Archive
Tate

The Tate Gallery: What The Queen, Mark Rothko, Peggy Guggenheim and Barbara Hepworth all said.

In Britain, official papers are revealed after thirty years. The Art Newspaper was ready and waiting to see what was—and what might have been

The Tate Gallery’s archives are secret for thirty years, like government records. But with access to the newly released records of 1966, The Art Newspaper is able to provide an unusual behind-the-scenes glimpse of what goes on in the boardroom. It was a year when perennial issues dominated the agenda: the need to wheedle more money out of the government; decisions on acquisitions; the delicate task of wooing patrons and the debate over whether the Tate should provide a forum for the newest of the new.

First, a word about the cast of characters. Chairman of the Tate trustees in 1966 was Sir Colin Anderson, a wealthy banker and shipping magnate. Five of the other nine trustees were artists: Dame Barbara Hepworth, Victor Pasmore, Adrian Stokes Andrew Forge and Sir Roland Penrose. Director of the Tate was Norman Reid, who served until 1979, when he was succeeded by Alan Bowness, Hepworth’s son-in-law (Hepworth herself died in a fire in 1975). In 1966, Reid’s small curatorial team included Lawrence Gowing and Ronald Alley, as well as two junior staff who are still at the Tate, Richard Morphet (now Keeper of the Modern Collection) and Leslie Parris (now Deputy Keeper of the British Collection).

Here then are some of the more colourful moments from the meetings of the Trustees:

Bacon asks to paint a picture

Francis Bacon complained that his dealer had hurried him along and one of the pictures bought by the Tatewas not quite finished. On 22 September 1966, Tatedirector Reid told trustees that the artist wanted to paint a green carpet on the floor in his “Study for portrait on folding bed”, which had been acquired three years earlier. Bacon explained that it had “always been his intention to do this but he had to release the picture before it was entirely finished for his exhibition at the Marlbourgh New London Gallery”.

The Tate trustees agreed, deciding that “they would be glad to meet his wishes if this could be done without endangering the picture”. Surprisingly, it seems that Bacon never followed up his request. The bed still rests on a plain floor in the painting, with just a hint of a rough green line to indicate where the carpet would have been placed. The Tate receives a surprising number of requests by artists to make changes to their pictures in the collection; these are now almost invariably refused, and Bacon may not have appreciated how fortunate he had been in obtaining the gallery’s agreement.

Whether to buy Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!”

Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings provoked a discussion on the merits of modern art. In 1966 the Pop Art masterpiece had been offered by the Galerie Sonnabend in Paris for £4,665, with the Tate initially offering £3,500 and ultimately buying it for £3,940. “Whaam!” , painted three years earlier, was a powerful example of American Pop Art and caused a considerable stir when it was hung at the Tate. Consideration was also given to holding a Lichtenstein retrospective (which ultimately went ahead in 1968).

Tate trustee Andrew Forge, an artist, writer and head of the Department of Fine Arts at Goldsmith’s College, was unenthusiastic about the arrival of “Whaam!”. On 15 December 1966 he warned his fellow trustees; “it might be wrong for the Tate to allow itself to become a platform for the newest of the new. He was not sure that it would be right to show the Lichtenstein exhibition and he was sorry that the gallery was to accommodate the Young Contemporaries exhibition. The Tate was a museum with a responsibility to preserve values which had been established through the years”.

The minutes then record strong opposition: “Other trustees expressed a different view and it was pointed out that exhibitions of controversial art in the context of a museum were often an invaluable test of its standing. If avant-garde exhibitions were to be consigned automatically to specialised and outlying galleries, the effect would merely be to perpetuate a separation which many regarded as undesirable and to deprive a modern museum of a source of vitality and information which was in many corresponding centres abroad regarded as indispensable”.

How the Tate might have got Peggy Guggenheim’s collection

Peggy Guggenheim’s masterpieces were originally to have ended up in London, not Venice. In 1965 she had exhibited 187 of her finest twentieth-century works at the Tate and after this she decided to bequeath her collection. Although there were rumours that the Tatewas wooing the former wife of Max Ernst, this was strenuously denied by Reid. However, the minutes of the trustees reveal that Peggy Guggenheim had gone as far as writing a will so that her pictures would go to London.

On 20 January 1966 the Tate director reported that Peggy Guggenheim, then sixty-seven “had informed him that she had made a new will in favour of the Contemporary Art Society”. He added “Mrs Guggenheim had asked that an exchange of letters with the Contemporary Art Society should definitely establish that the collection would be immediately handed over to the Tate on her death. A month later Reid confirmed that the Contemporary Art Society “had sent a letter giving the required assurance about her collection to Mrs Guggenheim, and she had expressed her complete satisfaction with it”.

After this, things must have turned sour. Peggy Guggenheim wanted considerable space reserved for her collection; tensions between her and Reid developed, and tax problems made a bequest to a British institution unattractive. In 1969 it was announced that she was to leave the collection to the Palazzo Venier del Leoni, her residence in Venice, and that the building and collection were to be run by the New York-based Guggenheim Museum. Italy had won the battle for what was arguably the greatest private collection of early twentieth-century modernist art in Europe.

