The London art world, 1950-1965
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:
Eduardo Paolozzi: On post-war Britain
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi with his sculpture of Newton at the British Library, photographed by Chris Lee. © British Library. Image not licensed for reuse.
Sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was born in Scotland. In this extract from his Artists’ Lives recording he evokes England as he experienced it in the 1950s. The country was recovering from the Second World War and some goods were still rationed by 1951 when the Festival of Britain took place. The Festival was organised to suggest a new beginning and sense of optimism. Despite this, Paolozzi remembers the English being wary not just of foreign art but of unfamiliar foreign food too. He pictures the insular English art world before the influence of the American abstract painters, whose work was first seen in Britain later in the 1950s.
In the 1950s there were far fewer public exhibiting spaces in London than today. Even the Tate Gallery did not have a programme for temporary exhibitions though it did host shows organised by the Arts Council. The Hayward Gallery on the South Bank of the Thames didn’t open until 1968, and there was no Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool or Tate St Ives. Paolozzi highlights the importance of the ICA (The Institute of Contemporary Arts) in the 1950s. The ICA was then based on London’s Dover Street and is referenced in many Artists’ Lives recordings as a key place where people could not only see cutting edge exhibitions but also attend talks and meet one another.
Eduardo Paolozzi was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1993-1995. The interviewer was Frank Whitford.
One might begin with the so called Festival of Britain. One might even think about how important the ICA was. Then there was this, a curious kind of austerity at that time, not only among the artists, I mean we were all grey, we would all, although we think we had escaped from it, all of England was still trying to get over in the early Fifties from the war, there was still a fair amount of astringency, there was still a fair amount of rationing and things like that, even poverty among the intellectuals, at least my group.
And there was always a feeling that, even when I was at Slade, that, an idea about foreigners. And even foreign food somehow.
There were people when I was at the Slade who had never seen spaghetti before, and there were people who had just found Picasso was interesting but foreign, and that …you could occupy the rest of your life just thinking about English art
And there was no Hayward in the 50s, there were none of these great exhibitions. Even the exhibitions at the Academy were quite modest at the time, so that’s one of the things which people forget was that things were very thin on the ground. And I don’t think there were any big dealers at the time.
England was more England then, I think that England, like the rest of Europe, has become much more Americanised. And I certainly didn’t have a fridge at that time, and even what we take for granted now, like cameras, at that time were luxuries for the young student, nobody could drive as far as I remember.
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.
Alan Bowness: On London galleries in the 1950s
Alan Bowness and Sarah Bowness, 1958, Trewyn Studio garden, St Ives, Cornwall. Courtesy Bowness Collection. Image not licensed for reuse.
Art historian Alan Bowness (b. 1928) captures the atmosphere of the commercial galleries in London’s Cork Street and its neighbourhood in the 1950s. This Artists’ Lives recording has the double value of describing something of the British art market of the period and also helping us to understand how Bowness’s own knowledge developed. After taking a degree at Cambridge, he studied art history at the Courtauld Institute and, after working for the Arts Council, returned there to teach. Bowness was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1980-1988, wrote many catalogues and books, and was a member of a number of important committees, including, for instance, the British Council Selection Committee for the 1964 Venice Biennale.
At the end of the extract, Bowness states that the Marlborough Gallery did not yet exist in the 1950s. This is an example of oral history sometimes being more correct in spirit than in fact. (It is always advisable to check facts where facts are available.) The Marlborough Gallery was founded in London in 1946 and in the 1950s was showing mainly 19th-century paintings. It is probable that Bowness intended to refer to the New London Gallery which Marlborough had opened in addition to its main premises by 1960 and which was a place to see contemporary work by European, American and British artists.
Alan Bowness was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2007-2010. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
Because I was such a regular visitor, you know, I, I fairly quickly got to know all the leading gallery figures really. Roland, Browse and Delbanco was run by these three partners. Lillian Browse, who was a former dancer, who had been, when she grew too old to dance I suppose, and during the war, she had found herself helping with exhibitions at the National Gallery, and she moved into dealing with these two émigrés really, one Henry Roland and Gustav Delbanco. Delbanco had, I think he came from Hamburg. He certainly had written, he was something of an art critic in his younger days. And Henry Roland was a more, perhaps he was a more, more of the businessman of the pair. But the three of them got together and ran this beautiful little gallery, where it still is, Roland, it’s now called Browse & Darby, but it’s exactly the same gallery.
