Artists' Lives at the British Library and Tate Archive
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.
Kasmin: On how Victor Musgrave ran Gallery One
Victor Musgrave’s cash book. Tate Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
In this audio extract from John Kasmin’s (b. 1934) Artists’ Lives recording he describes the way Victor Musgrave ran Gallery One and his passionate support of the artists he represented. Kasmin’s first job in the art world was at Gallery One, where he worked from 1956-1958, and Musgrave became something of a role model for him in terms of his commitment to the work of his chosen artists. In contrast, though, Kasmin, in his later career, took care not to replicate Victor’s approach to the gallery finances.
John Kasmin was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2004-2016. The interviewers were Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney.
Victor came from an English middle-class family, always claimed to be related to the Musgraves of the Musgrave Cup in the British Museum. He had a group of artists that were a circle, what’s the word now, a stable, that he remained pretty constant with and had very close and complex emotional, and financial, relationships with. One would have to say that the hard core of them he really believed in, and struggled to make other people like. I mean, in that sense he was quite a, a role model for me, that, as an example of someone whose motive in having an art gallery was to make other people appreciate, understand and desire the work of people that he really thought were, were serious and valuable artists, even if other people had very little time for them. So that, the whole thing of disregarding fashion and sticking to your guns and so forth, you know, he was a great example of to me.
Victor was not particularly brilliant at money, and was always running out of it totally, and needing to turn to people for help. For which, by the way, he had a special suit. He had a grey flannel suit that would he put on in order to go and try and get money to help the gallery. He regarded the gallery as an institution that deserved the support of the wealthy. Not a charity, but something that it was correct and proper to, beneficial to your character to be a supporter of.
I saw straight away, very vividly, the nature of the relationship between an artist and a dealer at its, at its hottest, a sort of white heat intensity, you know, and I’d see Victor’s, crossness, and also his worming-out of problems. I mean the fact that he hadn’t got any money himself, you know, he was a man operating with no capital. It was a very different art world from what we have now, you know, people didn’t buy pictures speculatively to make money, you know, the sort of people that bought pictures weren’t, you know, newly-rich businessmen, at all. Victor did have a couple of people that were so convinced by his enthusiasm I think, even more really than the pictures, that they were willing to take a bit of a flyer from it and follow Victor along and buy a few every now and then. We’re talking about pictures that sold for, you know, £100 or £150 as I remember it. I mean obviously some that sold for £60.
I mean he was, he was again someone… I don’t take this as an example because I’ve never been able to do it, but Victor was, was a case of someone who would let the bills go always until the very last moment before payment, and I saw this terrible life of a mountain of bills and just, paying it just as things were going to, you know, the bailiffs were appearing, or, or services being cut off. It was a time actually, of course, when people did have their phones and gas and electricity cut off. It was not, it was not particularly shaming, it seemed to occur quite often, it was one of the resources of the suppliers of utilities frequently practised.
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.
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.
Eileen Agar: On learning to draw with Tonks
Eileen Agar at home in 1990, where her Artist's Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney. Image not licensed for reuse.
Agar’s work developed in ways that would have horrified Tonks. Highly independent, she discovered she was a Surrealist only when the organisers of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition told her so when they visited her and asked to include her work in the soon to be notorious exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries.
Eileen Agar was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 1990. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
I had been at the Slade, and that’s how they taught you, you see. Tonks was very realistic. He wouldn't let you, if a line was wrong, in a body or something, he would correct you, and say, ‘It’s not like that.’ Stand over you and be angry with you. So that I learnt, I suppose, at the Slade how to do those things. His idea was complete smoothness you know. Academic. Tonks used to say, ‘Don’t look at that French rubbish. It’s wrong, and it’s not English painting,’ and, he was also, he was also thinking of the Impressionists, people like Seurat, whom I think is a marvellous painter you see, but at the time, Tonks wouldn’t look at anything like that. He said, ‘People aren’t as thin as that,’ or trees aren’t, you know. He was absolutely for British painting, and trying to teach us how to paint very academically.
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.
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.
Eduardo Paolozzi: On the Vietnam War and Tim's Boot
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi with his sculpture of Newton at the British Library, photographed by Chris Lee. © British Library. Image not licensed for reuse.
Sculptor and printmaker, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) assesses the negative reaction to his 1971 Tate Gallery exhibition. The show included Tim’s Boot, a bronze sculpture of an American solder’s army boot, connected here to Paolozzi’s participation in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York.
Eduardo Paolozzi was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1993-1995. The interviewer was Frank Whitford.
