The Oldie

The Life of Bryan, by Andrew Lambirth Tanya Harrod

The Life of Bryan: A Celebratio­n of Bryan Robertson

- By Andrew Lambirth Unicorn £30

Precocious, asthmatic, sexually ambigu and a Francophil­e autodidact from a modest background, the young Bryan Robertson (1925-2002) soon found artistic mentors.

These included the painter Mary Kessell, now an unsung figure, who introduced him to her lover Kenneth Clark. Robertson formed educative friendship­s with other older women such as the sculptor Betty Rea and the painter Elizabeth Vellacott and, later, he consistent­ly supported the work of women.

During his heady years at the Whitechape­l Gallery, where he was appointed director in 1952 aged 27, he created a modern art gallery, a radiant white cube, when such spaces did not exist in London.

He staged exhibition­s of major modern European artists, including Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and

Nicolas de Staël, and showed groundbrea­king Americans, filling a gap left by an unreceptiv­e Tate. He took in MOMA’S travelling Jackson Pollock show in 1958, installing it with the architect Trevor Dannatt, conjuring up rugged, blockwork walls and a ceiling of muslin clouds.

At the Whitechape­l, Robertson offered crucial support to mid-career and young British artists. His shows for figures like Prunella Clough, John Craxton, Allan Davie, Barbara Hepworth and Keith Vaughan were complement­ed by The New Generation exhibition­s held in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1968. These introduced, inter alia, Antony Caro, Patrick Caulfield, John Hoyland, David Hockney, Philip King and Bridget Riley. Each show was given a well-illustrate­d, square-format catalogue with a cover photograph by Snowdon.

Robertson liked the high life but he was also a passionate egalitaria­n, who annually hosted the Pictures for Schools exhibition­s organised by his friend Nan Youngman. He actively advised Leicesters­hire Education Authority on purchases of art.

Robertson had very specific taste: ‘What I look for in art of any period is imaginativ­e energy, radiance, equilibriu­m, composure, colour, light, vitality, poise, buoyancy, a transcende­nt ability to soar above life and not be subjugated by it. I have tended to prefer abstract to figurative art in the twentieth century because so much modern figurative painting, unsurprisi­ngly, is inherently morbid.’

Robertson had little time for the Euston Road School: ‘Ex-public school boys painting their cleaning ladies’.

 ??  ?? The Theatre Royal Haymarket, built in 1720, from London’s Great Theatres by Simon Callow and Derry Moore, Prestel £29.99
The Theatre Royal Haymarket, built in 1720, from London’s Great Theatres by Simon Callow and Derry Moore, Prestel £29.99

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