Female Art Dealers in Mid-20th-Century Britain

Abi Shapiro, The Hepworth Wakefield, abishapiro@hepworthwakefield.org

Sarah Victoria Turner, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, svturner@paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk

Female* art dealers were integral in expanding horizons of modern art in mid-20th-century Britain, yet the significance of their work remains marginalised in art histories. Erica Brausen, Lillian Browse, Peggy Guggenheim, Lea Bondi Jaray, Annely Juda, Helen Lessore, Halima Nalecz, Peter Norton, Ala Story and Lucy Wertheim (among others) promoted emerging and established British and international artists. Their activities created avant-garde networks that became sites of cultural exchange across geographical and disciplinary borders. Providing not only crucial financial infrastructures for new art markets, they also gave social and emotional support to artists. Collectively, the papers in this session ask, what happens if, rather than being known for their supporting roles as facilitators, these women are recast as active agents in art-historical discourses? How can modernist narratives account for them and their commercial ventures? Can we configure collective and collaborative histories where these women – many of whom were queer and/or Jewish émigrés refugees – are recognised for their role in modern art in Britain?

 (*including those who identified with unconventional definitions of gender and sex).

Speakers & Abstracts

A Life in Art: Revealing the impact and methods of Lucy Wertheim, patron, collector and art dealer
Karen Taylor
(Towner Eastbourne)

The mid-20th-century art dealer, gallerist and patron Lucy Wertheim significantly enhanced the Towner Collection through her bequest of 50 works in 1971. Her legacy is being intensively researched within the context of the Towner Gallery, other regional and national collections and international galleries for a major exhibition in 2022. This paper, delivered from a curator’s perspective, will illustrate how a woman (with no formal art training) forged a path into the then male-dominated art scene. Wertheim opened her London gallery in 1930 and initiated the Twenties Group, an exhibiting collective for artists in their twenties based on her conviction that young British artists deserved the same opportunities as their European counterparts.

I will explore how she cultivated relationships with art institutions, understanding the need for ‘her’ artists to be represented in public galleries, and how she vigorously pursued dialogues with curators to secure touring venues for her Twenties Group artists and those in her collection; Wertheim also gifted works to regional, national and international galleries to cement her artists into public collections.

Through her extensive archive of letters, I will demonstrate how she nurtured her relationships with her artists, through her patronage and dedication to them. The archive also reveals the collective vulnerability of the artists, as many of them were under-represented in the art scene, whether this be because of their age, gender, sexuality or social standing. Wertheim did not discriminate; she sought to be an advocate of their art, regardless of the injustices they faced.

Modern Gallerists: Women and the retail of craft in interwar London

Helen Ritchie (The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge)

A number of progressive and pioneering women established successful and influential yet short-lived galleries in interwar London, including Dorothy Hutton’s Three Shields Gallery, Muriel Rose and Peggy Turnbull’s The Little Gallery, Ethel Mairet’s The New Handworkers’ Gallery, Elspeth Little’s Modern Textiles and Cecilia Dunbar-Kilburn’s Dunbar Hay Ltd. Many of these women had trained originally as artists but went on to create new, professional retail spaces for craft practitioners, selling handmade objects including ceramics and textiles by female artists such as Enid Marx and Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie.

These gallerists actively sought out new work, created a market for it, and carefully curated their spaces, acting as tastemakers and as conduits between the artist and the public. This complex and mutually supportive network of female artists and gallerists enabled its participants to live and work independently in new and non-traditional ways, often outside of the heteronormative sphere.

However, the domestic mode of display employed by many of these galleries, showing artist-made objects in a context in which they might be used and enjoyed as part of a modern lifestyle, was distinct from that of other ‘high end’ London galleries, usually run by men, which displayed work by the same artists but presented in different ways. This paper will examine the tensions between these different modes of display and their reception in contemporary press and publications, and evidence the far-reaching and long-term influence of these women gallerists on the presentation of craft in Britain.

