From Cambridge student to Swinging Sixties artist
For John Dunbar, the art gallery owner who introduced John Lennon and Yoko Ono, visiting Cambridge has extra poignancy.
John, 76, is in town for the unveiling of a plaque created by art historian and independent curator Gabriella Daris dedicated to John and Yoko's first concert, which took place at Lady Mitchell Hall on March 2, 1969. He gave a short yet beautifully crafted speech at the unveiling.
He was born in Mexico City. His father was a cultural attache and his mother was Russian. In the early 1960s he went to Churchill College, studying natural sciences.
“I had so many dinners,” he says of the time. “Five a week in term time – that could get you your degree.”
It was in Cambridge that he met his future wife Marianne Faithfull, singer and muse to a generation of musicians. At that point, Faithfull was studying in Reading and was on her way to a Cambridge ball, to which John had not been invited.
“Some bloke in Reading had taken her to the Valentine’s Day Ball,” he says over coffee at the University Arms’s Parker’s Tavern. “I wasn’t going to that, but she came down a staircase, you know those staircases in Cambridge... that was 1964, maybe 1963.” The 60s had started swinging and soon he left Cambridge. “I got fed up with it, and it was ‘London calling.’”
For a couple of years he ran the avant-garde Indica Gallery, oft frequented by a new ilk of celebrity: the rock star. He accompanied the new breed of avatars on their early forays, taking LSD with Lennon and Paul McCartney, configuring the new artistic landscape. I ask who, if anyone, he thinks about from those halcyon days.
“I miss Brian,” he says softly, and he’s talking about Brian Jones, a founder member of the Rolling Stones, whose death by drowning in July 1969 was the start of a far more uncertain chapter of rock’s history, one plagued by early deaths and the long fallout of addiction – all set to some incredible music, of course.
“Brian did get so hopeless. Mandrax offered comfortable oblivion – it was a nice drug. Then they banned it. Towards the end he was majorly messed up. It was very sad they kicked him out of the band instead of suspending him.”
The Indica story ended. “I was fed up. Depressed. Broken up marriage. I got out of town, went up north, to Scotland, the Borders, doing a mix of different things.” His output included film and painting – indeed his last meet-up with Yoko Ono was at one of his exhibitions in London in 2014.
He and Marianne had a son, Nicholas, who lived with him following the break-up. A second son, William, followed by another relationship. Both went to the University of Cambridge.
Nicholas became a financial journalist and William now lives and works in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Life in 21st century England thus far hasn’t impressed John.
Brexit? “It’s a mistake to do referendums. We’d still be hanging people if it was down to referendums.”