Yesterday’s post introduced an exhibition organised by The Arts Council for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The show featured 54 paintings, together with a number of sculptures, requested from many of the prominent artists of the day. Each of the paintings, which it was stipulated had to be ‘large’ (that is, at least 45 x 60 inches), is illustrated (excepting only Francis Bacon’s contribution) in black and white in a slim catalogue, which otherwise has only a single page Foreword by Philip James of The Arts Council.
The collection was an intended snapshot of the visual arts at the key moment of post-war reconstruction, assembled as James wrote,’in the hope of handing down to posterity from our present age something tangible and of permanent value.’ So how has posterity so far treated this initiative? What has happened to each of the works and where can they be found now? That’s what I aim to find out over the coming months.
The destination of certain of the works ought to have been comparatively easy to discover. Philip James again: ‘five of these paintings have been bought by the Arts Council’. The selection of this quintet was made by Stedelijk Museum director Jonkheer Sandberg, Australian curator A.J.L. McDonell and Alan Clutton-Brock, art critic of The Times. Below are the five they chose, each of which one would imagine would remain in the Arts Council Collection (ACC) described on its website in this way:
The Arts Council Collection supports artists in this country through the purchase and display of their work. Since it was founded in 1946, the Collection’s acquisitions policy has always been characterised by a spirit of risk taking combined with an informed appraisal of current practice. As a consequence the Arts Council Collection is now the largest national loan collection of modern and contemporary British art in the world, and includes fine examples of work by all of this country’s most prominent artists.
• Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Interior near Paddington, oil on canvas, 60 x 45 inches. ACC has five Freud works, but the earliest is Girl in a Green Dress (1954), acquired in 1955.
• William Gear (1915-1997), Autumn Landscape, oil on canvas, 72 x 50 inches. This is not in ACC, although there is another Gear painting, Christmas Tree (1950), which was acquired in 1951.
• Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), Aquarian Nativity – Child of this Age, oil and wax on canvas, 83 x 223 inches. Again, this is not in ACC, which has just two earlier paintings by Hitchens.
• Robert Medley, (1906-1994), Bicyclists against a Blue Background, oil on canvas, 63 x 51 inches. There are ten works by Medley in ACC, but not this one, although there is the clearly closely related Summer Eclogue (1951), acquired in 1953.
• Claude Rogers, (1907-1979), Miss Lynn, oil on canvas, 42.5 x 69.75 inches. There are thirteen James’ works in ACC, although not this one.But there is a small pencil portrait of Philip James, executed and acquired in 1958.
So what happened to these five works that were supposedly purchased by The Arts Council? Were they acquired and later sold? This is the first of the small mysteries associated with these 54 works from ’51, although in fact it is quite easily solved.
Interior near Paddington (above), or Interior at Paddington as it now known, is the easiest of the works to track down. It is in the National Museums Liverpool collection at the Walker Art Gallery, the website of which includes an informative discussion of the work – and of how it ended up at the Walker.
[In 1951] The Arts Council of Great Britain invited a selected group of 60 artists to produce a painting each for inclusion in a projected national touring exhibition. Freud was one of those selected. During 1951 the pictures travelled throughout Britain. Typically the exhibition stayed in a location for about one month. The tour included Liverpool where, in September 1951, the pictures were shown at the Walker. Other places that the exhibition visited included Leicester, Bristol, Norwich, Plymouth, Leeds, Brighton, York, and Preston.
This painting was one of five pictures from the group of 60 that were selected for purchase by the Arts Council. £500 was paid for it. In November 1951 it was offered to the Walker as a gift along with a statue by Jacob Epstein that had been on show at the South Bank. The gift was intended to celebrate the reopening and refurbishing of the gallery in 1951 after 12 years of closure. Freud’s picture was accepted by the gallery but the statue was declined and another statue chosen in its place.
So what happened to the five purchased works is that they were gifted by The Arts Council to regional art galleries, and thanks to the excellent online resource Your Paintings created by The Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC, each of them can be located.
Ivon Hitchens’ Aquarian Nativity – Child of this Age (above) was acquired in this way by UCL Art Museum. Similarly, Robert Medley’s Bicyclists against a Blue Background (below) was gifted to York Museums Trust in 1952.
Then there is Miss Lynn by Claude Rogers (below), which was presented by The Arts Council to Southampton City Art Gallery in 1953.
In her 1993 book The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1949-1959 Anne Massey discusses the controversy prompted by the selection of one of the prize winners – or rather one of them, William Gear. The full story surrounding his painting will be the focus of the next blog post in this series, but here is Massey on the paintings above:
Four of the selections attracted little comment. Claude Rogers’s Miss Lynn was perhaps the least innovative of prize-winners. This safe, academic painting in the mould of Manet’s Olympia was painted when Rogers was on the staff of the Slade School of Art. Two other members of staff were also among the prize-winners. These were Robert Medley’s Bicyclists against a Blue Background and Lucian Freud’s Interior near Paddington. The gigantic Aquarian Nativity – Child of this Age was also a prize-winner, a precursor of later murals such as that executed for the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1954, which measured 21 by 6 metres.
Which leaves us with William Gear…