London’s New Scene
Art and Culture in the 1960s
London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art /
Yale University Press, 2020
Hardcover. x + 414 pages. ISBN 978-1913107109. £35
Reviewed by Charlotte Gould
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris
Is there still anything left to write about London in the Sixties? It seems that the answer is yes, and this is demonstrated not simply by the publication of Lisa Tickner’s London’s New Scene, but also by the fact that it coincides with another leading art historian’s proposal on the subject, Tom Crow’s The Hidden Mod in Modern Art : London 1957-1969 also published by the Paul Mellon Art Centre for Studies in British Art, and in which Crow examines the works of many of the same protagonists on the capital’s art scene at that time: David Hockney, Pauline Boty, or Peter Blake to name just three. But while both books confirm that this historiography is still very much underway, and while they both explore how key figures shared affinities for the more exciting aspects of the new and youthful urbanity, Tickner favours a shorter timeframe and a different approach.
The idea of a decade exceeding its mathematical limits, “the long Sixties”, is an accepted historical periodisation. However, the short Sixties (1962-1968), which Tickner opts for here, is probably more convincing in the field of art history, especially when discussing the dazzling, but also short-lived period when London was able to exert a world influence and was considered a new capital of art to rival New York and Paris. Tickner uses the prism of seven case studies, one for each year going from 1962 to 1968, and rather than focus on movements or artists, she explores the transformations brought about by a landmark event taking place that year, whether a gallery opening, a film release, the publication of a book, or a sit-in at an art school. This focus on patronage, education, exhibition and the media allows the key figures of the period – David Hockney, John Kasmin, Robert Fraser, David Sylvester, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty or Peter Phillips – to put in an appearance, sometimes in more than one chapter, but the central subject is the spirit of the time: the confidence, the excitement, the political urgency. In doing so, the art historian, an Honorary Professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art and a Fellow of the British Academy, presents modern art and its periodisation not as a series of sequences or of generations – an approach which used to predominate in art historical writing but which has lately encountered many discontents – but as structures of new influences and, as Raymond Williams put it, of feelings. Tickner is of the opinion that spotlights shift and focuses widen when different social, postcolonial and feminist approaches are used and that these act as correctives to certain storylines. Herself a member of the Women's Art History Collective in the 1970s, and the author of The Spectacle of Women in 1988, she applies a cultural turn to the study of this transformational period. She was also a young art student at the Royal College of Art in the Sixties before she went on to study art history at university, and she relies on a big chunk of oral history alongside the archives and the written and visual material she works with. The extensive endnotes which make up a substantial section of the book are nuggets of precise information from the archives, but the many photographs which are also a salient feature of the volume confirm two things: that photography and film had become central to the culture of the Sixties, and that the art networks which defined the new context relied heavily on orality. Pictures of parties and private views show people talking. The back cover includes a picture of Kasmin, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Clement Greenberg deep in conversation at an Anthony Caro opening at Kasmin Gallery in 1965: it is like a moment condensed and a visual demonstration of how different worlds, that of commerce, cinema, and theory came together to party, exchange opinions, and mould the Sixties Zeitgeist.
This was a time when British art was centralised and the in crowd of the popocracy converged in London, a time when the hip expression “art scene” was invented, when cigarette manufacturers were prominent sponsors of art – they still are today, but more stealthily – and a few years when the eyes of the world turned to British art and culture. Of course, this coincided with an enamoured, but also often sceptical curiosity about the expansion of American soft power through commodities (cornflakes or Pepsi-Cola) and mass culture (Elvis and Marilyn). The Royal Society exhibition “Situation” in 1960 had been a clear turning point showing that influence now came from New York rather than Paris.
By presenting seven standalone case studies, the book does not simply offer different entries into the period, it aims to be cumulative and to try to capture the effervescence of shifting networks of institutions and individuals. A “self-consciously youthful creativity”  had followed the rapid social and technological change of the time and the sense of class mobility it had encouraged. Experimentation and the hybridising of high culture with popular modes of expression forged what Lawrence Alloway called “spectator mobility”. Pop has often been described as a representation of the world at one remove, as already mediated representations (like paintings of paintings, or, according to Blake, paintings of two-dimensional things). This could be perceived as either democratisation or corruption through commerce. In any case, it had to do with the growing visuality of society manifested in television arts programs, and the new colour supplements to national newspapers like The Sunday Times or The Observer Weekend. The context of post-war reconstruction, the growth of jet air travel to New York and back, a generation of young Baby Boomers who had attended the new art schools which had opened under the Welfare State, the influx of international film companies, and the commercial and political projection of “creative Britain” as a national brand, all these developments nurtured and promoted the emergence of London as “a new capital of art” in a still very centralised United Kingdom.
