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Peter Gregory: Publisher, Patron and Promoter of Contemporary British Art

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To mark the anniversary of the death of Eric Craven Gregory (6 October 1887 – 9 February 1959), Lund Humphries’ joint Managing Director (from 1930) and Chairman (from 1945) who was always known as ‘Peter’ Gregory, author Valerie Holman reflects on the significant achievements of this important patron of the arts, under whose guidance Lund Humphries became one of the most accomplished printers and publishers of illustrated art and design books.
Valerie Holman is co-author of The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam (Lund Humphries 2012), and wrote a short history of Lund Humphries for our 75th anniversary. She is currently researching a book on Peter Gregory. 

 

  

PETER GREGORY: PUBLISHER, PATRON AND PROMOTER OF CONTEMPORARY BRITISH ART

 

In July 2020, current Lund Humphries Managing Director Lucy Myers wrote a blogpost about ‘the book that created Henry Moore’ and which provided a template for subsequent monographs on contemporary British artists: Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings (LH 1944). At that time, according to the Sunday Times art critic, it was highly unusual to devote such a substantial, luxurious and exhaustive publication to the work of a living artist, but to Peter Gregory, joint Managing Director of Lund Humphries from 1930 and Chairman from 1945 until his death in 1959, support for creative artists was both the mark of a civilised society and the responsibility of industrialists such as himself. From 1943 onwards, Gregory was as active in promoting new cultural initiatives as he was in publishing a new type of art book for, as his friend Herbert Read observed, he was ‘a businessman by profession, but an arts patron by inclination’.[1] In the immediate post-war period, there were significant points of intersection between his life as a publisher of art books and his efforts to support and promote young artists, notably through his work for the Contemporary Art Society and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.[2] By then, he had already held office in one of the first and most effective organisations to acquire contemporary art for the nation.

  
Roland Penrose, Henry Moore and Peter Gregory at a Cafe in St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy, 1948. Photograph by Lee Miller.
Image courtesy of www.leemiller.co.uk © Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

 

 

The War Artists Advisory Committee

In 1940 the National Gallery evacuated its collections for safe-keeping while the Director, Kenneth Clark, in a barely disguised attempt to protect artists as well as art, initiated and chaired the War Artists Advisory Committee that appointed artists to different branches of the armed services and, by the end of the War, had acquired through commission and purchase more than 6,000 works by more than 400 artists, 37 of them salaried.[3] The empty galleries were used to show ‘War Pictures by British Artists’, a series of exhibitions that introduced culture-starved visitors not only to the recent work of mature artists such as Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Henry Moore, but also to many younger painters for whom this was their first public exposure.

 

In 1943, the British Government began planning for the post-war period and reconstruction, a new orientation marked by Rebuilding Britain, an exhibition held in the National Gallery with an accompanying book published for the RIBA by Lund Humphries. That year, the official remit of the WAAC changed from propaganda to recording the War, and its operations moved from the Ministry of Information to the National Gallery, where Peter Gregory, then doing War work in the MoI’s Censorship Division, was appointed Committee Secretary. In that capacity, he dealt with artists as well as Minutes, and was asked to negotiate a change of contract with Paul Nash. The Committee was offering to accept a large painting proposed by the artist together with one watercolour instead of the four drawings for which he had already been commissioned, and Gregory was to discuss the painting’s progress with Nash. Lund Humphries would go on to publish the first monograph on Nash in 1948, two years after the artist’s death.

 

The WAAC fulfilled Clark’s aim of keeping artists alive and supporting their work, but it was also significant for the future of official patronage and widening access to recent painting and drawing, however restricted the subject-matter. According to Clark’s biographer, ‘he was pleased that the gulf between artists and the public had been bridged’, an over-optimistic and self-justifying assessment, perhaps, but one that reveals what Clark had hoped the WAAC would achieve.[4]

 

 



Title-page spread from Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, edited by Margot Eates, with essays by Herbert, Read, John Rothenstein, E.H. Ramsden and Philip James. Published by Lund Humphries in 1948.

 

 

The Contemporary Art Society

Vacant space in the National Gallery was also used by the Tate whose Director, John Rothenstein, pointed out that as war had severed cultural contact with continental Europe, ‘The obvious and most rewarding policy was to concentrate on modern British painting’.[5] Even so, it was an uphill task to arouse interest in recent work unconnected to the War, and it had been to address a similar situation that the Contemporary Art Society had been founded in 1910, a time when no museum in England possessed a painting by Sickert or a French Impressionist. The membership consisted of private collectors who were not necessarily wealthy, and who paid one guinea a year towards the Society’s purchase of contemporary art for distribution to public collections in the UK and the British Empire. 

