Sir Eduardo Paolozzi with his sculpture of Newton at the British Library, photographed by Chris Lee.

The London art world, 1950-1965

Duncan Robinson compares his own memories of the London art world of the 1950s with those in the Artists’ Lives oral history collection.

The transformation of the London art world between 1950 and 1965 coincided with wide-ranging changes in Britain. Post-war austerity receded and was replaced by growing confidence and prosperity.

Signs of change

The Festival of Britain took place on the south bank of the River Thames in 1951, a celebration of Britain’s recovery from the Second World War and its aftermath. Timed to coincide with the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, like its predecessor it demonstrated to the world British achievements in industry, art and science. The site was chosen to highlight urban renewal and consisted of 27 acres in the heart of London which had been devastated by bombing. After the Festival the area was redeveloped as The Southbank Centre for the fine and performing arts, a complex of iconic 20th-century buildings which house the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the Hayward Gallery. That was in the future. At the time many people would have echoed the recollections of the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, then in his twenties and back in England after living for two years in Paris. By contrast, he found England grey, austere and insular in taste, in food as well as art:

Listening to Eduardo’s characteristically blunt assessment, delivered in that unmistakable Scottish accent, reminds me of our friendship. In the 1970s we both sat on the art panel of the Eastern Arts Association, where his firm but friendly judgment invariably carried the day.

In addition to the Festival of Britain, Eduardo also mentions the ICA, or Institute of Contemporary Arts. It was founded in 1947 by Roland Penrose, Herbert Read and other progressive artists and intellectuals. From 1950 onwards it occupied premises in Dover Street, where Eduardo joined forces with the young designer Terence Conran to decorate and furnish the interiors of the building. The Independent Group of artists to which Eduardo belonged met there from 1952 onwards, its members united by their fascination with mass production and new technology. In 1956 they mounted a ground-breaking exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery entitled This is Tomorrow. Richard Hamilton’s poster comprised a collage of magazine photographs and advertisements for domestic appliances. The caption read ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ That ironic question summarised the artistic agenda he and Eduardo shared with other ‘Pop’ artists. It is typical of the wry humour with which they responded to Britain’s new-found affluence and fascination with American consumer goods. They captured the mood of growing confidence expressed by the Conservative leader Harold Macmillan, or ‘Supermac’ as he was popularly known, who fought and won the general election in 1957 with the slogan ‘you’ve never had it so good’.

The art market of the 1950s

During the 1950s the art market recovered from its post-war doldrums. Alan Bowness, later to become the Director of the Tate Gallery, was uniquely placed to become both a keen observer and a discerning collector. The son-in-law of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, his taste was grounded like theirs in the European avant-garde. Living in London, he frequented all of the leading commercial galleries and, as he recalls, got to know many of their owners. The list of gallerists he mentions shows the breadth of his taste. Lillian Browse, for instance, specialised in the work of an older generation of figurative artists including Walter Sickert and Ben’s father, William Nicholson. Alan was particularly interested in the painters of his own generation, many of whom became lifelong friends. They included Alan Davie and Peter Lanyon, who were represented by Peter Gimpel’s gallery, Patrick Heron who exhibited at the Redfern Gallery and William Scott who showed at the Hanover Gallery. But Alan was also among the first to recognise the importance of contemporary American painting. In his interview he mentions Sam Francis and Ellsworth Kelly, two American artists who were then working in Paris.

To put Alan’s activities into perspective, it is worth listening to his comments about the ‘small world’ in which he operated. After working for the Arts Council of Great Britain, he taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where he was virtually the only person in the country offering university courses in 19th and 20th-century art. I remember well that during my student days he filled the gap in Cambridge by visiting once a week to lecture on modern sculpture. Afterwards, in the afternoons, he would join small groups of us at Kettle’s Yard, which was the home of Jim and Helen Ede and their collection of 20th-century art. In the 1970s both Alan and I would be involved in persuading the university to accept Ede’s gift of the house and its contents, and in encouraging the Arts Council to support it financially.