And, the Redfern Gallery, there was a man called Harry Tatlock Mil.. Harry Tatlock Miller I think he was called. And, then there was Rex Nan Kivell, he, as I’ve said already, was probably the leading spirit.
The Mayor Gallery. Well I got to know Freddie Mayor actually. He was quite a small man. But I used to go into the back room as it were after lunch. I think he liked his drink, he sometimes was a bit worse for wear I seem to remember. But he had a, he had a lot of anecdotes about artists and, and I was really building up a kind of knowledge of what art had been like in England between the wars, and so I was already quite interested in, in the history of the Mayor Gallery really.
And what do you remember seeing there particularly?
I think they had quite a number of French Realist painters. He was, of course, Douglas Cooper as a very young man had been a partner in the Mayor Gallery, and that explains why the Mayor did exhibitions like Unit One for example. And Douglas also had got the Mayor Gallery into fairly close contact with the generation of Cubist painters, and Freddie went along with all of that, and continued long after Douglas had gone. But he used to have quite a strong French, Parisian connection, and, I think it was those Realist painters, like Paul Rebeyrolle, André Minaux. But these were artists who John Berger was very interested in, so, you could bring them over from Paris and Berger would give them a good write-up in the New Statesman, and that was all very satisfactory. And there did seem a moment when this looked like the way forward in painting, this Social Realist subjects. After all it has its parallels in, say, Prunella Clough in this country in those same years. Though Prunella was always more of a Formalist I think, even when she was painting lorry drivers and other impeccably Social Realist subject matter.
The other gallery I used to visit regularly, or an other gallery, was Tooth’s, and, Peter Cochrane was the young, one of the young directors in Tooth’s. Old Tooth was still there. They had a long history too, goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. But Peter was particularly interested in the new art from Paris, and also in the, you know, in Americans, particularly the Americans in Paris, because, the first Americans who we really saw in any sort of contemporary depth were Sam Francis and Ellsworth Kelly, both of whom were, as young painters, living in Paris, or had been living in Paris. Riopelle, the French Canadian, he was also living in Paris. I mean I’m now talking of the period, middle Fifties I suppose, just before the impact of New York painting. But, Patrick Heron, who of course had been the art critic of the New Statesman in the early Fifties, and had been pushed out to make room for John Berger, both very young when they were writing of course, they had both been very interested in Parisian painting, and these were the galleries really that brought, brought the Parisian paintings to London.
Another gallery was Lefevre. Lefevre was not so strong on the contemporary though. And then Matthiesen’s was a significant gallery too, had some very interesting exhibitions, showed Nicolas de Staël for example, in the Fifties, very important artist as far as the British art world and British painters were concerned.
I should have mentioned Gimpels, just not quite on the Cork Street, Bond Street run, but that was one of the most interesting new galleries, where of course the young painters I was interested in, like Peter Lanyon and Alan Davie, were showing.
And the Hanover Gallery in St George’s Street, with Erica Brausen, that was a very important gallery in those days, was Francis Bacon’s gallery, William Scott’s gallery, and, also had a lot of shows of contemporary French work going through.
The Marlborough didn’t yet exist. Marlborough only came on the scene about 1958.
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.
Alan Bowness: On the small art world in the 1950s when he began his career, teaching and working at the Arts Council of Great Britain
Alan Bowness. Tate Archive Photographic Collection. Image not licensed for reuse.
One of the strengths of oral history is its ability to convey vivid first-hand accounts spoken by people who lived through earlier periods. No-one now would be surprised to learn that there are many art history departments in British universities where students can study 20th-century and 21st-century art. Here, art historian Alan Bowness (born 1928), reminds us that in 1957, when he began teaching at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, the possibilities were dramatically different.