 

Peter Gregory joined the CAS in 1946, when the Society was becoming much more active and membership had markedly increased. In his memoir, John Rothenstein recalls the complete absence of interest in contemporary art at that time, exemplified by the fate of Figure Study II by Francis Bacon. ‘Nothing more clearly indicates the long-persisting caution of Bacon’s admirers than the fact that this painting, one of his finest, was bought by the Contemporary Art Society from the Lefevre exhibition [February 1946], and was available as a gift, to almost any public collection, yet six years passed before it found a home – in the Bagshawe Art Gallery in Batley, Yorkshire, one of the obscurest in Britain.’[6] Yorkshire was, however, one of the few counties in England where modernism had been relatively well received since the early years of the twentieth century, in part thanks to the collector Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University and President of Leeds Art Club. From the time of Gregory’s early encounters with other Yorkshire collectors, notably Charles Rutherston (John Rothenstein’s uncle), who had introduced him to Moore in 1923, Gregory had bought from young artists he knew or had met through personal connection, such as Patrick Heron (with whose father he had been at school), Roland Pitchforth, and Raymond Coxon and his wife Edna Ginesi, also close friends of Henry Moore. Gregory’s collection of painting and sculpture was in a constant state of flux as he made purchases, gifts and loans, but over 150 works of art were recorded when it was itemised in 1950 and again in 1959. The lists show a good spread of continental modernists, mostly French, but what distinguished his collection was its large contingent of contemporary work by British artists who included not only established figures such as Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Ceri Richards, and Victor Pasmore, but also those of a younger generation, such as Antony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Scott, Sandra Blow and Gillian Ayres. Several would be early recipients of Gregory Fellowships, the scheme launched in Leeds in 1950 to support young artists, among them Terry Frost, Alan Davie, Reg Butler, Hubert Dalwood, and Kenneth Armitage.

 

Within a year of becoming a CAS member, in October 1947, Peter Gregory was elected to the Executive Committee on which he served until 1958, and where he took a personal interest in sculptors while his firm, Lund Humphries, published a series of books on the history of the CAS. From Sickert to 1948: the achievement of the Contemporary Art Society, (1948) included the revealing statement that ‘The Society exists in order to insinuate into public collections paintings by contemporary artists.’[7] This was followed by The Contemporary Art Society (1950) by its then chairman and generous benefactor, Edward Marsh, and in 1953 after his death, a tribute volume Eddie Marsh: sketches for a composite literary portrait of Sir Edward Marsh, KCVO, CB, CMB, edited by Christopher Hassall and Denis Mathews with a forward by Sir Winston Churchill.

 

In the late 1940s, Gregory was also a member of the CAS Exhibitions sub-committee charged with selecting 250 works for The Private Collector: an exhibition of pictures and sculpture, selected from the members of the CAS’s own collection to be shown at the Tate in 1950. For this, he was asked to choose from work by Robert Colquhoun, John Craxton, Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore and, in addition, he took personal responsibility for selecting thirty works of sculpture. The exhibition attracted 75,000 visitors, a total previously exceeded only by the perennially popular Van Gogh in an exhibition organised by the Arts Council in 1947/8. Colin Anderson’s introduction, ‘Contemporary Art Domesticated’, explained that the CAS channelled the instinct of an amateur to the public as a whole, implying that anyone could collect, and could appreciate contemporary art.

 

In 1951, when the Secretary of the CAS suddenly died, Kenneth Clark immediately proposed that, given his business experience and wide interests, Gregory replace him. The two had worked together at the WAAC a decade earlier, and Clark’s recommendation carried weight. Seventeen Collectors, a large exhibition of work from the private collection of members of the Executive Committee only, opened in 1952 and the catalogue contained a rare statement by Gregory about his taste and approach to collecting. ‘I find difficulty giving any clear-cut reason why I collect pictures and sculpture. I have no particular policy. I seem to form quite sudden emotional likings, and they enlarge and enrich my experience of life. But the final test is to live with a picture or a piece of sculpture and see if it stays the course.’ Gregory’s flat was crammed with books, painting and sculpture, an illustration of his further comment that ‘I like contemporary art, too, because I have a great desire to live among artists of today and their work.’ Seventeen Collectors showed fifty works from Gregory’s private collection, including books and reproductions (Ganymed prints) because ‘they do illustrate my conviction that business and art can be combined.’[8]

 

Gregory was a Member of the CAS from 1946 until his death in 1959, serving on its Executive Committee for eleven years (1947-58), becoming Honorary Secretary from 1951-55, buyer for the year 1953-54 and buyer for drawings in 1954-55. He acquired for the Society twenty works by artists that included Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, William Scott, and sculptors Eduardo Paolozzi and Reg Butler. [9] Over the years he became a more discerning collector, but above all he remained keenly aware of an artist’s financial circumstances: in 1954 he bought a portrait from the young Victor Willing – paying £25 on the spot ‘as he was hard up and needed the cash’ – a portrait given to the CAS.[10]

 

By 1960, nearly one hundred museums had benefited from the activities of the CAS, each paying ten guineas annually, and by 2011 the CAS had placed more than 8,000 works in public collections, but its growth had been gradual and in its early days it had progressed by stealth. Very different was a completely new and much more brash organisation of which Gregory was a founding member: The Institute of Contemporary Arts, launched at precisely the same time as he took on executive duties at the CAS and his firm, Lund Humphries, published its first monographs on Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson.

 


Alan Davie, edited by Alan Bowness. Published by Lund Humphries in 1967.