The impact of America

In 1955 the American critic Clement Greenberg published an essay on American-Type Painting. He argued that with the advent of abstract expressionism the centre of artistic gravity had shifted from Paris to New York. Not everyone agreed. However, the circulation of art magazines and travelling exhibitions ensured that the work of the Americans Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still became recognised internationally. In the 1950s the Tate Gallery was directed by John Rothenstein. His books on Modern British Painters underlined his interest in British artists who were active during the first half of the 20th century. Under his influence the Tate concentrated on collecting their works, but neglected to acquire those of contemporary foreign artists. However, temporary exhibitions helped to compensate. Two in particular were important. Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York was shown at the Tate in 1956, and The New American Painting in 1959. The abstract painter Richard Smith recalls the impact of those shows. He was impressed particularly by the work of Rothko when he confronted it directly (a favourite phrase of Alan’s) as opposed to seeing miniaturised reproductions. I’m particularly struck by the physical force of his reaction as he was ‘bent over by the beauty’ of the paintings. It comes as no surprise to learn that when Dick (as he preferred to be called) graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1959, he left for New York to take up a Harkness Fellowship there for two years.

In the same year another young artist, the sculptor Anthony Caro, also travelled to America for the first time. After taking a degree in Engineering at Cambridge, he began his career as an assistant to Henry Moore. His first solo exhibition was at Gimpel Fils in 1957 but, as he explains, in 1960 he found himself without a dealer. That was because of what he describes, tongue-in-cheek, as the ‘terrible change’ which came over his work. It had become closer in style to the American abstract sculptor David Smith than to his former mentor Moore. The size of Tony Caro’s new works also meant that they would not fit into Peter Gimpel’s gallery in Davies Street. Frank Lloyd, one of the directors of the Marlborough Galleries, was equally unmoved by Tony’s argument that American painters like Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis were finding buyers for their oversize canvases. The note of amused irony in Tony’s voice resonates with anyone who knew him as he adds, ‘but who wants rusted steel?’ Even so, rejection at the time must have been painful. In 1963 he accepted a teaching post at Bennington College in Vermont, USA. There he formed lasting friendships with the American abstract artists Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski, as well as with Greenberg who emerged as the leading champion of their work.

The Marlborough effect

The Marlborough Gallery opened in Bond Street in 1946. It belonged to two Austrian émigrés, Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer. In 1958 they decided to branch out into contemporary art. They opened the New London Gallery across the street from their main gallery and in 1960 hired the young dealer John Kasmin to manage it. He explains that they introduced a new business model in their dealings with living artists, one which differed markedly from the less professional and more patronising approach of many other London gallerists. Artists with whom they signed contracts could rely on the gallery to promote their work internationally and to provide them with stipends and cash advances against future works. It has to be admitted that Marlborough’s subsequent dealings with artists and their estates were not always smooth (their relationship with Rothko ended in litigation) but for emerging artists in the late 1950s, the prospect of being able to live off their work had an obvious attraction.

Richard Morphet enjoyed a long and distinguished career as the Keeper of Modern Art at the Tate Gallery. In his interview he recalls the apprehensions with which he and his fellow students first approached fashionable west-end galleries like the Marlborough. They were drawn there on the one hand by the opportunity to see 20th-century art which was not represented in public collections. On the other hand they were intimidated by the air of opulent privilege they encountered in Bond Street. My own reactions at the time were exactly the same!

‘The swinging ‘sixties’

With hindsight we can see that the Pop artists of the 1950s anticipated the explosion of youth-driven popular culture which took place in the early 1960s. In 1962 BBC television launched the satirical weekly review, TWTWTW, ‘That Was The Week That Was’. In 1964 the Beatles emerged from Liverpool as the leading rock band with their first album and full-length film, A Hard Day’s Night and that same year filled the open-air Shea sports stadium in New York with screaming fans. The American press began to refer to ‘a British invasion’. By then London’s Carnaby Street had become a destination for cheap and trendy clothing with such labels as ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. In the next clip the Op artist Michael Kidner explains how ‘the country seemed to wake up’ in those years.