Alan Bowness was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2007-2010. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
It would be fair to say, I had a sort of insider’s knowledge of the Arts Council, because I had worked for a year and a half for the Arts Council, and, I was very quickly also put on the Arts Council’s Art Committee as a sort of representative of a new generation I suppose. And similarly with the British Council. And, it, it was a very small world in those days. I think people will have no idea nowadays. For example, when I started teaching in ’57 I was the only person in the country who was concerned with teaching nineteenth- and twentieth-century art; probably there are a couple of hundred now, because of a huge growth in the subject both in universities and in the art colleges. Nowadays there are probably at least sixty quite serious departments of art history, nearly all of them largely specialising in 19th, 20th-century art. And of course, this was the very beginning of that extraordinary growth period.
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.
Richard Smith: On first seeing the work of the American Abstract Expressionists
Richard Smith (foreground) and friends, early 1950s. Courtesy Collection Smith family. Image not licensed for reuse.
British artist Richard Smith (1931-2016) re-lives the excitement of seeing the paintings of the American painter, Jackson Pollock. Even though his first glimpse of Pollock’s work was only through small photographs, reproduced in Life magazine in the 1950s, this was enough to fire Smith’s interest. His recording depicts a period that is hard to imagine now, when it was much more difficult to find out what was happening abroad. Far fewer art books were published and those that existed, like many magazines, mostly had black and white images rather than colour. As a young man, Smith treasured magazines he was able to get from America and in 1957, having won a Harkness Fellowship, he set sail on the Queen Mary to cross the Atlantic. From then on he was largely based in America although he always returned to Britain, and lived in England for periods as well as visiting.
Smith goes on to describe his first experience in front of the paintings of Mark Rothko, which he saw at London’s Tate Gallery. The Tate Gallery exhibitions in 1956 (Modern Art in the United States) and 1959 (The New American Painting) were many people’s first chance to see the new work that was being made in America.
Richard Smith was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2010-2015. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
I was conscious of Jackson Pollock and that. I think I had seen the photographs from Life, which were terrific pictures. And, you know, kind of, art magazines at that time had kind of photographs, they were about, inch and a half by two inches or so. You’re looking at a Pollock, you know, doesn’t give you too much information! But, those photographs that came out in Life were terrific. And, I was interested in, like, free brushing and…
Why do you think you responded to those little photographs?
Modern, new, something I didn’t know. Like the, I remember the exhibition very well at the Tate. I, the Rothko really gave me a pain. I had to kind of, bend over, you know, at the beauty of this work.
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.
Anthony Caro: On finding that no gallery would show his steel sculpture, 1960
Anthony Caro. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Limited. Image not licensed for reuse.
The sculptor, Anthony Caro (1924-2013) is heard here in conversation with curator and art historian, Paul Moorhouse. They discuss the significant turning point in Caro’s career when he moved away from making bronze, figurative sculptures to constructing abstract work composed of large welded industrial steel elements. This change occurred in the late 1950s after Caro visited America for the first time.
Caro’s figurative work had been shown at London’s Gimpel Fils but Peter Gimpel told the sculptor the new work was unsuitable for his gallery, not only because of its materials and style but also because it simply was too large for the space.
This left Caro with nowhere to show at an important period in his career. Caro’s new work was radical for the time, and it was also difficult to solve this problem in practical terms because London galleries in the late 1950s were mostly modest in size. British buyers, too, tended to look for small-scale purchases that would sit easily in domestic environments often already crowded with furniture. Caro mentions that Frank Lloyd, a director of the powerful Marlborough Gallery, considered the steel work but declined to show it even though the sculptor argued that times might change and perhaps buyers would actually adjust the way they lived in order to accommodate large works, or a new breed of purchaser might emerge. Caro used the example of the large canvases of the American painter, Jackson Pollock, whose work was in great demand despite its challenging approach and scale.
When John Kasmin (also recorded for Artists’ Lives) left the Marlborough Gallery in 1961 to set up on his own, he visited Caro and undertook to be his dealer. This coincided with planning the artist’s one-man exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and Caro quickly became the most preeminent British sculptor of his generation. He was the artist Kasmin was proudest of having shown.
Anthony Caro was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 1993. The interviewer was Paul Moorhouse.
Well you had your first one-man exhibition in London in January ’57 at Gimpel.
