<i>Nine Abstract Artists</i> by Lawrence Alloway (1954).

Bryan Robertson and Lawrence Alloway

Mel Gooding defines the different characteristics of two far-sighted curators, Lawrence Alloway and Bryan Robertson, and shows how their careers intersected.

Bryan Robertson and Lawrence Alloway, close contemporaries (born 1925 and 1926 respectively), were writers on the visual arts, art critics and curators. Both were busily influential in London especially during the 1950s and early 1960s. Distinctive and powerful personalities, their careers reflected their differences in temperaments. Alloway was opinionated and argumentative, Robertson was an enthusiastic enabler, an exhibition maker of genius, and something of a showman.

During that period Robertson was Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. From 1952 he rapidly and utterly transformed the Whitechapel from a neglected wreck into London’s most important international independent gallery for modern and contemporary art from Europe, the USA and the UK.

Lawrence Alloway

Alloway meanwhile devoted his talents to experimental artistic and architectural events and activities, and to the lively promotion of artists and groups associated at that time with the self-consciously modernist Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). He championed those he identified as belonging to the avant-garde and especially those in touch with current art in the USA.

‘… American art is not an exotic national style. It is the mainstream of modern art, which used to run through Paris’ he wrote in 1960.1 He was introducing Situation, an important group exhibition in London of abstract ‘large paintings’ by British artists who acknowledged their debt to current American practice. Alloway had earlier been critically connected with British constructivist-geometrical and painterly non-figurative art. In 1954 he published Nine Abstract Artists, the pioneering first post-war presentation of such painters and sculptors, including Victor Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and William Scott.

In the extract from his Artists’ Lives recording below, Alan Bowness discusses Nine Abstract Artists. Bowness was director of the Tate Gallery from 1980-1988.

In the mid-1950s Alloway was also closely involved, as theorist and curator, with the brilliant group of intellectual artists and architects of the Independent Group, the originators of British Pop Art. It was a group that included Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale and Eduardo Paolozzi. Also involved were Alison and Peter Smithson, the key practitioners of so-called ‘brutalist’ architecture. The term ‘brutalist’ derives from béton brut (raw concrete), the favoured material for high Modernist architecture. Alloway’s primary enthusiasm was always for an art that reflected in a contemporary way the social idealism of pre-war International Modernism. This movement in art and design had emphasised the connections between art and everyday life, and called for architecture and design that exemplified simplicity and clarity of purpose. Alloway’s passion for an art and architecture rooted in modern life was intensified by a close interest in film and photography. The first exhibition of the Independent Group, at the ICA in 1953, was significantly entitled Parallel of Art and Life.

This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

Alloway championed art, theory and practice that connected directly with social reality. As well as a critic, he was essentially a skilled activist and publicist. Artist groups actively sought him out to articulate their theoretical positions, to represent their causes and to help organise their exhibitions. ‘We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically’ he wrote. ‘This included not only constructivism in art, photography and architecture, but movies, science fiction, advertising, pop music…’2

All of these aspects of modern life and art came together in the spectacular exhibition, This is Tomorrow, in 1956. This was curated in part by Alloway, and hosted at the Whitechapel Gallery by Bryan Robertson. The show was arranged as a series of immersive ‘environments’ representing the diverse interests and ideas of twelve separate groups, each entrusted with a space of their own. This was a crucial crossing of paths for Alloway and Robertson, who otherwise had little connection with each other. It consolidated Alloway’s position as a creator of controversial events and a smart art world networker. It decisively established Robertson as an open-minded curator.

Bryan Robertson

Quite unlike Alloway, Robertson was by nature a celebratory writer and personal enthusiast rather than a provocative polemicist. He was no theorist. He had an intense love of historical art, and a keen knowledge of modern European and American painting and sculpture. He spent time in Paris as well as New York, and made close friends among artists in both cities. He had, moreover, an abiding love of contemporary British art of all kinds, figurative, non-figurative and experimental. Robertson made the Whitechapel the focal point in London of mainstream contemporary international painting and sculpture. His visionary ambition was to bring the best of world art to a mixed audience in the East End of London. To this end, Robertson created an amazing programme of superb and hugely influential exhibitions. Above all, he wanted to excite and educate the British public, and thereby bring a new modernist vitality to British art.

