to have been a larger establishment, as they had more servants than previously. At some time after that they lived in a country house at Bury's Court, Leigh, Surrey, which at that time belonged to the Charrington brewing family (and, in fact, Charrington's bought the Seabrooke Brewery in 1929).

Bury's Court (now a school)
Bury's Court (now a school).
Image © Copyright Carl Ayling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

As I said, earlier, Pinker became very successful and undoubtedly would have continued to be so but for his untimely death. He had sailed to New York with his daughter on a business trip and contracted influenza, which turned to pneumonia; he died at the Biltmore Hotel, New York on 8 February 1922.

The Biltmore Hotel c.1913.
The Biltmore Hotel c.1913.
Image source: New York Public Library

The Times did not report his death at any length but did append an appreciation from someone entitled 'a correspondent' on 10 February 1922.

The news of the sudden death of Mr J B Pinker in America will come as a great shock to his large circle of friends here. So utterly unexpected was it that it is quite impossible for the moment to realize that one will never again in this world see his friendly figure and feel the warm grasp of his hand.

But behind the personal loss there is a very real and important loss to the whole to the whole kingdom and constitution of English literature. It is difficult for many of us to recall today the exact service that Mr Watt and Mr Pinker did for us in the early nineties.

It was not only that they made the whole business side of literature more efficient and more urbane than it had ever been before; they also encouraged and assisted young writers and fostered the fine future of our literature in an astonishing way. No one today can realize the fact, the judgement, the self-control, the wisdom that Mr Pinker must have then had to exercise and the terrible difficulties that he had to overcome.

He had few predecessors and absolutely no traditions in the whole business of literary agency. He cut a road for himself, carved out his own land and managed to help hundreds of his less successful fellow-men in so doing. It was his kindliness of heart that brought him hid final success; his judgement and decision were good, but it was his personal sympathy with, and liking for, individuals that made him the exceptional human being he was.

Above all, he was a worshipper of genius. He had the good fortune to serve two of the greatest literary geniuses of his time - the late Henry James and Joseph Conrad. What he did for Henry James only Henry James's intimate friends can tell - his patience, his complete understanding of that wonderful but complicated personality, his generosity and faith, to these Henry James bore witness again and again - and the beautiful Edition de Luxe, perhaps the greatest pride of Henry James's later years, was the result of Pinker's labour of love.

To Joseph Conrad also he has, from those early years of Conrad's, for us so fortunate, arrival in this country, been constant friend, adviser and encourager. For 30 years he staked all his faith and trust in the worldwide recognition of Conrad's genius, and in these last months he witnessed, with the universal success of the uniform edition of Mr Conrad's works, his dreams come true. To how many smaller men and women has he been counsellor and friend!

It is, indeed, as a friend to English literature, through his loyalty to the writers who are trying to serve that great mistress, that he will be always so gratefully remembered.

Like most 'appreciations' this is highly eulogistic and I have read a couple of comments that were not so complimentary. Nevertheless, when you consider the diverse characters of the authors he dealt with, both established and new, and the wavering of self-belief that would have occurred to some who were struggling, it must have taken a special kind of person to handle them, nurse them to success and keep them as clients.

Mary Elizabeth Pinker died on 26 January 1945, whilst, residing at Wolverton Park, Bletchley, Buckinghamshire (now subsumed into Milton Keynes), and unfortunately she lived to see the end of her husband's firm. Mary Oenone married Captain Cyril Gowland of the Royal Corps of Signals in 1926 and died in 1976.

Eric Seabrooke Pinker

Eric started out promisingly. He was educated at Westminster School and during the First World War served with the Royal Field Artillery in France. Early in 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation read, 'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when acting as Advanced Artillery Intelligence Officer. Advancing with the first wave of an attack he maintained communications with great difficulties, and was thus able to render valuable assistance to the infantry when temporarily held up by machine gun fire. The information which he sent back was accurate and frequent, and throughout the operation he displayed the greatest coolness and determination.'

1939 newspaper photo of Eric Pinker
1939 newspaper photo of Eric Pinker

In 1921 Eric married the widowed Margrit Vibege Watney (née Dietrichson, born in Norway of Danish parentage). Her first husband had been Lt Basil Gold Watney RNVR, DSC (born c.1887, an architect by profession) who died on active service at Budapest on 28 October 1919: at this time the Allies were still fighting Hungary. He is listed as a war casualty. Watney was commanding a motor launch on the Danube and apparently died of influenza. Basil and Margit had three sons, the first of whom, John Basil, was allegedly born in the waiting room of Itchen Railway Station in Hampshire; it seems that he was inspired to become an author after browsing in James Brand Pinker's library. Among other things he wrote biographies of Clive of India and Mervyn Peake.

Margit and Eric had one child, Joan, who died in infancy (1924). Margit divorced Eric in 1926; on 14 June 1927 she died of fever in Malta and the Watney children were then brought up by relatives. Meanwhile Eric had met American divorcée Mabel Adrienne Bennett and they were married on 19 June 1927. Mrs Bennett was well-known in her own right as a stage actress, going by the name of Adrienne Morrison, but she was perhaps more famous as the mother of actresses Barbara, Constance and Joan Bennett. Constance and Joan were major film stars and both are commemorated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Constance  BennettJoan Bennett
Constance and Joan Bennett.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1930 Eric and James Ralph Pinker dissolved their partnership, with the latter continuing the London business. Eric based himself in New York, still as a literary agent. Apparently the Bennett girls were not keen on their new step-father and found him pompous.

I do not know how successful Eric was in New York (he and Adrienne worked together as literary agents), but one can imagine that the lifestyle did not come cheap and in 1939 he was arrested for diverting authors' royalties into his own pocket. The total amount involved was somewhere around $140,000, $20,000 of that being due to the well-known and prolific E Phillips Oppenheim. Eric was convicted of grand larceny and imprisoned at the notorious Sing Sing in New York State for between two and a half and five years. Hardly the Biltmore Hotel!

Sing Sing 1938.
Sing Sing 1938.
Image source: US Library of Congress

Adrienne succumbed to heart failure in 1940 and Eric died in 1973.

James Ralph Seabrooke Pinker

James was known as Ralph and added Seabrooke to his forenames in 1928. As mentioned, he carried on the Pinker business after Eric had left, but eventually went more or less the same way.

In 1928 he had married Ebba Yvonne Rowland (née Watson, known as Yvonne). Yvonne's first husband was Alfred Rowland and she divorced him in 1927. As far as I know, Ralph and Yvonne had just one daughter.

In 1941 Ralph went bankrupt with debts of over £30,000 and it seems that he then obtained work as an assistant press censor. The following year he was charged with fraudulent conversion of royalty cheques which were meant for his authors. At his trial in 1943 he claimed that he left financial matters to others and the Old Bailey jury seems to have believed him because it recommended leniency on this score. However, he was still sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. At some point in amongst it all he and Yvonne had been divorced. The Pinker firm was taken over by another agency in 1944.

Ralph effectively disappeared thereafter and in 1951 someone in Ewell advertised for his whereabouts. Whether or not there was any response I do not know, but he died on 4 December 1959 in Barnsley, where he was living at the time, leaving effects of £3029 for his daughter Siri.


Linda Jackson
April 2013



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