Yes. I was part of their team, but in 1960 or ’61 when I had made this terrible change, and Peter said, ‘I can’t take, you can’t show any more with me.’ It wasn’t to his taste, that work, any more. And of course I couldn’t have got it in either. He was very nice, I had no feeling of resentment or anything against him. Because I understood that was the case, there was… But I had nowhere to show, I had nothing, I could, you know, there was nothing I could do, I had no gallery for a long time.
So in 1960 once again you were without a dealer.
Yes. Yes. And in fact, I think that, Frank Lloyd came and looked at my work and said, ‘Nobody will show this, nobody will, nobody will buy this.’ Nobody will want this work, even if I showed it, nobody would want it, so, forget it. And I remember saying to him, ‘Oh well, you know, they said that about Jackson Pollock, and then in the end they went and lived in rooms that were big enough for a Jackson Pollock.’ Jackson Pollock wasn’t so big when you think of Morris Louis. But, you know, in those days it was, they were very big pictures. They didn’t see it as sculptures. And who wants rusted steel, you know?
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.
Kasmin: On the contrast between Marlborough Fine Art and other London galleries in the 1950s
Exhibition card for an exhibition of paintings by Georges Mathieu, October 1960, at New London Gallery. Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, London. Image not licensed for reuse.
John Kasmin’s (b. 1934) Artists’ Lives recording is one of the longest, so lengthy that he had two successive interviewers. Here Monica Petzal asks Kasmin to recall the Marlborough Gallery’s reputation when he was hired to run the Marlborough’s second space, the New London Gallery, in 1960. The New London Gallery was set up to show contemporary art whereas the already well established Marlborough Gallery continued to concentrate on work from earlier periods. The new venture benefitted from the parent gallery’s influential mailing list and reputation.
In the 1960s, the Marlborough Gallery was regarded with suspicion by many of its rivals because of its overtly businesslike attitude to selling art. This contrasted with the rather hidden and gentlemanly approach of other London dealers of the period.
It is noticeable that when Kasmin speaks of the few artists being able to earn a living purely by selling work in 1960s he mentions them perhaps teaching or ‘having a wife’, unconsciously making the assumption that the artist would be male.
John Kasmin was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2004-2016. The interviewers were Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney.
I can remember the way other dealers thought about the Marlborough. I mean some of the people that were friendly with me beforehand regarded me with, slightly different eyes when I worked there, although, they just thought it was risky, you know, that I was supping with the devil as it were, you know. The Marlborough was bitterly resented by the Hanover Gallery and by, Gimpels and, well obviously everybody felt that they might be losing their star artists to these people that were offering efficient business service, worldwide representation, connections with museums that very few other galleries had got, because they’d sold so many grand pictures to museums, and the appeal, believe it or not, I mean this is, this is perhaps hard for lots of those people to understand, of a professional commercial relationship between the, between the artist and the dealer, as opposed to the slightly patronising but based on friendship relationship which had been the guiding principle beforehand. The very business-like style of the Marlborough left many artists, made many artists happier as a prospect, the idea of, of having someone that purely made money for themselves and for them.
Did artists have contracts?
Yes. Yes, no. So we said, you know, there would be contractual arrangements where, with guaranteed stipends and large financial advances. But it wasn’t just money. It was, it was the attitude, you know. You knew, if you went to the Marlborough, that your work would be handled as a valuable item, I mean monetarily valuable, therefore looked after. You knew that records would be efficient, you knew that catalogues would be well done, you knew that people in a very large sphere would be aware of what you were doing, that catalogues would be sent to, to… There was a big appeal. There must have been, and I think I sensed it before a lot of other people did, there must have been something, humiliating’s too strong a word, but, but the feeling of sort of gentle patronage that went in the relationship between an artist and a dealer in the pre-1960 days, certainly must have been, not humbling, not… It must have had an element that artists wouldn’t necessarily have enjoyed. Very gratifying to think that what you were doing was going to be given instant value and, and that you could live from it. You know, I mean the idea was getting about that you might be able to live from your painting. I mean most people that painted in England had some other form, you know, either had a wife or a, or a teaching job, or a, family money, or, or something or other, you know. There weren’t that many people that lived off their work, it was...
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!