The first landmark in the book is 1962 and Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes the Easel for the Monitor programme shown on the BBC. This first main section reminds us that, although the rise of Pop culture is indissolubly associated with the United States, some of its earliest beginnings happened in Britain. A remarkable feature of Russell’s film revolving around Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, and Pauline Boty – whose life was tragically cut short by illness – is its focus on these young artists’ lifestyle.
The 1963 section focuses on the role played by dealers, and more specifically by the Kasmin Gallery, the most important private gallery of the time and a place where artists would both exhibit and party. Just like its main rival, the Robert Fraser Gallery, it supported and promoted British artists, while being also closely linked to the new scene in New York. The major market for new and experimental art was increasingly to be found in the United States, and Britain was profiting from that fact that it was linked to the US not only by a recent common war effort, but also by a common language. A remarkable difference with the New York scene however was that both galleries had aristocratic support: Kasmin, known for being Hockney’s dealer, worked in partnership with the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and Robert Fraser was the son of Sir Lionel Fraser (a status which, as we know, in Britain, facilitates access to museum boards of trustees). The British scene did not yet have enough major buyers to support a flourishing market in new experimental art on its own, and dealers such as Kasmin relied on attracting international collectors who could be lured to London by its new reputation as a “swinging” city. The fact that the gallery was a place where the in crowd liked to hang out confirmed the way art and lifestyle were becoming inextricably linked.
The 1964 section entitled “A big Year in Modern Art” focuses on two exhibitions, “New Generation : 1964” and “Painting & Sculpture of a Decade : ’54-’64”. They are exemplary of the new forms of charitable and commercial sponsorship which were responsible for the microclimate of relative prosperity in the Sixties, and when the rest of the economic picture in the rest of Britain could be grim. Another interesting passage is the description of the inclusion of work done by architects to set up the exhibitions in a way that included more thoughts concerning scenography.
The book Private View, The Lively World of British Art is presented in the 1965 section. The collaboration between Bryan Robertson, John Russell and Lord Snowdon, a visual ethnography of the London art world, had grown out from the Sunday Times magazines. Alongside Antonioni’s Blow Up, which is the subject of the 1966 section, they add another layer of representation to the world of images that Pop was – images captured either by a member of the Establishment, Princess Margaret’s photographer husband, or by an Italian outsider.
“Export Britain”, which focuses on the year 1967, describes official and semi-official attempts to export British culture abroad, often with some hesitations between what was “heritage” (all things Union Jack emblasoned, or to do with double-deckers and high tea were popular and commercially successful in the United States) and what was genuinely representative of Britain at the time. Soft power in the promotion of British art abroad was done by both the British Council and the Board of Trade (which described the cultural events they helped fund and organise as “the jam on the trade earning bread”), thus serving cultural, economic and political agendas. The important role played here by Ambassador Magazine is very well presented (the book cover is in fact itself taken from a feature in the magazine called “Fab Pop Fash” in which a model is held in the air by two students in front of Rauchenberg’s Pilgrim during his 1964 Whitechapel exhibition). Still, what the book also duly chronicles is the fact that the British art boom did not last and that, by the end of the decade, the impetus that had sustained the British economy had petered out. This is also exemplified in the last section about the Hornsey sit-in, a demonstration against poor resources and forced associations with local polytechnics intended to last just 24 hours but which expanded into six weeks of debate discussing what art education was and how the world could be improved by artists and designers. Coldstream reforms had meant more part-time teaching contracts for young artists, but art schools were also entering a period when the role of artists and the amount of support they were getting were questioned. For Tickner, the sit-in “deserves attention as one of the more sustained attempts to question the social values and political import of art, design art, and art-education at the end of the decade” . The question whether art should be for design production or should play a more political role was a hot topic at a time new international and avant-garde exhibitions were being shown in Britain, such as “When Attitude Become Forms” (another exhibition sponsored by Philip Morris!).
This richly illustrated book about the emergence of London as an international art scene is as much social history as art book. Besides bringing very precise details and perspective to key moments and subjects of the period, what it demonstrates clearly is that Sixties London was the crucible from which the new notion of a creative Britain emerged (therefore no longer the nation of philistines deplored by Roger Fry at the beginning of the century). While the city’s cultural effervescence did die out quite rapidly as New York was reclaiming its crown, it announced a later rebranding of the city and of the whole country as creative in the 1990s. Although the book does not draw comparisons with this later period, it does ponder if the evolving art ecosystem of then might have laid the foundations for today’s commercially-minded art scene. This is confirmed by the author in an interview to The Arts Newspaper given on the occasion of this new release:
There were certain developments in the 1960s which, if they didn’t lay the foundations, certainly accelerated certain components of the art world with which we’re familiar today, and one of the most obvious of those is business sponsorship.
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