 

   

The Institute of Contemporary Arts

What began as Peggy Guggenheim’s pre-War idea for a British Art Centre in London along the lines of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after the War metamorphosed into a living arts centre rather than a building housing a permanent collection. Herbert Read had resigned his editorship of The Burlington Magazine in 1939 to become the new museum’s director, and although war intervened and the new Institute took a different form, he remained deeply involved with its direction. The Institute of Contemporary Arts focused on avant-garde art, temporary exhibitions and bringing together all the arts, introducing not only adventurous young artists but also curatorial innovations, art from other cultures, and exhibitions that brought out the relationships between art, science, and technology.[11]

 

The first meeting of this new body’s organising committee was held in January 1946 under the chairmanship of Peter Gregory whose fellow founders of the ICA were Herbert Read, E.L.T. Mesens (who had run the London Gallery), and the wealthy collectors Peter Watson and Roland Penrose. Where Penrose and Mesens were steeped in Surrealism, Gregory’s Yorkshire background and friendships meant that he had a greater natural affinity for sculptors and artists of a more constructive tendency. Officially he was Honorary Treasurer, but he also supported the ICA by frequent small donations that helped this new venture survive its early days of insecure funding and lack of permanent premises. For the ICA’s first, high-profile exhibition, Forty Years of Modern Art, which opened at the beginning of 1948, Gregory agreed to print the catalogue and only recover his costs from sales, thereby guaranteeing the Institute against a loss, and he was central to the financing and organisation of such celebrated exhibitions as Parallel of Life and Art in 1953. His firm also published many catalogues in association with the ICA, notably Picasso: drawings and watercolours since 1893 (1951), and Wonder and Horror of the Human Head (1953), an exhibition recently described as ‘a major precursor to the culturally hybrid works of pop art’.[12]

 

In May 1948 Gregory accompanied Henry Moore to Venice in preparation for the Biennale at which Moore won first prize for sculpture, and where they joined John Rothenstein on excursions to look at early Italian art. Also in Venice were Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Dorothy Morland (ICA Director from 1952-1968), now close friends as well as fellow champions of the contemporary. An inveterate and joyful traveller, Gregory visited Picasso in 1954, accompanied by Dorothy Morland who remembered Gregory as ‘generous to a fault, constantly buying works from impoverished artists.’[13] Peter Gregory died suddenly in 1959. After Herbert Read’s obituary for his old friend had been published in The Times, Read sent a further note to the paper, stressing key aspects of Gregory’s life and legacy, noting particularly that ‘the enterprise to which he devoted most time and enthusiasm was the ICA.’[14]

 

 

Conclusion

The years 1945-50 were among the busiest of Gregory’s life. He was honing his firm’s profile as a publisher of monographs on modern artists, while at the same time helping to plan exhibitions and buy works of art for the Contemporary Art Society, co-found the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and launch the Gregory Fellowships. After the danger and drabness of war, the desire for a fresh start combined with a hunger for culture was widespread, and more auspicious for the reception of contemporary art. A year without live events or access to galleries has resulted in a similar sense of cultural deprivation in 2021, but it has also prompted an extraordinary flowering of individual creativity and openness to visual art. In a pleasing echo of the enthusiasms that 70 years ago motivated Peter Gregory to devote so much of his energy and income to supporting new art and young artists, this spring Lund Humphries will launch an innovative series entitled New Directions in Contemporary Art.

 

 

 

- Valerie Holman, 4th February 2021

 

With thanks to the Lee Miller Archives for supplying the photograph of Roland Penrose, Henry Moore and Peter Gregory at a Cafe in St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy, 1948. Photograph by Lee Miller.
Find out more about the archives and how to support their work: https://www.patreon.com/leemillerarchives 

 

 

[1] Herbert Read, introduction to The Gregory Fellows, ACGB, 1964, n.p.

[2] See Tate Gallery Archives for papers of the Contemporary Art Society and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

[3] For an overview of the WAAC, see Brian Foss, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939-1945, New Have and London: Yale University Press.

[4] James Stourton, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, William Collins, 2017 (2016), p.201.

[5] Tate annual report for 1949, p.5

[6] John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters (vol 3), Macdonald, 1974, p. 163.

[7] CAS, From Sickert to 1948: the achievement of the Contemporary Art Society, p. 19.

[8] E.C. Gregory in Seventeen Collectors: an exhibition of paintings and sculpture from the private collections of members of the Executive Committee of the CAS, Tate Gallery, 21.3.- 27.4.1952.

[9] Email listing artworks Gregory bought for the CAS when he was a buyer in 1953, Tanya Adams to the author, 9 January 2020. I should particularly like to thank Tanya for her generous help in researching this section.

[10] Tate Archives, 9215.2.5.9. Denis Mathews correspondence. Peter Gregory to Denis Mathews, 15 January 1954.

[11] For an overview of the ICA, see Anne Massey, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1946-1968, ICA, 2014.

[12] Patricia Allmer, ‘Kaleidoscopic Narratives’ in Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, LH, 2018, p. 119.

[13] Anne Massey, Dorothy Morland: Making ICA HIstory, Liverpool University Press, 2020, p. 35.

[14] University of Leeds Archives, Herbert Read’s additional note sent to The Times in 1959.

 

 

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