Howard Hodgkin, Lower Long Dean, Wiltshire.

A brief enclave: Artists in Wiltshire in the 1960s

Hester Westley discusses the web of friendships between a group of artists and their young families living in Wiltshire in the 1970s.

There is something fascinating about friendships between artists and their families. Especially intriguing are the artists’ and their families’ recollections of these friendships in their Artists’ Lives recordings. These are not straight-laced histories that follow a received narrative. Instead, the recordings challenge broad generalisations with first-person recollections of what life was really like.

As an interviewer for Artists’ Lives, I have immersed myself in these otherwise often unaccounted for worlds. This experience has helped me understand the complex patterns of acquaintance and influence that can shape, even make, an artist’s practice and reputation.

What is so special about Artists’ Lives is that events are told from so many different perspectives. Like a prism, the archive fragments a moment into its many different hues. One particularly rich (and previously untold) history is that of the artists and families who were based in Wiltshire in the late 1960s and 1970s. From recordings with these artists, as well as with visitors who came to stay, we can build a picture of their life at the time, and the environment in which art making was taking place.

When the abstract painter Robyn Denny made the brave decision to relocate his family from London to Bath in the mid-1960s, it felt as if they were moving to a different world. Denny’s then wife, artist Anna Teasdale, remembers it as a golden moment: Wiltshire in those days, she recalls, was remote and pastoral. Life was lived at a slower pace and property in Bath was cheap. The Dennys bought an elegant six-storey Georgian town house, ‘a decayed shell’, in Anna’s words, with no central heating and furnished spartanly from local junk shops. Life with a young family certainly had its challenges, but there were compensations.

One of the lures to Bath was the promise of a regular, well-paid income from a teaching job at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, where Robyn was appointed Head of Visual Communications. For the first time in their life, the young family enjoyed some financial stability. Robyn’s career as a painter was taking off, and he was selling his paintings for good money. There was a huge sense of optimism and possibility, and Robyn was ambitious. He had no intention of severing his ties to the wider world. Just after they moved, Anna recalls Robyn’s pronouncement that they were living on the Great Frontier: ‘this is Indian country, Anna’.

The Dennys’ social life in Bath revolved around the other artists who, like them, were moving out of London to Wiltshire to raise their young families. In Anna’s recording, she reflects on the atmosphere that felt like a hang-over from their student days in London. It was free and fluid, with everyone always in and out of each other’s houses. A close friend of Robyn and Anna was the abstract Pop Art painter, Richard Smith, known as ‘Dick’. Robyn and Dick had been to the Royal College of Art together and were to be lifelong friends. When Robyn and Anna first lived together in Notting Hill in London, Dick lodged around the corner, sharing accommodation with their mutual friend, painter Peter Blake.

Robyn and Dick shared their generation’s fascination with all things American. After graduating from the Royal College and winning a Harkness Fellowship to study in the United States, Dick was to spend the remainder of his adult life split between Britain and the States, most often based in America. Early on, Dick met his America wife, Betsy Scherman, and their experience of living in Wiltshire was to be one of their most settled periods in Dick’s home country. His idiosyncratic accent, captured in Artists’ Lives, is a phonetic equivalent of his later confusion about to which side of the Atlantic he belonged, a point he returns to several times in his recording.

In the following extract, Richard Smith explains the pull to England and the lure of the lifestyle in Wiltshire as well as the appeal of living in proximity to, in his own words, the ‘enclave’ of artist friends. The extract reveals the incidental detail that is a frequent characteristic of Artists’ Lives recordings. The Smiths had bought a former school, and Dick relays how the transformation of it into a home and studio gave shape to his later famous series of grey kite paintings.

The Dennys’ and Smiths’ strong network of artists and friends included the Hodgkin family. Howard and his wife, Julia Hodgkin, had installed themselves with their two young sons a few miles out of Bath in the Mill House in the village of Long Dean. Howard was then teaching at Corsham, too. Viewed by visiting art world friends, such as the young Nicholas Serota (later to become Director of Tate 1988-2017) or the lively art dealer, Kasmin, and his wife Jane, this was an almost utopian time. Consolidating the network of friendships, Jane Kasmin had been a fellow student some years before with Howard and Julia at Corsham.

