“Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson”

Peter Watson (1908-1956) was one of the most important cultural figures of the 1940’s and 1950’s. My biography of Watson, written in partnership with Jeremy Dronfield, was published by John Blake on April 2nd 2015. This covers the full range of Watson’ activities, particularly in London and Paris. It gives details of his relationships with many of the leading artists of his day, as well as exploring his sophisticated personality.

Watson supported Horizon as its financial backer and arts editor and helped to create the ICA, as well as encouraging  artists such as Freud and Craxton  with gifts and support of various types. He also supported poets such as David Gascoyne. He was a  friend of many people in the art world at various different stages of his life: Oliver Messel, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard, Elizabeth Bowen, Roland Penrose, Sonia Orwell, Anna Kavan, Pavel Tchelitchev, Giacometti, Douglas Cooper, Graham Sutherland and so on.

Privately his life involved a series of male lovers, often Americans (Waldemar Hansen, Denham Fouts and Norman Fowler being examples). Although generally extremely popular amongst those who knew him, he was lampooned for his flirtatious habits in the famous privately printed novel by Lord Berners, “The Girls of Radclyffe Hall”, where his character was represented by “Lizzie”. (He also doesn’t come across too well in Michael Nelson’s “A Room in Chelsea Square”) .

Whilst he gets frequent mentions in surveys of the cultural scene, there has been no book about him. (I published an article on Peter Watson, and another notable art benefactor of the period, Colin Anderson, in the British Art Journal Volume V, No 2 (Autumn 2004)).

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The Art Collection of Peter Watson (1908-1956)

PDF version of article originally published in The British Art Journal, Volume XVI, No 2 (Autumn 2015).

From early in the 1930s through to his death in 1956, Peter Watson collected, and occasionally sold, a wide variety of modern English and foreign art.

The contrasting fortunes of Watson's collections in Paris and in London, followed by the nature of their dispersal after his death, and the absence of any personal files, makes it difficult to recreate the extent of his collections in precise detail. This study begins the process of analysing Watson's significant art collection, both in London and in Paris before the War, the details of which have not previously been assembled.

Peter Watson and Horizon

On 1st February 2013 I gave a lecture at the Sotheby’s Institute in Bedford Square, under the auspices of the Burlington Magazine, about the art contributions to Horizon. This is a very brief synopsis. A transcript of my lecture is available on request.

Founded at the end of 1939, Horizon was funded by Watson. The initial editors were Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender and Watson produced most of the art contributions. Over the 120 issues that were produced until Connolly got too bored to carry on editing the journal at the end of 1949, the art contributions covered a wide range of material. During the War, when foreign writers were impossible to access, Watson relied on English commentators, such as Herbert Read, Robin Ironside, Geoffrey Grigson and so on. He also included pictures by his young artist friends, such as Freud, Craxton, Colquhoun and Macbryde. Spread across the 10 years there appeared articles about Francis Bacon, Louis le Brocquy, Eduardo Paolozzi and so on, as well as articles by British artists, such as pieces by Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and John Piper.

Once the War finished, more international writers became available, writing about many foreign artists, such as Wilfredo Lam, Matta, Lipchitz and Henri Laurens. Big names from the international art world contributed pieces: Clement Greenberg and Sidney Janis from America; Daniel Kahnweiler from Paris; Douglas Cooper from the South of France; and even the legendary Bernard Berenson from I Tatti.

From 1946 onwards Watson was heavily involved in the development of the ICA and he started to use his contacts to help various artists get exhibitions there. His involvement with the ICA gradually replaced his interest in Horizon.

Horizon stands as a substantive record of the extent of Watson’s connections across the international art world. The significance of these connections is slowly becoming apparent.