Sixty for ’51, part 3 #60for51

3rd December 2013

I have started a quest to find all of the 54 paintings and 12 sculptures included in the Festival of Britain Sixty Paintings for ’51 (see previous posts here and here). My second blog post about this discussed four paintings that were purchased by The Arts Council, which organised the show, and later donated to regional galleries. There was also a fifth, William Gear’s Autumn Landscape (1951) which I have found is in the collection of the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle which acquired it as a gift in 1952 (detail above, with the full painting across the jump). I got to it via another, closely related painting by William Gear, also called Autumn Landscape, which is in the collection of National Galleries Scotland. The description of this work gives an inkling of the story behind the one included in the exhibition:

This is one of several paintings Gear completed in the autumn of 1950. A similar but larger work also titled Autumn Landscape was painted for the Festival of Britain show Sixty Painters for ‘51 in 1951. Although awarded the Arts Council purchase prize, it was denounced by the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, who deemed it as a ‘scheming, self-conscious, anglicised, fifty-year old repetition of the École de Paris’.

William Gear, Autumn Landscape (1951); Laing Art Gallery, © David Gear

This is the William Gear painting from Sixty Paintings for ’51, as featured on the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation Your Paintings website. (The site is an invaluable resource, although I have never quite understood the reason why the BBC was and is a major partner on the project.) The full story of its inclusion in the exhibition is told by Anne Massey in her richly interesting The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59, published in 1995 by Manchester University Press. (Much of her extensive discussion can be found here via Google Books.)

Anne Massey explains that five prize-winning paintings were purchased from the show at a cost of £500 each. Four of the choices attracted little comment, but in 19 April 1951 the Daily Mail (plus ca change…) reproduced Autumn Landscape on its front page and asked ‘What price Autumn on Canvas?’ The paper was outraged that public funds had been spent on such a work, as was the Daily Telegraph in a similar piece. After which there was a lengthy exchange of letters in Telegraph which apparently stretched across two months.

Recognising the pre-war associations of radical art with radical politics, William Gear responded to the critics and said that people should not be afraid of being labelled ‘Bolshie’ (that is, left-wing) if they liked the work. Such was the furore that the Liberal MP for Eye, Edgar Glanville put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, about the purchase. In response, Gaitskell said that the five pictures collectively ‘are widely representative in style and cover various aspects of contemporary British painting.’

As Anne Massey explains,

From the letters of complaint it was the international, modern nature of the work which so many found objectionable. The exhibition attempted to integrate Festival of Britain policy with that of the Arts Council by promoting wholly British culture. None of the contributing artists had spent as much time abroad as Gear had done. Gear had returned to Britain only during 1950 after spending three years painting and exhibiting in Paris…

It was the foreign nature of Gear’s work which distinguished it from most of the other exhibits and which countered the consensus of Welfare State culture. The Festival of Britain presented a specific image of Britain, both to the indigenous population and to visitors from abroad. The ‘face of Britain’ in 1951 depended largely for its security on traditional values of the past to cope with the future… Appropriate styles in art and design were reworked from Britain’s past [and] this trend dominated British culture during the first ten years after the war.

Which goes some way to explain, along of course with the thoughtless philistinism of the Daily Mail, quite why William Gear’s Autumn Landscape could cause quite such a furore back in 1951.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *