Fifty years old and still committed to new art

The New Art Centre is now 50 years old, an extraordinary milestone for a commercial art gallery, let alone one still in the same pair of hands, those of Madeleine Bessborough.

The story of the New Art Centre has been one of relative rags to relative riches. In 1958, the 23-year old Madeleine Grand, and her co-founder Caryl Whineray, opened their gallery in Sloane Street in London on a shoestring budget. It was a rare new arrival on the art scene and far from the Cork Street epicentre. A sense of public mission drove Madeleine Bessborough’s commitment to young, unknown artists and to encouraging new patrons for art.

“When I was young nobody was helping ‘new’ art,” she says. “If you were a student coming out of art college life was very difficult.” Her first letter to collectors in 1959 ran: “We believe that we are fulfiling a need

in England today and I do so hope you will make use of us.” Work was priced affordably

at £5-£50. “In our first month we sold over 75 works,” the gallery boasted. The secret of her success? “She inspires confidence,” says Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. “She has good taste and a conviction about the artist. She

has enthusiasms but she listens to your view.

It’s effective.”

With little more than a youthful enthusiasm for art, she approached some of the movers and shakers of the art establishment, several of whom became her trustees: Robin Darwin, head of the Royal College of Art, John Rothenstein, one-time director of the Tate, Kenneth Clark, former director of the National Gallery, Colin Anderson, William Coldstream, head of the Slade School of Art, and the architect Albert Richardson. “Only Bill Coldstream thought it a bad idea,” she recalls. “He said it was ‘perfectly unnecessary’. The Slade students were ‘quite alright’. Later he became a supporter and sent students to the gallery all the time.”

By the late 1960s, Sir Nicholas Serota remembers, “It had a very distinctive profile, a middle and slightly older generation. There was a strong aesthetic at work, not cutting edge, but of artists who have a distinctive voice.” Critical attention was drawn less by youthful precocity than by the Expressionist shocks of American painter Edward Giobbi with The Death of Kennedy, and by a trail-blazing presentation of St Ives artists, from the naive to the highly sophisticated, including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter.

In 1993 Madeleine Bessborough took a risk in shifting the enterprise to the middle of the Wiltshire countryside, to Roche Court, which had been hers and her husband’s weekend home since 1978. Since the move “our turnover has multiplied by six”, she says.

Further credibility came in 1997 when she was given the Hepworth Estate to represent. Richard Long, Bill Woodrow, Antony Gormley and Richard Deacon have all shown at Roche Court.

In 2004 she gained space by adding a glass-fronted gallery designed by Stephen Marshall which won the RIBA Stephen Lawrence award for the best small building in Britain. Marshall also designed an Artists’ House, inspired by Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge

The New Art Centre at Roche Court retains its title, but does it fulfil its promise of newness? “The ethos of Roche,” Madeleine Bessborough says, “is to be a place where you can see work of the last 50 years in the context of what is being done today. So we have a new Gary Hume sculpture in the park. We have Georgie Hopton, Laura Ford, Peter Randall-Page carvings and pieces by Eva Rothschild, Kenneth Armitage and Hubert Dalwood. Fifty or 60 works are always on display. It’s important to pass on knowledge of our cultural history to the next generation.”

Judith Bumpus

o “New Generation Revisited: British sculpture from the Sixties and Seventies” at Roche Court, Wiltshire (10 May-7 September) launches the New Art Centre’s half-century celebration

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