Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
The Story Behind 'Choreographing a Collection'
[ Stories )
Director Simon Martin, explores the life of Bob Lockyer, whose generous bequest was on display in our exhibition, Choreographing the Collection.
Over the last forty years, Pallant House Gallery’s ‘collection of collections’ has been formed through the generosity and foresight of a small number of individuals and couples who have donated their artworks for the benefit of the public. These donors have all had a ‘good eye’ but often modest wealth, and, in their own way, each has been remarkable. These men and women include architects, artists, a criminologist, school teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and the Dean of the Cathedral. Together, their artworks now form a history of Modern British art that also reflects modern taste, but individually their collections say something about the passions and lives of the person who amassed them. I’ve been fortunate to visit and get to know many of them, and especially so in the case of Bob Lockyer OBE (1942-2022), the former Director of Dance for BBC Television, who has left his collection of prints, drawings, paintings, and ceramics to the Gallery.
Bob’s first love was dance, but that passion was deeply interconnected with a love of visual art. We became friends over a decade ago, originally through mutual friends who were dancers and choreographers. He was a regular visitor to exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery, and in time he decided to deepen his support by becoming a Patron. He had innate curiosity, especially in relation to the kinds of artworks others might find challenging: I remember him being especially taken by an austere monochrome light installation by Robert Irwin, during a Patrons’ trip to Marfa in Texas, but equally he might be impressed by a Baroque palace in Turin.
His own, decidedly more domestic, collection formed a visual conversation on the bright yellow walls of his cottage in Lewes. There, in convivial company, one could enjoy looking at an eclectic mix of artworks, some challenging, some playful: a striking drawing of bleeding horse by Dame Elisabeth Frink; a colourful broccoli print by Martin Creed; an etching of a broken glass by Cornelia Parker; a vibrant screenprint by Howard Hodgkin; or a restrained watercolour by Callum Innes; and all around on every available surface were Studio ceramics, particularly Michael Cardew and Ewen Henderson, but also contemporary ceramicists such as Julian Stair, Alison Britton, Akiko Hirai and Carol McNichol.
Bob was born during World War II: the son of a Canadian airman and young English woman, who was persuaded by her family to give him up. He was adopted by Lieutenant-Colonel Sydney Lockyer-Nibs and his wife Joyce. He went straight from school in the late 1950s to work in the BBC post room, delivering ‘special envelopes to important people’. He was promoted to assistant floor manager working on a soap opera, but he lost his job after his dyslexia let him down when prompting actors who forgot their lines. Instead, he went to work with the former dancer Margaret Dale, who worked on dance programmes at the BBC. She allowed him to work on the choreography for contemporary music, and in time he directed performances such as a television production of Stravinsky’s Les Noces with music recorded by Leonard Bernstein. Bob spent the next 40 years working for the BBC during which time he worked with celebrated choreographers such as Martha Graham, Kenneth MacMillan, Merce Cunningham, Frederick Ashton, Siobhan Davies and Wayne McGregor. He commented that ‘You can choreograph with an eyebrow as excitingly as you can with a grand jeté across the stage’.
A committed left-wing socialist, he commented wryly how in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher had unintentionally made possible the creative approach of his series of 50 short avant-garde dance films, Dance for the Camera:
‘Mrs Thatcher decided, in her crusade against the BBC, that it had to have 25% of its output made by independent [companies]; that immediately allowed us to work with the Arts Council.’
The series attracted audiences of 1.7 million when it was broadcast before Newsnight. In 1987, Bob produced a TV miniseries for BBC called Painting with Light in which contemporary artists used the Quantel Paintbox, an advanced computer programme to create artworks. Bob worked with Howard Hodgkin, Sidney Nolan and Richard Hamilton, who each created a pioneering digital artwork – Hamilton’s became the basis for his celebrated work ‘The Subject’ relating to the Troubles in Northern Ireland which is now in the Tate collection.
In the late 1960s, Bob had worked on a BBC documentary about Serge Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes with his future partner Sir John Drummond (1934-2006), who later became Director of the Edinburgh International Festival (1977-1983) and Controller of BBC Radio 3 (1987-1992). His enthusiasm for the Ballets Russes was reflected in some of the artworks he has bequeathed, including two 1926 portrait drawings of Diaghilev by Christopher Wood for a set design for Romeo and Juliet and drawings of a dancer (probably Tamara Karsavina) in The Firebird by Dame Laura Knight. Drummond’s Evening Standard Award for the BBC Prom Concerts (a bronze cast of a figure by Frank Dobson) sat nonchalantly at the base of a wall, but, in fact, his legacy was taken very seriously and after his death Bob established the Drummond Fund with the Royal Philharmonic Society to give composers and choreographers the chance to create new stage works. Bob later became Chair of several organisations, including Dance UK, South-East Dance, Performing Arts Lab and Lost Dog Dance; always encouraging and supportive, and incredibly modest about his own achievements.
Emails from Bob were always short and to the point, but amusing. Just before a trip to Australia in 2013, he wrote to me to say: “to get in the Oz spirit I bought a rather good Arthur Boyd print at auction. I must stop doing this sort of thing.” We are so fortunate that he did not stop – for his collection – and a significant financial bequest that accompanies it – will form a long-lasting legacy for a gentle, kind and inspirational man who made a deep contribution to British culture. My favourite of his encouraging messages, received in 2011 read as follows:
‘Just got back from what will have to many visits to your Burra show. Congrats now sitting down to read your catalogue. You must have a smile on your face that won’t go away. Thanks Bob
P.S. He certainly can paint a fine male bum.’