hen I founded the Turner Society in 1975 to campaign for a separate Turner Gallery in which to reunite the three divided parts of his bequest, Douglas Cooper complained at the end of the year “subscription forms are being sent out by some officious busybodies and sentimental pickthanks, Messrs H Moore and L Gowing en tête, who intend to raise money through a Turner Society to force the Gallery into existence.” Lawrence Gowing, at first the most active supporter, organising a test to demonstrate that the Tate’s climate control was no better than the one which the Tate criticised at Somerset House, was almost the first to peel away. When the new Tate extension (not for Turner!) opened in 1979, Gowing wrote a review of “The New Tate” fulsomely praising it and its Director, Sir Norman Reid, this forming the concluding essay in this collection.
Part of the trouble was, as Sarah Whitfield points out, that Gowing liked to be head of any organisation. He only became President of the Turner Society at the end of his life and in succession to Henry Moore and Sir Hugh Casson. By then it had become the docile stoolpigeon of the Tate. He was thwarted in his ambition to head the Royal Academy and Tate (Reid beating him to the succession to Sir John Rothenstein in the second case). His slightly tricky and autocratic reputation stood in his way more than his pronounced stammer. That he could be an efficient chief was demonstrated by the university departments which he headed.
At the start he was critical of the trivial nature of most of the content of the Turner Society’s newsletter, which did not even have much to say about the rationale of its campaign. For he was a serious thinker and in his majestic TV programme later emphasised the seriousness of Turner. I have included my comments on that programme in Brickbats and Bouquets for Turner.
Sarah Whitfield states that she has omitted everything that requires illustrations, but Gowing’s two reviews of the Bicentenary Turner exhibition at the Royal Academy of 1974-75 do not qualify for omission on that score, and provide a valuable refinement of Gowing’s seminal – and now controversial - introduction to the 1966 exhibition at New York, Turner: Imagination and Reality. Instead his writing on Turner is represented here by that introduction and by “Turner’s Pictures of Nothing,” a shorter piece on an exhibition of Turner watercolours at Washington in 1963.
Reid had appointed Gowing Keeper of the Tate’s Historic British Collection in 1965 and together they hung the Turners in what remained of the Duveen Turner wing in a more contemporary fashion, leading to further accusations of reading Turner in terms of the present rather than in those of his place in history. In his 1979 essay on “The New Tate” Gowing praised Reid’s merging of British and Modern so that “there is a Modern collection tout court”, thus anticipating the current approach under Sir Nicholas Serota. (The newly appointed Director of Tate Britain is another specialist in contemporary rather than historic British art). “The thesis of this impressive panorama is that nothing in modern art has happened in isolation.” Indeed contemporary art is international, even if one speaks of Britart. This thought has been used against the idea of a separate Turner Gallery and of Artist’s Museums in general, but no set-up can illustrate everything, and the general museum leads to large collections such as Turner’s being permanently partly submerged like the iceberg. They lead also to their own distortions and confusions, besides being exhausting as well as exhaustive and now overcrowded.
The 1966 Turner exhibition associated Turner with the American Abstract painters, which has been anathema to the conservative Turner curators ever since, making Gowing a particular bogeyman for them. However the exhibition has to be considered in its context – the Museum of Modern Art at New York – and most temporary exhibitions have a thesis which skews a just appreciation of an artist as a whole. Secondly, this collection of Gowing’s writings makes clear that in general he had no real liking for the Abstract painters.
“The Burial of Wilkie will hang no better with an Ad Reinhardt than with a Pissarro,” he wrote. Ad Reinhardt was a polemical Abstract painter, but one responsive to the past in West and East, as is, Gowing wrote in an essay on him, Sir Howard Hodgkin, an Abstract painter who disowns that categorisation. “If one tried to describe factually what his [Hodgkin’s] pictures were like, one would find … that one was evoking something that bore not the slightest resemblance to anything of his.” Like Sickert, Gowing declared, “we should not hang a painter about with words and explanations.” This leads Gowing in Hodgkin’s case only to metaphysics, which unsympathetic writers might dub “Pseuds Corner”. With other artists he remains more factually descriptive.
As a painter he was heavily influenced by Sir William Coldstream, whose painfully laborious approach to drawing was at the antipodes to the practice of Jack the Dripper or indeed of Tracy Emin. Gowing favoured a cogitated attitude, and that also informed the style of his critical writings, making them occasionally a trifle heavy. In the case of Corot he seemed undecided as to whether to dismiss him as humdrum or to praise his composure and restraint, qualities which he evidently sought for in his own work.
When I was cataloguing the paintings of Manchester City Art Gallery in the 1960s I naively wrote to Gowing asking if he could tell me the circumstances of his painting the portrait of a young woman in the collection and her identity. He did not reply. Years later when the Rothko scandal blew up, I suggested that there was some parallel with the Turner Bequest one, whereupon he, not very helpfully, suggested that I be careful.
His TV programmes were distinguished from so many more recent art programmes by their seriousness. If the new Culture Secretary wants to reform the BBC, he could start by prodding it to repeat Gowing’s series on artists, his programme on Turner being perhaps the best that has ever been done, though it had its limitations. If Gowing did not cover all dozen or so artists that he detected bound up in the single Turner, he at least had the perceptiveness to acknowledge that polymorphism, one absent from most of the artists discussed in these essays with the exceptions of Goya and Picasso. He is known for his writing on a master of restraint, Vermeer. Other artists perhaps appealed to his contrariness such as Mantegna, Hogarth, on whom he organised an exhibition, Cézanne and Bacon. He refers to Hogarth’s character as still sticking “in the cultivated gullet”, saying much the same of Turner. Today art pundits’ gullets are generally less cultivated. More surprising is an essay on Renoir, whom he defended against the slightly dismissive attitude that grew up towards him.
Anyone seriously interested in painting will find these reviews well worth reading. This collection is excellently produced by Ridinghouse and edited by Sarah Whitfield.
.Lawrence Gowing: Selected Writings. Ed. Sarah Whitfield. London: Ridinghouse, 2015. 464 pages, paperback, £20.
Last modified 2 September 2015