His brilliant plan was to surprise by diversity while maintaining the highest standards. It was to have eye-opening exhibitions of major modern and contemporary European and American artists (Piet Mondrian, Nicolas de Staël, Kasimir Malevich, Serge Poliakoff, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, among many others) take turns with carefully selected retrospectives of British middle-generation artists (including Barbara Hepworth, Merlyn Evans, Robert Colquhoun, Alan Davie, Ceri Richards, Prunella Clough and Robert Medley). ‘The grander shows’ he thought would give credibility to the lesser known figures by programmed association. Contemporary British artists could be seen in an international context.

How the British art public perceived art, national and international, was affected decisively by distinctive illustrated catalogues designed, and often written, by Robertson himself. They were an integral part of the passing show. In the 1960s Robertson extended his reach by introducing his annual ‘New Generation’ exhibitions of younger artists. These perceptive visual presentations effectively launched the international careers of artists as diverse as Anthony Caro, Patrick Caulfield, John Hoyland, Philip King and Bridget Riley.

Robertson was widely admired across the generations for his enthusiasm, his opportunism and flair. ‘What I look for in art of any period’, he wrote towards the end of his life, ‘is imaginative energy, radiance, equilibrium, composure, colour, light, vitality, poise, buoyancy, a transcendent ability to soar above life and not be subjugated by it, the avoidance of rhetoric, a resolved formal tension.’3 Bored by administration and business, he finally left the Whitechapel Gallery in 1969 because of financial difficulties.

Robertson had been disappointed when in 1964 he failed to become Director of the Tate Gallery. It seems likely that the Trustees were unnerved by the thought of appointing a candidate lacking formal qualifications. However imaginative his approach to art, he had, moreover, a famous tendency to creative chaos. In 1969 he took up a museum directorship in the United States, but before long returned to London, where he worked as a critic (of ballet as well as art) and freelance curator.

In these audio extracts, Alan Bowness and the art dealer, Kasmin, assess Bryan Robertson’s career.

Alloway, meanwhile, had left London for New York in the early 1960s. There he became well known as a curator and critical analyst of the American scene. One of the strengths of oral history is its ability to document developments that didn’t happen as well as those that did. In the extracts below, Kasmin and Alloway’s wife, the artist Sylvia Sleigh, remember an evening during which Alloway lost an opportunity he was unaware he might ever have been offered.

Alloway and Robertson were essentially outsiders, largely self-taught and robustly intelligent lovers of art. Both were strong-minded, forthright, courageous and unafraid of risk. Where Alloway was theoretically severe, intellectually focused and inclined to an abrasive directness, Robertson was generous and diverse in his tastes, camp, sociable and pleasure-loving. One way or the other they tended to alienate the more conventional and bureaucratic museum-world insiders. Instead, they were admired and trusted by artists, who tolerated their idiosyncrasies, and warmly appreciated their remarkable gifts.

[1] Lawrence Alloway, ‘Size Wise’, in Art News and Review (London: 1960)

[2] Lawrence Alloway, This is Tomorrow exhibition catalogue (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1956).

[3] Bryan Robertson, introduction, 45–99: a personal view of British painting and sculpture exhibition catalogue (Cambridge: Kettle's Yard, 1999).

Related oral history recordings

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

Victor Pasmore, Terry Frost, Eduardo Paolozzi, Sylvia SleighPeter Smithson

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.

  • Mel Gooding
  • Mel Gooding is a London-based art critic, writer, curator and lecturer on art and architecture. He has published numerous monographs on modern artists, including Bruce McLean, Patrick Heron, Ceri Richards and John Hoyland, and he has written catalogue introductions and essays on many others. He has contributed texts to a number of artists’ books, including ten publications with Knife Edge Press (a creative collaboration with the artist Bruce McLean), and worked as advisor, editor and writer for over twenty-five years with Redstone Press.

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