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A Long Legacy by Simon Martin
[ News )
An exceptional collection of British Pop and figurative art has been acquired by the nation for Pallant House Gallery from the estate of architect MJ Long. Simon Martin, Director, provides the background to this remarkable acquisition.
It is often said that Pallant House Gallery is a ‘collection of collections’ and that each of these tells the story of friendships and patronage in 20th-century Britain. In the case of the Wilson Collection that story is part of the very fabric of the building – for Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long were the architects of the Gallery’s award-winning ‘new wing’ as well as generous donors of over 400 artworks in 2006 through Art Fund. At the same time, the couple also placed a substantial group of works on long-term loan to the Gallery.
Before her death in 2018, MJ and I had discussed at length the possibility that key pieces from the loan collection might come to the Gallery permanently in lieu of tax on her estate through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme administered by the Arts Council for HM Government. It is therefore immensely pleasing that through this important scheme a group of 175 modern and contemporary British paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures have now been acquired by the nation for Pallant House Gallery, thus consolidating it as the home of one of the most significant collections internationally of British Pop Art.
This is the Gallery’s most important single acquisition of the past fifteen years and it includes works by some of the most important figures in Modern British art, including Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Anthony Caro, Patrick Caulfield, Prunella Clough, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, R.B Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi and Colin Self.
Prof Sir Colin St John Wilson RA (1922 –2007) and MJ Long, Lady Wilson, OBE (1939–2018) are best-known as the architects of the British Library. Together they formed one of the most significant private collections of post- war British art reflecting their close friendships with the leading artists of the period. It can be seen as embodying an approach to artistic patronage that spanned connections between art, architecture, literature and philosophy.
Colin St John Wilson (known to friends as ‘Sandy’) began the collection prior to his marriage to his second wife MJ Long. From that point onwards she played an integral role, designing numerous studios for artists including R.B Kitaj, Frank Auerbach, Sir Peter Blake, Paul Huxley and Gordon House. (Sandy’s first wife the curator Muriel Wilson also bequeathed her art collection to Pallant House Gallery after her death in 2018 thus reuniting the different parts of the collection.)
Born in New Jersey, MJ Long attended high school in Montreal, before studying at Smith College and Yale School of Architecture, where she met Wilson. In 1965, she joined his architecture practice and they married in 1972. In partnership with fellow architect Rolfe Kentish, as Long & Kentish, she designed museums, galleries and libraries including the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, the Jewish Museum London and the award-winning extension to Pallant House Gallery, in association with Colin St John Wilson. Long also renovated the Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, and wrote a notable book on the artist studios she had designed throughout her career.
She and Sandy were memorably painted by the American artist Kitaj in a family portrait joining the Gallery’s collection, The Architects (1981) which depicts the couple with their children Harry and Sal in the studio Long had designed for the artist. The red background and lamp were a reference to Vincent Van Gogh’s Night Café (1888) in the collection of Yale University where the couple had met. The interior of the family home in Cambridge (designed by Wilson) was depicted by Sir Howard Hodgkin in his vibrant painting Grantchester Road (1973–75) in which the mezzanine and fireplace are depicted amidst swirls of expressive colour.
Together with Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, Wilson had been a member of the radical ‘Independent Group’, a precursor to the development of British Pop art, which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the 1950s to discuss architecture, art, design and advertising. Wilson collected early works by these artists including Hamilton’s abstract painting Respective (1951), Man Walking (after Muybridge) (1953) and the Rotary Disc from his celebrated ‘fun house’ in the seminal exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. He also acquired Paolozzi’s ink drawings Picador (c.1947), and Head (The Early Head) (1953), together with early screenprints and posters for his exhibitions, and the large aluminium sculpture Artificial Sun (1964), all of which will join the Gallery’s collection.
These artists were to become key figures in the British Pop movement and the collection also includes Hamilton’s etching, aquatint and collage Swingeing London (1967) depicting Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Fraser in the back of a police van outside Chichester Magistrates Court following a conviction for drugs possession.
Other examples of British Pop include David Hockney’s Kaisarion with all his Beauty (1961) (currently on show in the Hockney to Himid exhibition); 65 prints by R.B Kitaj, his major painting Junta (1962) and collage The Republic of the Southern Cross (1965), along with works by Sir Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Mark Lancaster, Colin Self, Joe Tilson and the Swedish-American artist Claes Oldenburg. Patrick Caulfield’s well-known Coloured Still Life (1967) is accompanied by his later painting Kellerbar (1997) along with twelve preparatory drawings and seven screenprints that provide a fascinating insight into the artist’s working methods.
The Wilson Collection also traces a lineage of figurative art from Impressionist artists such as Édouard Manet through to Modern British artists including David Bomberg and Frank Auerbach. The acquisition includes Manet’s etching, Olympia (1864), a group of five etchings by Walter Sickert, a significant group of drawings and paintings representing each key period of Bomberg’s work, as well as an early painting by Auerbach, Reclining Model in the Studio I (1963) a pivotal depiction of the model on a bed that looks back to the example of Sickert.
An alternative Slade tradition of figuration is represented by a group of paintings including Michael Andrews’ Study for a Head for a Group of Figures (1967), Colin Self’s At the Party (Hunt Ball) (1962), and Victor Willing’s Swing (1978) and Stepladder (1976). A watercolour by Prunella Clough, a sculpture by Antony Caro, 12 drawings by the Outsider artist Scottie Wilson, and a group of sculptures by the Indian artist Dhruva Mistry RA, who Wilson commissioned to create work for the British Library are also included in the collection.
Over the past decade, Pallant House Gallery has acquired numerous outstanding works through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, including pieces by Edgar Degas, Édouard Vuillard, Keith Vaughan, Sir Peter Blake and Leonard Rosoman. Caroline Dinenage, Minister of State for Digital and Culture has said of the latest acquisition: ‘I am delighted that this remarkable collection has been allocated to Pallant House Gallery which has been significantly shaped by MJ Long and Sir Colin St John Wilson’s generosity. This latest acquisition of renowned British art will make another invaluable contribution to the Gallery. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme exists to enable important pieces such as these to be enjoyed by the public for years to come.’
Find out more about the Wilson Collection.