In the next audio extract Nicholas Serota describes his introduction to Richard Smith, whom he met through visiting Howard. He offers a vivid glimpse of the Hodgkin family home, ‘a rather magical place’.

This moment in Wiltshire also brings to light a keen view of how artists’ tastes and ideas were changing in the 1960s. Serota’s description of the Hodgkin household reveals their expansive sensibility. There was a new and excited awareness of ‘lifestyle’. (This was the era of ‘Habitat’ after all, whose founder, Terence Conran was a supporter and patron of these artists and a close friend of some of them.) Julia Hodgkin describes in her recording their carefully considered interiors, and how Howard had an eye for quality. She evokes the atmosphere of their home, an extension of their creative sensibilities: the pale Indian blue kitchen walls, their Habitat table and 1930s sideboard salvaged from the Queen Mary. Howard often rearranged the furniture, she remembers, and adorned the walls with paintings by their friends (he never hung his own paintings in the Mill).

These homes were shaped by marriages where both partners were creative people; in fact, domestic life was shaped by their creativity. The artists Joe and Jos Tilson were close neighbours. Jos Tilson had studied at Corsham at the same time as Julia Hodgkin and could often be found working on her tapestries when friends came by. Julia remembers the welcoming atmosphere of the Tilsons’ home, a rambling former Rectory, where Joe would often disappear into his library when he wasn’t to be found in the studio.

Gatherings of these friends centred around picnics, kite flying excursions, Dick and Betsy’s film club, Christmas feasts and Easter picnics. Their lives were interwoven, and some of the children formed fast friendships, many of which endured into adulthood. But as Julia Hodgkin reminds us in her recording, they never represented a coherent ‘school’ of artists.

While loath to be grouped as anything other than a circle of friends, these artists nevertheless valued the benefits of living near each other. It not only ensured like-minded companionship, but also meant that the rural outpost was a greater draw for important art world visitors. Collectors, patrons, curators and dealers were more inclined to visit a studio if it were part of an exciting ‘scene’, as Serota explains in his recording.

Serota’s visits to Wiltshire were motivated by his admiration for Howard’s painting, which he formalised with his decision in 1976 to mount Hodgkin’s first retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford. At the time, Howard wasn’t as well established as his neighbours: Robyn Denny had his Tate retrospective in 1973, and Dick Smith in 1975. They, along with Joe Tilson, had already gained international recognition through their inclusion in the Venice Biennales, so it was Howard that was in most need of critical attention.

The world of these artists was expanding and they were being pulled in different directions, professionally and personally. The Wiltshire idyll couldn’t last and cracks quickly began to show. It wasn’t long before Dick and Betsy Smith swapped their English country life for a loft in New York City, and the Hodgkins and Dennys got divorced. Friendships survived but the historical moment of artistic cross-fertilisation through living near to one another was over.

Artists’ Lives captures the intimate flux and upheaval in the lives of these artists and their families. It adds, perhaps, to the poignancy of the collective memories that the Wiltshire period was short-lived, preserved for posterity in the archive of recordings. After all, these artists were not, as Serota reminds us, ‘a group of artists pursuing shared ideals’; rather, their kinship represented ‘a strong mutually supporting association’.

Related oral history recordings

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

Robyn DennyJoslyn TilsonRichard Smith, Peter Blake, John Hoyland, Patrick Caulfield

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.

  • Hester Westley
  • Dr Hester R Westley interviews extensively for Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories, at the British Library. Hester’s research focuses on mid-century British art and art education. Formerly Goodison Fellow for National Life Stories (2016/17), she is currently writing about Corsham, Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, research that draws on her time as Research Fellow for the Tate ‘Art School Educated’ project (2009-14). Her publications include ‘The Many Lives of the Life Room’ in The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World 1960 to Now (2015); Anthony Caro’s Small Sculptures (2010); ‘Expanding the Boundaries: The New Creativity in Art Education’ in From Floor to Sky: the Experience of the Art School Studio (2010); ‘Constructed or Constructive?: The Pedagogic Propositions of St Martin’s Sculpture Department’ in An Anthology of British Art, (2008). Hester was guest curator for Tate Britain’s display, St Martin’s Sculpture Department: An Alternative History, 1964-71 (2007) and co-curated Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model in the Life Room: 1890 to Present at Tate Britain (2014-15).

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