Richard Morphet: On the Marlborough Gallery
Richard Morphet as a student at the London School of Economics, 1959. Courtesy Collection Richard Morphet. Image not licensed for reuse.Richard Morphet (b. 1938) describes how nervous he was when he first began to visit smart London art galleries in the 1950s. At this time, Morphet was a student at the London School of Economics.
After working for an advertising agency and then for the British Council, in 1966 Morphet became a curator at the Tate Gallery, where he had a distinguished 32 year career, becoming Keeper of the Modern Collection in 1986. The National Life Stories Artists’ Lives oral history project includes recordings with people who are not artists but whose careers have been interwoven with them. The recordings reveal careers in the art world that are often barely documented.
In the audio extract, Morphet is right to question whether the gallery he visited in 1958 to see a Juan Gris exhibition was named Marlborough New London as it was in fact Marlborough Fine Art. Marlborough’s second space, The New London Gallery had yet to open.
Richard Morphet’s recording by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives was started in 2013 and is ongoing. The interviewer is Cathy Courtney.
But, funnily enough it was Marlborough New London Gallery, and I don’t know whether that was its name in February 1958, but I think it was in February 1958 that I, accompanied by one or two of my student, fellow students from LSE, went to a Juan Gris exhibition there, and spent some time on the pavement outside wondering if we dare go in. Because we didn’t know what the etiquette was in going to a dealer’s gallery. I mean we’d often by that time been to the Tate Gallery and places like that, but we didn’t know, do you have to pay to go in, do you have to buy a work if you go in, you know? And, you know, are you allowed to speak? And so on. I mean it was very, extremely nerve-racking. It sounds mad nowadays to say that, but that’s how it was when one was a young ignorant student. They used to have wonderful exhibitions of German Expressionist art, which the Tate ought to have bought of course but on the whole did not.
‘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.
Michael Kidner: On optimism in the 1960s
Michael Kidner, Untitled, c.1960, Oil on linen, 124 x 151 cm. © The Estate of Michael Kidner, image courtesy Flowers London / New York. Photographed by Antonio Parente. Image not licensed for reuse.
The shift from post-World War II austerity to the colour and optimism of the 1960s is remembered here by artist Michael Kidner (1917-2009). Among the details he includes are references to the fashion boutiques of London’s Carnaby Street and the pioneering satirical BBC television programme, That Was The Week That Was, which took aim at the British establishment.
Michael Kidner was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 1996. The interviewers were Penelope Curtis and Cathy Courtney.
I think everyone was optimistic. There was a sense in which anything new was good. And it was in a way rather uncritical acclaim, but it was, it was optimistic, you know, we were building a new world after the war. Because don’t forget that, black paint, all the cars were black in the Fifties, there were no coloured cars, and everybody’s fence was black, if it had been painted at all, and everybody’s doors were black, and clothes were minimal. So, it was a pretty sort of, dank, dark kind of feel to London, except for the red buses. And… And then the Sixties came, and, Carnaby Street and, This Was The Week That Was, and things like that. Suddenly the country seemed to wake up.
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.
Kasmin: On first meeting David Hockney, and Marlborough's New London Gallery rejection of Hockney's work
David Hockney's Portrait of Kas and Jane (1965), crayon on paper. Courtesy Collection Jane Kasmin, and David Hockney. Image not licensed for reuse.
David Hockney (b. 1937) is one of the most famous artists in the world. In this audio extract, the art dealer John Kasmin (b. 1934) describes Hockney in 1961 when he was unknown, a shy, impoverished and dark-haired student at the Royal College of Art. This striking memory contrasts with the more flamboyant figure Hockney quickly became, famous for his art, but almost as much for dying his hair blonde and sporting a gold lamé jacket at a time when most men dressed conservatively.
Kasmin had earlier purchased a work, Doll Boy, from the 1961 Young Contemporaries exhibition. He was so intrigued by the painting that he asked to meet the artist. This tense encounter at the home of Kasmin and his wife, Jane, is described in the extract.
At this time, Kasmin was employed by the directors of the Marlborough Gallery, Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, to run their New London Gallery. He tells the story of his attempts to sell the work of Hockney against the wishes of Fischer, who thought the work scruffy and not up to scratch. There was not much interest in the drawings and paintings, which Kasmin remembers offering for between £5 and £10 but he recalls making sales to the young art dealer and collector, James Kirkman, and to the curator, Lawrence Alloway.