Re-Evaluating the Duchess of Cork Street: Lillian Browse

Helena Cuss (Kingston University and Ben Uri Research Unit)

In 1931, Lillian Browse began unpaid employment at Leger Gallery on Bond Street with neither art-historical training nor advantageous personal contacts, but a nascent love of contemporary painting. From this unlikely start, she came to occupy a leading position in the British art establishment in the mid-20th century, negotiating the male-dominated networks of museum directors, private collectors, artists and commercial dealers in both Paris and London with a mixture of determination, courage and charm. Best known as a founding partner of Roland, Browse and Delbanco (1945–77), this role earned her the forbidding nickname, ‘the Duchess of Cork Street’.

Drawing on new archival research, this paper will reposition Browse, not just as one third of Roland, Browse and Delbanco, but as an authoritative director who created opportunities for both her émigré art dealer partners and emerging artists, which made the dealership and its success possible. It will consider her career as an art historian, exhibitions organiser and supporter of living artists, and critically evaluate her largely overlooked contribution to British art-historical discourses, notably through her scholarship on William Nicholson and Walter Sickert. Finally, it will analyse how, over a 50-year career, Browse created her aloof ‘Duchess’ persona as a tactical strategy to mediate and overcome the prejudicially gendered mores of mid-century British society, and the art world in particular.

The Hanover Gallery and Queer Representation in Post-War London

Cherith Summers (University of St Andrews, Scotland)

Opened in 1948, Erica Brausen’s Hanover Gallery was at the forefront of the post-war British art scene for a quarter of a century. During its active years, the gallery introduced a host of artistic greats to Britain and to the world, shifting the course of art history in doing so.

Brausen was a quintessential outsider to the British art world: a German émigré, and a queer woman. In this paper, I argue that her Hanover Gallery had a significant impact on the representation of queer artists in London and became an important site for gallery visitors to see imagery that participated in homoerotic discourse.

Using theoretic and iconographic visual analysis, this paper identifies artworks with homoerotic imagery and subtext, and illustrates how these works and their artists found a welcome home in the Hanover Gallery stable. It also focuses particularly on the gallery’s interactions with queer female artists.

For the majority of the queer artists who exhibited at the Hanover Gallery, worldwide success was not a result; but the result was that many queer artists were able to sustain some form of a career and have some form of recognition in an era which was hostile to their sexuality and to homoerotic imagery. For many queer gallery-goers, patrons and queer people in the years since, the work produced by these artists serves to recognise and represent. In this paper, I highlight this vital result of Brausen’s pioneering taste.

Lea Bondi Jaray in the Mirror of Mary Swanzy

Cai Lyons
(University of Birmingham)

The Dublin-born artist Mary Swanzy (1882–1978) exhibited at St George’s Gallery in 1946 and a few months later, in 1947, had her own solo show. Throughout the 1940s, the gallery was managed by Lea Bondi Jaray (1880–1969). The catalogues of these two exhibitions, and the works exhibited, are unknown. The interactions between these two women are also unknown. Yet a connection, an overlap previously invisible, exists.

This paper is a series of questions, utilising a critical framework of speculation and imagination, to open space in the margins for new (re)tellings and (re)contextualisations. I ask, ‘how might’, ‘how can’, and ‘what if’?

How might this connection – this overlap – change or impact our understanding of either career? Does it, or can it, offer anything new, or the potential for new, histories? Can knowledge of Swanzy’s practices, her exhibition history, and the importance of women to both, offer different perspectives and depths to the career of Bondi Jaray? What happens if, rather than being known for their supporting roles as facilitators, these women are recast as active agents in art-historical discourses?

I explore the (micro) cultural legacies and exchanges between galleries, art dealers and artists, contemplating the nature of these exchanges and reciprocal impact. I offer a different mode of knowledge production, one that is speculative and refracts the messy, unknown qualities of lived realities and experiences. In this sense, the paper reflects on reflection: Bondi Jaray in the mirror of Swanzy.

