Why History?

In 1976 I arrived from my country grammar school at the Historical shrine of Peterhouse. At the time, although the smallest of the colleges of Cambridge, it had the highest number of History dons.

The study of History was taken seriously and the effect on me was to be lifelong. The key people for me were Maurice Cowling and Brian Wormald. Sitting in front of these strange, intense men reading an undergraduate essay was profoundly challenging. Historical writing involved seeking to understand the reality behind why men acted in the way they did; and that reality was hugely complex and not to be confused with the descriptions of it in the work of historians. For those writing about the past always have an agenda. The identification and evaluation of that agenda is part of the reader’s challenge. The effort to abandon – or at least admit to – that agenda is part of the historian’s challenge.

Sir John Rothenstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor

Zsa Zsa Gabor died recently. In September 1952 she visited the Tate as preparation for a film she was making about Toulouse-Lautrec, to be called “Moulin Rouge”. Her PR agents no doubt saw this as an opportunity to get some good publicity for her and for the film and they brought a cameraman. John Rothenstein, subject of my forthcoming book, was Director of the Tate at the time. He showed her round the Gallery and many photos were taken.

An article on the visit then appeared in the October edition of a not very highbrow magazine called “Illustrated”. All hell broke loose, with questions being asked in Parliament as to how the Tate could have been used in this way for an actress to promote herself. Even the Court was said to be not amused. The particular picture which generated this reaction showed the actress with one leg raised high off the ground and resting incongruously on the base of a statue by the Northern Irish sculptor, FE McWilliam.

All will be revealed in the book.

Lucian Freud, John Minton, Jamaica

A holiday at The Jamaica Inn prompts thoughts about which artists have painted  on the island. The 20th century British artist most closely associated with Jamaica in my mind is John Minton. He first came by boat to Kingston with his then boyfriend, Ricky Stride, in 1950. They apparently met on the boat two British Jamaican residents, Peter and Alice Blagrove, and stayed with them for a while.

Was there something of a gay community here in the 1950s? We went today to Noel Coward’s house, Firefly, and also saw Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye, now part of a hotel of the same name. All sorts of gay names seem to have been over the years ( Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Angus Wilson), including Peter Watson, who visited in 1949 and 1950, staying at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston. One of those rare collectors of 20th Century British and Irish art in 1950s Northern Ireland, Tommy MacGeough Bond of The Argory, also came and stayed.

Minton’s pictures of Jamaica certainly come up for sale quite often, as do Noel Coward’s. Freud came as well in the 50s, but there only seem to be two pictures known by him with local subjects, one fittingly portraying a bunch of bananas similar to the one I can see from the verandah of my room now. Winston Churchill stayed at The Jamaica Inn in the 1950s and painted from it as well.

Peter Watson at Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s Erotic art sale on 16th February lot 10 is a major picture by Pavel Tchelitchew called Bathers. This was owned by Peter Watson and I helped with the catalogue entry.

John Rothenstein

Research is almost complete. The diaries from 1939 to 1964 have been read and the first draft of the book is about to be delivered to the publisher. The cover photo has been chosen and the book’s title. Now it needs editing and the illustrations gathering, so still plenty of work to do.

Gerard Dillon at the Ulster Museum

I visited this super show last week in Belfast. Just one room, but carefully chosen by someone with an eye for Dillon’s important works. So each picture is a substantive work; there is no padding with minor works. As ever, for me the show preached to the converted. I have no doubt that Dillon was a considerable artist; possibly limited by his subjective emphasis on his own neuroses, but producing exceptional work around that large theme, encompassing life and death and of course the dilemma of the gay man in the hostile culture of his time. His reputation cries out for wider consideration in the British art world rather than being treated solely as a Northern Irish artist.

Great credit to the Ulster Museum for putting this on.

Edward Bawden at the Fry Art Gallery

A new show opened at Saffron Walden on Saturday of early Bawden watercolours. How beautiful they are. Best when they don’t have images of human beings in them, which most don’t, they are a glorious example of Bawden’s ability in watercolour. The Fry Art Gallery is a tremendous place and as ever must take great credit for putting on this lovely little show.

Constance Morton

I just bought a delightful picture by her, of farm buildings in watercolour with pen and ink. Unframed. The internet says not much more than her dates. Anyone know more about her?

The Sainsbury Centre at UEA

My daughter and I made our first trip to the Sainsbury Centre to see the Giacometti show. It’s a neat little exhibition; not enough Giacometti to be exciting, but enough to make the journey from London worthwhile. I enjoyed the subtlety of the themes being developed around other artists, although there was the very slight feeling that the curators had decided that because the Sainsbury collection contains things by Bacon etc they might as well see if they could weave some of them in.

It was fascinating to see 3 works by Isabelle Rawsthorne. Her work almost never comes up in London auctions and I thought at least 2 of the pictures were very good.

It was also, of course, a great pleasure to see Freud’s drawing of Peter Watson which lives in the V and A. Watson knew Giacometti and was painted by him. The portrait is now in MOMA.

Giacometti is a “hard” artist, both to describe and to understand. The more clever shows we can have like this, the better. The one at the NPG was similarly insightful.

What a very strange place to have a gallery: in the middle of the bizarre goings-on one reads about at UEA, their students banning strangely chosen things. The juxtaposition with the horrible university buildings is not beneficial to the gallery, which could otherwise be on a beautiful country estate somewhere, like Compton Verney. Still, that isn’t going to change now. One wonders how many students visit the gallery.