I remember walking in the streets and in an anti-Vietnam march, and it had a lot of New York intellectuals in the group. And I remember walking past the Playboy Club in New York, and all the bunny girls on the balcony all shouting obscenities at us. And I think we were all sort of embarrassed, because walking in the streets is quite harrowing, and you are quite naked. But also, when I did the exhibition at the Tate I seemed to be the only one that seemed to be involved in one’s art in Vietnam, the war in Vietnam; I mean the cover of the catalogue was a boot, an American soldier’s boot, and there was a group of bombs which had something to do with napalm, and I thought that that was the last of the great ready-mades, somehow, was a group of bombs. But it was very unpopular, I think the Tate didn’t like at that time that kind of exhibition. There was also, which I would imagine is still a taboo subject, making commentaries or jokes about certain aspects of modern art, like having a geometric sculpture with a snail on it. Being outside of what might call a general aesthetic experience, it was considered unpopular, and even using kitsch objects, casting kitsch objects and all that was unseen before.
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.
Frank Bowling: On learning to draw
Frank Bowling on the shore of the Thames in London, photographed by Tina Tranter, 1963. Courtesy of Frank Bowling Archive. All rights reserved. Image not licensed for reuse.
Frank Bowling (b. 1936) won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1959. In this extract from his Artists’ Lives recording, Bowling’s animated delivery conveys beautifully his concentrated focus and excitement at his progress in the life room when he was learning to draw.
The Artists’ Lives recordings collectively include a rich and varied commentary on the many changes in 20th and 21st-century British art schools, from the perspectives of both students and tutors.
Frank Bowling was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2001-2016. The interviewers were Mel Gooding and Cathy Courtney.
In the room for the examination for that ’59 year was all the people like Kitaj, Allen Jones, Dave Hockney, we were all there taking the exam that year. And they all showed up the first term in the autumn of ’59. Yah. I wanted to learn how to draw. Everyone was drawing. I mean, it’s amazing, you would see the life room absolutely crowded, everyone drawing from the figure. It was amazing and wonderful. Of course most people were trying on their own ways of, you know, this is how you do it, and, and working from photographs and stuff. And I set about to try and think clearly in front of, focus on one’s intention, to try and get it right within the confines of whatever you were working on, this piece of paper or the canvas. Perhaps more than most of the other people around, I was very focused on that, the whole business of how you control the piece of paper or the canvas in front of you, where you placed a figure, how you managed to get the foot of the figure before you get to the head of the figure, this kind of thing, I was concerned with those things. So I set about working in a way that, a physical and at the same time measured way of… I mean I suppose I was one of the bods who, because of whatever achievement I managed over the months working in the life room, who the tutors could see progress.
Years later I would say about this period that I was learning, like the way a blind man would negotiate, you know, space, right. And somehow it kind of jived with the college’s notion of, a measure by which you could see the student’s progress. I mean they could actually trace my progress from the very fact that I didn’t know how to draw, and then suddenly I am able to, you know. And that came about from doing it as though I was blind, you know, I mean, tap-tapping...
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.
Liliane Lijn: On a ‘Happening’ in Paris
Liliane Lijn at a ‘Happening’ choreographed by Jean-Jacques Lebel in Paris, 1963. Courtesy Liliane Lijn. Image not licensed for reuse.
In this audio extract Liliane Lijn (b. 1939) explores her decision to take part in Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Happening, Pour Conjurer l’Espirit de Catastrophe, in Paris in 1963. Lijn grew up in America and lived in Paris and Greece before settling in London in 1966. Thanos, who is named in the extract is Lijn’s son.
Lijn has worked in many media and is known particularly for her work with light, movement and words. One strand has focused on the female body, sometimes her own, an element that perhaps relates to the Happening she describes here.
Liliane Lijn was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1998-2000. The interviewer was Penelope Curtis.
I had been to happenings as an observer in New York and when I came back to Paris after Thanos was born um and started living in Paris again I met Jean-Jacques Lebel and he asked me if I wanted to be in a happening he was organising and I said 'yeah, yeah, I would like that' and it was a, it was a very strange happening actually, a bit naïve I thought but actually very dynamic um and there was an artist called Kudo who was in it, myself, obviously the women were all half naked and I was in a bath of blood with another woman and I had a mask on my face, and I was Kennedy and she was Kruschiew and, and we were sitting in a bathtub full of red paint, and there was a film crew who were filming it for a film called Gioventu D'Europa which was at the time was a film that shocked and scandalised everybody because it showed the wild young people all over Europe, you know, and I remember getting very annoyed with this film crew and throwing the red water over, splashing the camera with red water and one of the interesting things for me was stripping down because I was ... terrified to do it and I thought that would be very interesting exercise because it would mean disassociating myself from my own feelings of modesty, privacy, and making my body public which was a very frightening thing to do actually, but I felt by doing it I would liberate myself.
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:
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.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.