Ruth Borchard as Collector and Commissioner of Modern British Self-Portraits

Philip Vann (Ruth Borchard Collection)

Born near Hamburg in 1910, the writer Ruth Borchard came as a German-Jewish refugee to Britain in 1938. As ‘an enemy alien’ in wartime, she was imprisoned first in Holloway Prison, then interned on the Isle of Man in 1940. In 1958, she refashioned a pre-war German diary to note names of British-based artists she intended to contact to create a collection of modern self-portraits. Between then and 1971, she collected 100 such works (setting a limit of 21 guineas for each picture) – from well-known artists such as Michael Ayrton, Anne Redpath and Keith Vaughan; emerging avant-garde painters of note such as William Crozier and Francis Newton Souza; followers of David Bomberg, such as Dennis Creffield, Mario Dubsky and Dorothy Mead; and promising young artists early on in their career such as Anthony Green, David Tindle and Anthony Whishaw. She also collected works by talented artists not well known in their lifetimes, such as Kenneth Brazier and Nathaniel Davies, but whose work has recently attracted critical interest.

She described this search for self-portraits as ‘dowsing for talent’, visiting many leading contemporary London galleries, both established and avant-garde, and the annual Young Contemporaries exhibitions – deliberately refraining from reading exhibition reviews – in her quest to find works showing a solid body of craftsmanship and singular honesty as well as expressing an emotive quality, the essential ‘cri de coeur’. She took great pleasure in the fact that she herself commissioned a good number of these self-portraits.

Modernist Innovator: Peggy Guggenheim and Guggenheim Jeune, London 1938–39

Simon Grant (Editor Tate Etc. Magazine, co-editor Picpus and independent curator)

This paper will explore the importance of Peggy Guggenheim’s contribution to the modernist art discourse as seen through her ground-breaking exhibition programme at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery, London 1938–39, and will look at the influence that these exhibitions had on shaping the British and international art scene. It will examine how she became a key instigator for cultural exchange, and how she created networks of knowledge by collaborating with several important figures in 20th century art-historical narrative, most notably Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Roland Penrose and Hans Arp. It will investigate her position as risk-taker and innovator, and in particular examine the extent to which Guggenheim was an unparalleled supporter of women artists of the time, and gave many their first London exhibition including Rita Kernn-Larsen, Grace Pailthorpe (with Reuben Mednikoff) and Marie Vassilieff, as well as providing a sizeable number of internationally renowned artists with their first UK presentation.

Alannah Coleman: Curating international post-war art in London

Simon Pierse
(Aberystwyth University)

Alannah Coleman is a neglected figure, an Australian-born gallerist, art dealer and curator whose life’s work broadened the horizons of modern art in mid-20th century Britain. At various stages in her career, Coleman turned down top jobs at Drian Galleries and Victor Musgrave’s avant-garde Gallery One, choosing instead to work as an autonomous art dealer and curator. She involved herself in a number of avant-garde networks that became sites of cultural exchange and helped to shape progressive modern art in London. These included the New Vision Centre and Signals London, a gallery supporting experimental kinetic art by artists from around the globe.

This paper will explore the important contribution that Alannah Coleman made to post-war art in Britain, focusing on her directorship of Heal’s Mansard Gallery in Tottenham Court Road (1963–64), when she curated Cosmopolis: Artists of the School of London for the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Cosmopolis was a group show aimed at giving an overview of the many commonwealth and international artists living and working in the capital. The show was made up of 75 abstract and semi-abstract works loaned by London’s leading avant-garde galleries with whom Alannah had formed an alliance: the Drian Galleries, Grabowski Gallery, Grosvenor Gallery, Hamilton Galleries and New Vision Centre Gallery. Cosmopolis included Black and Asian artists, offering an alternative modernist narrative, shining curatorial light on the multi-layered early-1960s London art scene and the ethnic diversity of the many art practitioners living and working in the capital.






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