Victor Musgrave’s cash book. Tate Archive.

Artists' Lives at the British Library and Tate Archive

Adrian Glew explains the value of combining research in Tate’s Archive with listening to National Life Stories’ Artists’ Lives recordings.

In 1989 when the oral history team at National Life Stories began to plan Artists’ Lives, they came to see the staff at Tate Gallery’s Library and Archive. The project has since been run in association with Tate and in close collaboration with the Henry Moore Institute. In fact, the initial list of potential interviewees was put together from one compiled by the Tate Gallery under Alan Bowness’ directorship.

As well as Tate staff being represented on the Advisory Committee that guides Artists’ Lives, the collaboration is expressed in other ways. Interviewers often come to Tate Archive to research their future recordings. Another example would be the exhibition Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery, installed in one of the large galleries at Tate Britain (November 2016 – April 2018). For this, the choice of works on the walls was determined by the content of 264 extracts from Artists’ Lives recordings accessible to visitors on four screens. As each extract played, related photographs, many sourced from Tate Archive, appeared on the screens. This was a direct demonstration of the way Tate Archive and Artists’ Lives complement one another to increase, confirm or, sometimes, contradict the information contained in each.

This extract from Kasmin’s Artists’ Lives recording, about his first job in the art world in the late 1950s working for Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One, is a case in point. Tate Archive holds records relating to both Gallery One and the Kasmin Gallery.

Tate itself has a long history of generating recordings with artists as part of Tate Archive’s audio-visual (TAV) collection, with the first accession being a recording of Duncan Grant remembering his time in Paris before the First World War. This audio-visual material – supplemented by recordings held in artists’ archives (notably Audio Arts) and now digital recordings and transcripts from Artists’ Lives – is one of our most used resources by researchers accessing the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms at Tate Britain.

The audio recordings sit alongside other materials in Tate Archive, whose 900 collections and 20 million pieces document the history of fine art practice in the UK. It is now the world’s largest repository of its kind. Publicly accessible since 1970, it acquires the papers of painters, sculptors, printmakers, curators, collectors and writers on art alongside the associated records of commercial dealers, galleries, exhibitions, societies and art institutions.

Types of material found in Tate Archive include: administrative records of art galleries, artists’ lists of their own work, letters, diaries, drawings, sketchbooks, maquettes, photographs, press cuttings, printed ephemera and posters.

Tate’s interviews with artists were conducted by its Archive staff, curators and conservators and often had a specific purpose over and above capturing the voice or biographical details of the artist or art world personality. So, when Tate was approached by colleagues about Artists’ Lives, whose aim was to set each person’s careers in the context of their wider life in lengthy detailed conversations, this was an opportunity to enhance the collection.

Artists’ Lives life story recordings are quite different. They often begin with memories of grandparents and follow the speaker’s life step by step to the present day. In this way Artists’ Lives recordings are distinct from most other interviews that artists tend to make. They reveal all kinds of details that often get left out.

So far, almost 400 Artists’ Lives recordings have been made and more sessions are added each month. The oldest person taking part was born in 1899 and the youngest, to date, in 1964. That’s a great many voices and an enormous variety of people making very different work from one another.

As well as artists, there are also recordings of people who have worked alongside them in a variety of ways. Among these are former Tate staff, including a conservator, curators and three former Directors: Norman Reid, who joined the staff in 1946 as assistant to the then director, Sir John Rothenstein, and was himself Director 1964-1980, Alan Bowness (Director 1980-1988) and Nicholas Serota (Director 1988-2017). These recordings tell something of the history of Tate itself and about professional roles which are often otherwise undocumented in any kind of personal detail.

Selecting five extracts for this essay that reflect the diversity of Artists’ Lives and illuminate something of Tate Archive’s holdings was daunting. I have chosen some extracts that shine light on artists and art tendencies that have been marginalised. These areas of art practice are often the most challenging for viewers, but conversely tend to open up important new avenues for reassessment by art historians and other commentators.

Eileen Agar

One example is Eileen Agar, born in the 19th century. Tate houses four archive collections relating to her, comprising correspondence (including recently discovered love letters from Paul Nash), collage source material retrieved from her studio, some artworks, as well as her diaries and autobiographical writings. Key examples are available online on the Tate Archive website and provide a useful visual context when listening to Agar – then in her nineties – in conversation for Artists’ Lives.

