The Oldie

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher Minoo Dinshaw


He dismissed the so-called School of London – Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud – not caring for ‘struggle art’. Instead, he found radiance in post-war Australian art. A believer in youth, he invited the 22-year-old Robert Hughes to write the catalogue essay for his 1961 show Recent Australian Painting.

Andrew Lambirth’s new book on Robertson, The Life of Bryan, is certainly timely for its investigat­ion of virgin territory. But anyone hoping for a clear, concise view of Robertson’s achievemen­ts will struggle. As Lambirth explains, ‘This is not a biography – Bryan would have been aghast at such an idea, I am convinced – but more of a celebratio­n.’

Thus, we get to know him through ‘a compendium of Robertsoni­ana put together on the collage principle’. The material is remarkable in places and frequently entertaini­ng. But the reader is required to negotiate a scrapbook of letters to, from and about Robertson, passages from catalogues written by Robertson and others, and lengthy transcribe­d interviews.

Robertson has been described as the best Director the Tate never had. Certainly, his rejection for the post in 1964, perhaps because of his lack of formal qualificat­ions, was a blow.

Meanwhile, at the Whitechape­l, he was running a world-class gallery on a shoestring, and budgeting was not his strength.

All kinds of artists had found his exhibition­s revelatory – as Lambirth’s inclusion of testimony from Maggi Hambling, Deanna Petherbrid­ge and Riley makes clear. He resigned in 1969 and, while the rest of his career can hardly be dismissed as a footnote, Lambirth’s compendium of Robertsoni­ana becomes increasing­ly bitty, albeit full of charm.

Robertson organised fine shows for the Warwick Arts Trust and curated a brilliant exhibition of Raoul Dufy’s art, design and craft for the Hayward Gallery in 1983. He mentored the young – advising the neophyte curator Simon Groom, now Director of the Scottish

National Gallery of Modern Art, and the youthful artist Christophe­r Le Brun, later President of the Royal Academy. Thatcheris­m was not to his taste and, in 1983, he threatened to send back his OBE.

Lambirth’s book reads as an oral history project: the primary material is set in regular type, garlanded with Lambirth’s guiding words, set in bold. Its organisati­on recalls the history series from Jackdaw Publicatio­ns, which put together facsimiles of source materials to introduce schoolchil­dren to the idea of research.

As a reader of The Life of Bryan, you do the work. On the whole, you are repaid for the effort.

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‘You can be anything you want to be, Timmy: a doctor, a lawyer, a stockbroke­r…’

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