In frustration that the Marlborough directors wouldn’t let him represent Hockney or another artist whose work he admired, John Latham, Kasmin resigned his post to set up his own gallery with the backing of a Marlborough client, Sheridan Dufferin.
John Kasmin was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2004-2016. The interviewers were Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney.
Soon afterwards I asked if I could meet the chap that had painted it. And we suggested that he came to tea and we said hello. Because he was a student. And, I arrived back from work, I could never predict when I was going to leave the gallery, and I must have got back around six and found that he had got there before me, and was siting, absolutely silent in the sitting room with Jane, who was silent too. He was very ill at ease with ladies. He was a young fellow with black hair, crew cut, National Health spectacles, a strong Yorkshire accent, and, dressed in shabby clothes, the way a student would be. And shy. But, immediately talking when I came in, and completely open. And we, you know, it’s difficult for me to recall exactly the first conversation with somebody, but, we, I certainly wanted to see more of his work. Before long I had looked at more of his work at the Royal College in his section where he was painting, and, I’d discovered that he had incredibly little money, that he lived very very poorly indeed on a pittance, and wanted to do something about it all. And I liked the drawings, and I liked the other pictures, and I thought, ‘God, here’s an inventive fellow, it’s completely unlike what I thought I was going to be liking’. And I love to be surprised like this. It’s not abstract, it’s figurative but not in a, any boring or normal way; it’s cheeky and irreverent, it’s not high-minded, but I love that too.
Anyway, I liked him enough to want to do something for him, and wanted Fischer to look at his work. And Fischer thought that it was ill-painted, that the stretchers were warped, that the drawings had blots on them, that the stuff may have had some faint talent but it certainly was far too shoddy to have in the Marlborough Gallery. On the other hand he saw that I really was keen, and he saw that, that Hockney was a personable and an intelligent person, and he also saw that I wanted to help him. And, somehow I established a, a basis for helping Hockney, while not upsetting Fischer. So I thought, explaining to Lloyd that, if I kept a few of his drawings and little pictures behind the curtains in the showroom and occasionally show one to somebody, nothing to do with the Marlborough Gallery, and merely sold it to get a few pounds for the artist and made no profit out of it, and we’d keep an eye on him, and, maybe something would happen with him.
I think David was doing pictures then with sometimes two canvases joined together but not very successfully, and one bit wobbled and flapped around. I mean they were scruffy. There were... The paint was cheapest, poor quality paint you could imagine, there were bits falling off. He’d drop things on the… You know, something about them that really upset Fischer. And he’d come in just after I had showed some .. I used to show the drawings, when I got a few drawings in, I’d take them out, and put a few around and show them to James Kirkman. He bought one or two. I mean, I was selling them for David, I said, ‘Look I’ll try and get you five quid for a drawing, or six quid or something, you know. I mean, I’ll try to get £10 for this painting.’ You know, there were smaller things. And James bought a couple out of his salary, and… And then I’d show some to Lawrence, and say, ‘Look, don’t you think…’ You know, Alloway. ‘Don’t you think these…?’ And, but Fischer would choose a moment to come in when I had just been showing some, and he’d say, ‘Oh Mr Kasmin, how many times have I said, we mustn’t have this stuff around the gallery. You know, you’ve got to get rid of it all. You can’t…’ And I said, ‘Well I’m just trying to help him, you know, they’re out for a minute; I’ll put them…’ No, it went too far and I had to send them away. And I really was determined by then to have my own place and start to… I mean two artists that I wanted to do something for, you know - Latham and him - he wouldn’t have anything to do with.
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.
Gillian Ayres: On Kasmin and on joining Kasmin Gallery
Gillian Ayres, photographed by Roger Mayne. © Roger Mayne. Courtesy The Roger Mayne Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
Gillian Ayres (1930-2018) was interviewed for Artists’ Lives by the writer Mel Gooding. In this conversation they compare Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One, as it was in the mid-1950s, with the Kasmin Gallery, which opened in 1963. Unlike Musgrave, whose finances were always rocky, Kasmin had the backing of Lord Dufferin and was able to create the gallery of his dreams. Kasmin himself became much written about in the press, unlike the earlier generation of art dealers who tended to keep a lower profile.