Barbara Hepworth gives advice on bargaining

Barbara Hepworth, the Tate’s first female artist-trustee, suggested that the gallery should negotiate better terms for acquisitions. She told her fellow trustees that although the Tate normally received a ten per cent reduction on what private buyers were charged, it should do better. The minutes explain that public collections ought to get a higher discount: “She herself was often asked for twenty per cent and experience showed that strenuous efforts sometimes resulted in larger reductions”.

Although details of the subsequent discussion are unrecorded, some trustees clearly felt that artists should not suffer unduly from selling to the Tate. A woolly compromise was ultimately agreed: “in bargaining, the gallery should attempt to observe the principle of justice to the artist and the interests of the collection”.

The royal prerogative

The Queen wished to use the front hall of the Tate for a reception on 17 November 1966 for a visiting president, Ayub Khan of Pakistan. At their meeting of 22 September, the trustees expressed concern that this would inconvenience gallery goers, but decided that they “had no alternative” but to agree. At their following meeting on 20 October Tate chairman Sir Colin Anderson reported that he had asked if the Queen “would care to spend a little time looking at pictures”, but was told this was “out of the question on a State occasion”. The Tate’s role was to be “simply as a convenient stopping place” and the Queen would arrive only “seven and a half minutes before the president”. Anderson said that any trustees who wished to be presented to the Queen would have to wear a morning suit, although they were under “no obligation” to attend.

Mark Rothko’s tempting offer

The Tate director visited Mark Rothko in America and on his return he reported to the trustees that the artist was “thinking of offering the gallery between thirty-two and thirty-five pictures”. The minutes of 21 April 1966 then record: “Mr Rothko asked how much space the Tate would give him; the director answered that the gallery would never formally bind itself to exhibit in perpetuity the whole of a gift, however, distinguished the painter”. Reid then suggested that the prospect of the Rothko gift should be “used as a lever” to try to secure more money from the government for the proposed building extension. In the meantime, “it would be necessary to undertake to show at least eight to ten works, in a space set aside for them”.

No extension was built in the 1960s, and in 1969 Rothko decided to present just nine pictures, not the anticipated thirty-two to thirty-five. In 1970, on the very day that the pictures arrived at the gallery, news came of the artist’s suicide.

Copley masterpiece damaged in Washington

Copley’s “The death of Major Peirson” was lent to an exhibition in America in 1965-66 and on its return it was found to be seriously damaged. According to the 19 May 1966 minutes of the Tate’s Picture Cleaning Committee, the Copley “had been removed from its frame without authority, probably in Washington” at the National Gallery of Art. The Committee was informed that “the canvas had been torn away from the relining canvas at the edge of the picture and a portion of the original paint was missing”. As a result of the incident, new procedures were agreed. Screws securing the back-board of a painting were to be sealed to prevent unauthorised removal. Clearly Tate conservators did not bear any long-standing resentment against the National Gallery of Art. Last winter the very same picture was lent to Washington again for its “Copley in England” exhibition.

A pair of Hockneys get rejected: price £60

In 1966 two pictures by David Hockney were offered to the Tate for £60 each “O for a gentle Lover” and “UN FMM”. Both were turned down. Although reasons were not given, it may have been that their homoerotic overtones were deemed too risqué for the time. The pair of Hockneys was put up for sale by a rather unlikely source, P&O Steam Navigation Co Ltd. Tatechairman Sir Colin Anderson was a director of P&O, which presumably explains why the gallery was offered the chance to acquire works by the up-and-coming artist. The twenty-eight a-old had left for Los Angeles two years earlier.

The Tate nearly grows a carbuncle

The Tate had plans to build a modern extension, right in front of its 1897 portico on Millbank. Not surprisingly, the new scheme by architect Llewellyn Lord Davies angered those who did not want to see the destruction of the original façade. Behind the scenes, the Tatelobbied hard, trying to win over its opponents. The poet, John Betjeman,was the first target. On 24 July 1966 the Tate director, Reid, reported back on a conversation explaining that, “Betjeman had said that he regretted the departure of the old façade” and hoped that the building would retain its “traditional style”. Another target of the Tate’s lobbying was architectural historian Sir John Summerson, who happened to be the brother-in-law of Tate trustee Barbara Hepworth. In this instance Ben Nicholson, Hepworth’s former husband, undertook to try to convince Summerson that the new extension should be erected in front of the portico. Consent was eventually granted and the Tate chairman then warned trustees that if work did not begin quickly, the conservationists might eventually get their way. On 17 November 1966 he explained that “the likelihood of any future generation of trustees being allowed to build at the front...would become progressively less as the portico became more and more of an ancient monument”. His advice was accepted unanimously. Fortunately, the project never went ahead and in 1971 an extension was built on the other side, in the north-east corner (the later 1987 Clore extension on Millbank does not obscure the portico).

Naum Gabo not to be trusted

One of the nylon threads of Naum Gabo’s 1942: “Linear construction No.1” broke and replacement thread of the correct gauge was unavailable in Britain. The sculptor was approached and he offered to take the work to America for repair. The trustees were consulted for permission and Sir Herbert Read claimed that Gabo “had undertaken in the past to repair a number of works and he understood that some of them had still not been returned”. It was therefore decided to ask Gabo to provide the thread to the Tate, which would do the necessary repair.

Sir Herbert Read’s comment may have been unfair. The following year Gabo generously presented the Tate with one of his 1920 works, “Kinetic sculpture (standing wave)”.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 66 January 1997