No art establishment in Britain was more wide-awake than the Royal College of Art in 1962, the year in which David Hockney graduated. His fellow-students included Derek Boshier, Patrick Caulfield, Allen Jones and the American R B Kitaj. All of them gave visual form to the ‘swinging ‘sixties’, along with Peter Blake who designed the jacket for the Beatles 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the first dealers to recognise the talents of this new generation was Kasmin (born John Kaye). As Kasmin admits in the interview, he could not persuade the Marlborough’s directors to take on Hockney. As a result, and increasingly confident of his own judgment as far as contemporary art was concerned, Kasmin began to consider setting up a gallery of his own. This became a reality when he was joined by Sheridan Dufferin, a rich young collector who was able to back the Kasmin Gallery financially. It opened at 118 New Bond Street in 1963, after Kasmin had attracted endorsement of a different kind from the influential Greenberg, who championed well-established New York artists like Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Kasmin tells the story of his early encounter with Hockney with all of the skill of a born raconteur.

It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of Kasmin on the London art scene. His gallery itself was innovative. Visitors entered a single uninterrupted space with white walls, a high ceiling and artificial lighting. It was a precursor of the white cube, an exhibition space in which walls, floor and ceiling were all of the same neutral colour. Nothing was allowed to detract from the impact of the works on view. With his unfailing energy and commitment to contemporary art, Kasmin was a master publicist as well as a persuasive salesman. His gallery became synonymous with cutting-edge abstraction, and its appeal had much to do with the character of its owners. Kasmin’s generosity towards the artists he represented is captured by the painter Gillian Ayres who showed with him first in 1965. She also speaks here of the excitement ‘Kas’ generated as a fashionable young trend-setter. She contrasts his ‘glitzy’ operation in New Bond Street with Gallery One, the place where he began his career working for its owner, Victor Musgrave, a decade earlier.

Conclusion

In 1964, Alan Bowness joined Lawrence Gowing, then Principal of the Chelsea School of Art, to organise the exhibition 54 64 Painting and Sculpture of a Decade. It was held at the Tate Gallery under the sponsorship of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. In Alan’s own words, he and Gowing ‘thought it a good moment to show British painters and sculptors in an international context, to see how they would measure up to their American and European contemporaries.’ They included the work of some 35 British painters of all ages. These ranged from elder statesmen like Ben Nicholson to the new generation of Hockney and his contemporaries. Whether the organisers intended it or not, they also demonstrated the truth in Greenberg’s prediction that New York would increasingly take precedence over Paris as the centre of the art world. But for many of us who saw that ground-breaking survey, the British artists did indeed ‘measure up’. The strength and diversity of their work was outstanding in the international context of the show.

It was also apparent that artists on both sides of the Atlantic were increasingly familiar with each other’s work. The lower cost of travel by air encouraged art students as hard-up as Hockney to ‘cross the pond’. He embellished his first experiences of New York in his entertaining series of etchings of The Rake’s Progress. Their title links Hockney playfully with his British antecedent, the 18th-century graphic satirist William Hogarth. Their publication in 1963 also marks the beginning of Hockney’s transatlantic career, and from 1965 he joined the increasing number of artists who lived and worked in more than one country.  The idea of art defined by national boundaries was already beginning to seem old-fashioned and out of step with the growing internationalism of both art and its markets.

Related oral history recordings

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

Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Smith, Michael Kidner, Derek Boshier, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, Gillian Ayres

Follow the links below to listen to life story recordings relating to the Festival of Britain:

Hugh Casson, Ursula Bowyer, Gordon Bowyer, Denys Lasdun

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.

  • Duncan Robinson
  • Duncan Robinson is a former director of the Yale Center for British Art (1981-95) and the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (1995-2007). He was Master of Magdalene College Cambridge (2002-12). He chaired the Trustees of the Henry Moore Foundation (2007-14) and the Prince’s Drawing School (2007-12). His publications include Stanley Spencer (revised 1990) and The Yale Center for British Art: A Tribute to the Genius of Louis I. Kahn (1997). In between writing articles and reviews on British art of the 18th-20th centuries, he is currently working on the connections between art and literature from Hogarth to Turner.

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