Listening to her interview, one is immediately taken back to a bygone age. From the late 19th century, a student’s life at the Slade was dominated by the towering figure and opinions of Henry Tonks. There are other students’ reactions to Tonks in publications and archives, such as those relating to Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, but hearing Agar first-hand is like being teleported to that life room as Tonks regales her ‘not to look at that French rubbish’. You can sense his contempt for the French artists and her contempt for his comment. This recording perfectly illustrates an aspect of Agar’s personality that actively sought the avant-garde, and in her case, the extraordinary through the vehicle of surrealism.

For much of Agar’s career – like many of the other British female surrealists – she was ignored or relegated to a footnote. Her papers sit alongside her peers in Tate Archive such as John Banting, Conroy Maddox and Ithell Colquhoun, who have all had a revival of interest in recent years. It is pleasing to note that Agar’s friend, Maddox was recorded for Artists’ Lives as was Toni del Renzio, Colquhoun’s former husband. One of the beauties of Artists’ Lives is that it captures painters and sculptors connected to a specific artistic group or tendency. This helps to build up a jigsaw of viewpoints, opinions, even gossip, that is so often missing from the written record.

Eduardo Paolozzi

Surrealism was a constant theme running through European artistic circles in the period around World War Two. It was a tendency that attracted Eduardo Paolozzi to Paris where he met Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton and many of the other members of the movement. This sensibility naturally found its way into his scrapbooks of this period, which are full of weird and wonderful juxtapositions of postcards, sketches and plates from books. Tate Archive not only houses scrapbooks and material relating to Paolozzi’s sculptural commissions, but also his sketchbooks, thousands of source folders and even toys. This is perhaps not surprising considering that his Pop Art work and his collaboration with Nigel Henderson in the Independent Group sprang from their early exposure to surrealism and popular culture. A later work, Tim’s Boot, was exhibited in his Tate exhibition in 1971, a response to the war in Vietnam. In the extract below, he speaks of responses to his work of this period.

Frank Bowling

Paolozzi’s oral memoirs chime nicely with further Artists’ Lives recordings of his generation and interests, notably Derek Boshier and Peter Blake. A further aspect of Artists’ Lives soon becomes apparent: the intertwining of lives and friendships, and sometimes animosities. Another important aspect of Artists’ Lives is its capture of the recollections of studying at art school, the place where many friendships take root. For instance, there’s a marvellous evocation of the group at the Royal College of Art who were students with Frank Bowling in the 1950s. I love Bowling’s observation that he: ‘was learning like the way a blind man would negotiate space and somehow it kind of jived with the college’s notion of a measure by which they could see a student’s progress…’ The sense of story-telling, coupled with humour and enthusiasm, really shines through and is something far harder to discover within the written record.

Liliane Lijn

Reaching the 1960s, Artists’ Lives highlights, like no other, the many interactions of this seminal period in Britain and beyond. Liliane Lijn wonderfully captures vignettes of fringe avant-garde events, including a ‘Happening’ choreographed by French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel.

Even from a mini-survey as short as this one, one can see how the sum of their parts mutually enriches Artists’ Lives and the archives at Tate.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Robyn Denny, Eileen Agar, Conroy Maddox, Eduardo Paolozzi, Derek Boshier, Peter Blake, Frank Bowling, Liliane Lijn

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Adrian Glew
  • Adrian Glew, Archivist, manages Tate Archive, the national repository for fine art practice in the UK. He curated the first displays of Fluxus – with Jon Hendricks – at Tate Britain in 1994 and at Tate Modern in 2000, the first correspondence art show at Tate Modern in 2003, and the first archival display, Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model and the Life Room, with Hester Westley, in the new Archive Gallery, Tate Britain 2014-2015. His publications include an anthology of Letters and Writings by Stanley Spencer (2001) and a new introduction to Wassily Kandinsky’s, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (2006). He is currently working, with his team, to supplement the more than 60,000 items and pieces digitised and made available on Tate’s website and prepare for Tate Archive’s 50th anniversary in 2020.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.