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.

Keith Tyson at the Jerwood Gallery

Something unusual happened yesterday.We went to the wonderful Jerwood Gallery in Hastings to see the Eileen Agar display.Before we found it, we walked into the Keith Tyson show of studio drawings.

Now I had heard of Tyson, but had crudely assumed, based on nothing at all, that he wasn’t my type of artist: too much of the Turner Prize and not enough traditional skill as an artist. Turns out I was wrong. We absolutely loved the work on display; thoughtful and thought-provoking. We watched the artist talking on a screen and found him entirely sensible, cleverly explaining his objectives.

So one eats humble pie.

Nicolas Nabokov and Peter Watson

Just finished reading a good biography of Nabokov by Vincent Giroud. No mention of Watson, but their worlds overlapped heavily at certain points and they knew each other in pre-War Paris and later.

The early connection was through the French music scene. Watson knew Fevrier, Sauguet, Auric, Poulenc, Markevitch and others, as did Nabokov. He also of course knew many members of the same French high culture, as did Nabokov, such as Comte Etienne de Beaumont,  Comtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles and the Princesse de Polignac, as well as Russian exiles like Princess Natalie Paley and Pavel Tchelitchew. They were both friendly with people like Pierre Colle.

Later, with Nabokov’s work for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Watson would have had another link into him through their mutual friend, Stephen Spender, who was Encounter’s first editor. Watson attended a CCF meeting in Paris with Spender.

There is a report of Watson being seen having lunch with Nabokov in New York after the War.

Queer British Art at the Tate and Queer Saint

The new show opening at Tate Britain to mark 50 years since the relaxation of the laws relating to homosexuality folowing the Wolfenden Report inevitably brings to mind the great supporter of gay artists in the 1940s and 1950s, Peter Watson.

Watson only really started to focus on British art when he was forced to return to London from Paris in 1939. Then, trapped by the War in the UK for the duration, and needing to fill the arts pages of Horizon with something, he started to focus on local talent. Previously he had supported gay artists in Paris, like Pavel Tchelitchew and Christian Berard, but now he got to know and support in different ways Francis Bacon, John Craxton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert Macbryde, all gay, and also met ( although didn’t particularly support) John Minton and Keith Vaughan.

In those represssed days for the gay community, the ability for young gay artists to seek support from one of the richest and most generous young men in England was a godsend. Craxton, for example, got huge help from Watson, culminating in Geoffrey Grigson’s monograph on his work, all paid for by Watson, in 1948. The Roberts stayed with him in his flat in Palace Gate during the War when they came down from Scotland, until he paid their rent in a flat of their own. Bacon was to benefit from a piece in Horizon and later from his first ever retrospective at the ICA in 1955, facilitated by Watson. In addition, of course, Watson bought pictures by these artists.

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. The frontispiece which Freud contributed to James Pope-Hennessy’s “The Baths of Absolom” in 1954 also looks very much like a Caribbean subject.

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.