POP! Art in a changing BritainPOP! Art in a changing Britain

Wilson Collection

Behind the Wilson Collection by MJ Long

Offering a glimpse into 1960s London, M.J. Long OBE, widow of Prof Sir Colin St. John (Sandy) Wilson RA, introduces the origin and friendships behind the Wilson Collection which forms the backbone of the new POP! exhibition at Pallant House Gallery. This article appears in Magazine no.44.

In 1945, Sandy returned from three years in the Navy with a few paintings he had done in India, a demob suit, and some small change in his pocket. He has told elsewhere of wandering through gallery land in London and finding himself in front of a gallery setting up a new show. On the table in the empty front room was a series of collages based on fairground targets. ‘Wow, these are great!’ he said, and a voice replied, ‘Take one if you like them’ and out came a burly figure: Eduardo Paolozzi. An exchange of a collage and ‘all the money in my pocket’ was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Paolozzi and a collection that focussed on that generation of British artists, many of whom also went on to became friends.

The post-war period in England was very important both for Wilson and for a number of artists in the collection. It is not often remembered that rationing did not finally come to an end until 1954. It was a period of austerity that saw the essential rebuilding of housing and schools. But it was also a period of great excitement about the potential of the post-war world and the role that artists and architects could play in forming it. The ICA, chaired by Roland Penrose, was their meeting place, and there was clearly a sense that they were engaged in a collaborative project. The ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956 was designed and mounted by the Independent Group of the ICA. Groups made up of architects and artists made collaborative statements. Sandy worked with Robert Adam, sculptor, and Frank Newby, engineer, on one of the pavilions. Other friends and collaborators in the exhibition were Richard Hamilton (who designed as their poster the pop icon Just What Is It That Make Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing), Eduardo Paolozzi, and Nigel Henderson.

I missed all this, not having arrived in England to work with Sandy until 1964. Coming from the relative self-indulgence of sixties America, the collaborative aspect of the friendships between Sandy and some painters struck me as especially rich with possibilities.

Studio visits were always more interesting than gallery shows. Paolozzi showered our children with plaster casts of hands, cars, and machine parts: ‘Here, have one of these’ he would say. Later on I worked with him on a large screen for the Ivy Restaurant. We went together to Maurice Singer, the great foundry where large bronzes were cast. There he found a man who had made shop fronts in the thirties using brass flats. We designed the screen with that technology – my part was to be sure that none of the openings at handrail height were large enough to let a child’s head through. He seemed to enjoy working to that limitation and did something similar later on when we worked with him on a gate for the British Library (never executed).

Richard Hamilton was another of Sandy’s longest friendships. They were born a day apart in 1922. And Rita Donagh, Richard’s wife, was born the same year as me. I always thought as a couple they were quite special. Their quietness of voice, their seeming similarity of thought, their wardrobes which were very limited but elegantly personal. Sandy and Richard had been involved in the ICA, and shared an attitude to art and popular culture and their intellectual roots.

The end of the sixties in London was an exciting time, with Robert Fraser and Kasmin putting on remarkable shows in their private West End galleries. My own first acquisition when I arrived in London was an affordable moulded plastic multiple by Joe Tilson called Geometry (1965). Joe also contributed to my architectural job at the Ivy with a painted timber wall mural in the bar. We didn’t see a great deal of Joe and Joss in London, but spent delightful time with him in Venice when we were exhibitors in the British Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in 1996. We put together a huge collage of sample details from the British Library representing St. Jerome in his study – with the full sized figure of the Saint by Tilson.

We were bowled over by the Peter Blake show at Robert Fraser and Sandy started acquiring a few of his things. We got to know Peter and his then wife Jann Haworth and their young daughter. Peter was very slow (or reluctant?) to finish a painting, and as a result was often strapped for cash. Sandy took to advancing money on a painting while it was growing. Jann called him Sandy Claus.

Wherever Peter and Jann lived became a place of fantasy and magic. Peter’s ‘pictures’ (not paintings) always had a very complicated story attached, told carefully and with great seriousness by Peter. Jann was altogether more bubbly (well she did go to Hollywood High School) in her descriptions of her sewn figures, but the intention was no less serious.

When they bought a house in Chelsea, Peter asked me to modify the house and add a studio. It was wonderful fun. Each room had its own character and narrative and was required to house particular ‘finds’ from the auction rooms or parts of his work. He enjoyed architectural ‘quotes’ – a Hoffman detail, a saw tooth roof, shaker mouldings. I went on to do two more studios for him (with him) and feel that I know his layered collections and the rooms that all have specific functions (sculpture, gallery, collage, etching). It’s a rich and magic world.

Also in the sixties, we got interested in the world of silkscreen printing and the amazing series of prints being turned out particularly by Paolozzi and R.B. Kitaj. We first met Kitaj when he was invited by one of the architecture students to give a lecture in Cambridge, probably around 1970. The lecture was dense; composed word by word, and read by the author in a monotone with his head down. It was impenetrable – too full of ideas with no time to absorb one before the next arrived. We both knew he was someone we wanted to know, and indeed we were close friends from then on. That intense seriousness was always there, but also tempered often enough by a thoroughly charming and self-deprecating smile. He and Sandy loved spending time in the second-hand bookshops that were such a joy in London and were always exchanging ‘finds’. He and I shared our American roots including a love of baseball. When he bought a house and wanted to do it up, and Sandy was too busy to be his architect, he seemed to see me as an acceptable alternative, and we developed his studio by trial and error. He couldn’t articulate what he wanted, but would show me unrelated photographs of bits and pieces and say that they contained something of what he wanted. It was the architectural equivalent of a treasure hunt. We got there in the end. And he reciprocated with the family portrait that is in Pallant House Gallery. He later insisted on donating an artwork (If Not, Not, 1975–6) as a basis for a large tapestry for the British Library.

Patrick Caulfield also produced remarkable silkscreen prints. Sandy remained close friends with him until his death, and Pat was another collaborator with me on the Ivy Restaurant. He got quite excited about doing a stained glass window (which has survived the recent remodelling). It is a beautiful and mysterious window with some transparent and some opaque glass giving the moon and stars a magical inner light.

Friends, all of them, and all remained friends for years. Perhaps it might be said that Sandy collected them along with their paintings. As a painter himself, he was always fascinated with the techniques and the thought processes that went into the paintings he admired and he liked nothing better than to be able to watch artists at work and talk to them about what they were doing. He wrote The Artist at Work about being painted by Andrews and Coldstream.

For me, the most valuable part of these friendships was the opportunity to collaborate on projects – to continue a bit of the post-war euphoria about a shared vision and a belief in the future. Perhaps the British Library could be included in Kitaj’s ‘School of London’? But of course the chance to design a home for the Wilson collection, comprised of works by all these artists, at Pallant House Gallery was the best collaboration of all.

Much of the Wilson collection will be on display in the exhibition ‘POP! Art in a Changing Britain’ which runs from 24 Feb – 7 May 2018. An accompanying programme of events includes a Curators’ Talk on Thursday 5 April at 6pm and a special study session on Pop Art led by Val Woodgate on Saturday 7 April at 11am. See What’s On leaflet for more details.