Ayres remembers Kasmin being among the first to buy the work of the student, David Hockney, at a Young Contemporaries exhibition in 1961. She mentions Hockney’s Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style in the exhibition but it was Hockney’s Doll Boy which Kasmin purchased. Ayres is right in saying that the Marlborough Gallery, where Kasmin worked in 1961, prevented him from showing and selling Hockney’s work. This was one of the frustrations that caused Kasmin to set up his own gallery, so that he could show the artists he most believed in.
Gillian Ayres was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1999-2000. The interviewer was Mel Gooding.
Just then, Kasmin had been open about a year, and, that was like a very swish, lovely gallery, and yes, one, one had another show.
This was the gallery in Bond Street.
Bond Street, yes. It seemed enormous; it probably in retrospect, if we went in it now, might not see it as big. Because it was a great big open room, it’s like those Nolands were shown, like, the full length of them. It always seemed, it was quite unlike the other galleries. Whether it was as big as one felt it was then, I don’t know.
Kasmin was also something of a star, wasn’t he, amongst the sort of gallerists at that time?
Well, just then really.
This is the Sixties, and, and Kasmin is a figure.
Just then. Those days.
So, Kasmin had started with Victor Musgrave at Gallery One.
He was meant to be a beatnik poet who had come away from New Zealand, although originally he had been born in Oxford. He was really a runabout for Ida Kar, who was Musgrave’s, Victor Musgrave’s wife, at Gallery One, who took these very wond… she was very dramatic, but rather a wonderful photographer. Anyway, he was just an assistant. Then he went to the Marlborough. And very quickly, if you like, got the backing of Lord Dufferin, whose father had been killed in the war, and I think he had come into his money when he was twenty-one, if my memory’s right, and, it was tons of money, because it was Guinness, it was very big in those days. And, and they were both young.
And, yes, it was a very buoyant scene. I mean suddenly the whole world was totally different, like this wonderful gallery. I’m not sure even about the history of Hockney. Had the Marlborough turned Hockney down? But, again, Kasmin had been at one of those Young Contemporaries, and certainly, if you like, met Hockney. I can actually remember standing there when they were, Kasmin was excited about that tea painting of Hockney’s…
…in, in the Young Contemporaries for instance, which was a bit earlier. Yes, we’d all known each other from, from those mid-Fifties. And again, the scene was very very different in those days at Gallery One, like, people didn’t have money, if you walked in there you went upstairs and had baked beans and bacon and eggs or something. It was always totally relaxed and friendly. If you like, a very different scene to suddenly this explosive and confident thing of these two young people that had got together in a partnership, did tie up in a sense with Greenberg and New York too quite honestly if one looks back, and it was showing big Americans in London. And also, Kasmin took a lot of people that he had known through those other days, from about, 1956.
So when you joined Kasmin in ’65…
Might have been ’64, I’m not sure. I think probably ’64.
’64. This was, for you, quite an important career moment. I mean in the sense that, Kasmin was a star, there were lots and lots of international artists, the top young British artists were showing with him. It was a place to be seen and a place to be shown.
At the time, I don’t know how one thinks when one has an exhibition. I mean I suppose the first thing one thought was, well, yes, we always do sort of, like, get excited about places to hang work, and, I suppose quite honestly one would have been excited about the environment. Whether one was conscious of how glitzy and confident it was, I’m not clear about that. I mean, suddenly there was money and glamour, yes, in the sense of, openings, drink. Yes, and he always asked his artists. He was, he was very good like that, because he, he didn’t ask clients and, famous and important people, very much actually to dinners after the show. He’d just ask his artists a lot. And yes, I mean, certainly you’d sort of, go out, and there’d be Olitski or Frankenthaler or Robyn Denny and… Howard Hodgkin was actually at Tooth’s just about by then, but then came in half and half. But, yes, you just mixed. I don’t know whether you were that aware of, of quite what, you know, in a sort of, confident way what was happening or anything.
Your first show with Kasmin was actually in 1965.
Yes.I see. Yes. And by then my work did change, it’s rather strange.
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:
Follow the links below to listen to life story recordings relating to the Festival of Britain:
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.