Mary Quant dresses in The Knightsbridge Boutique at Neiman-Marcus British Fortnight, 1967

All dressed up and raring to go

A brilliant, ambitious volume of art history — but physically difficult to read

Books

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

As the late Howard Hodgkin once said to me, “Everything we remember about the Sixties actually happened in the Seventies.” I know what he meant: fashion news had to trickle down to us, at the same time that our post-student grant incomes had to increase enough to make it possible for us to participate in the London art scene. It was only well after we were students that we could afford to buy our shirts at Deborah & Clare, our patchwork suede shoes from Elliott’s, and have our suits made at Blades, let alone buy a print or two from our artist friends.

Or, as John Lennon put it more cuttingly in 1970, “Nothing happened except that we all dressed up”. Hodgkin, though he had his first London solo show at Tooth’s in 1962, and was with the dealer Kasmin in the late Sixties, features in this massive book only in a single list and a solitary note. To declare my interest, he painted me twice — in the Seventies.

London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s By Lisa Tickner Yale University Press, £35

Lisa Tickner’s goal is to show the reader what it felt like to be a part of London’s rollicking art world and art scene in the extended long decade; and instead of a sequential history, she highlights one cultural event for each year from 1962 to 1968.

From Ken Russell’s 1962 film Pop Goes the Easel, made for the BBC arts programme Monitor, to the 1968 “art school revolution” at Hornsey, Tickner piles on the details of clothes, cars, food, dance, drugs and music that (providing you are not too young or too old) make you feel you were part of it all.

Russell’s goal was not to make a documentary about Pop Art “but a Pop art film [his own lower-
case ‘a’]” about a cohort of young artists from the Royal College of Art, and what it was that grabbed them about popular culture and the mass media. Russell’s four chosen artists were (Sir) Peter Blake (then 29, the son of an electrician, and more or less leader of the pack); Peter Philips, 22, a carpenter’s son; Pauline Boty, 24, the middle-class daughter of an accountant; and Derek Boshier, 24, the only overtly political, CND-belonging member of the group. As Blake’s knighthood reminds us, though Boty died terribly young in 1966, Boshier and Philips did not join him in becoming household names. Whereas Blake will be forever associated with his Sergeant Pepper Beatles cover, the other three, though accomplished, collected-by-museums painters, did not produce any household icons.

Pauline Boty photographed in 1963 by Jorge Lewinski, her With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, 1962, in the background

Lest we forget what they were all about, however, it helps to remember the attitude of Richard Hamilton and his 1956 work, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

As Michelangelo Antonioni noticed (in another of Tickner’s episodes, detailing the making of his 1966 movie Blow-Up), all Pop Art was intended to be seen as ironic.

The Kasmin Gallery, Tickner’s next subject, opened in 1963, was reached via a sort of tunnel at 118 New Bond Street, and was not a white cube so much as a “heroic” space in which he could show contemporary six-footers in an even light. Kasmin — nobody ever called him John, not even his business partner, Sheridan, fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava — went straight into big-time dealing following a colourful apprenticeship with Victor Musgrave and a year running the Marlborough New London Gallery.

He was among the first to show the American artists championed by critic Clement Greenberg — Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons; he offered David Hockney a contract while he was still a student, and showed John Latham, Richard Smith, Bernard Cohen, Anthony Caro and Hodgkin, before closing the Bond Street gallery in 1972. Kasmin’s openings were splendid affairs, with a Rolling Stone here, a Beatle there, a gay crowd, and always plenty of aristocrats holding price lists.

Richard Smith, Kasmin and David Hockney in 1965

Another culture hero, Bryan Robertson, was responsible for a Peter Stuyvesant tobacco company-funded series of New Generation exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery from 1964-68, as he was for the Gulbenkian-sponsored Painting and Sculpture of a Decade:’54-’64 at the Tate. Tickner is clever at noticing the (not then apparent) close ties of the art world to the tobacco industry.

She gives due credit, too, to journalism, and particularly the role of the Sunday Times and its later colour-supplement spawn in shaping not only the London art scene but the careers of Mark Boxer and Lord Snowdon, who photographed Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick, as well as Henry Moore, Victor Passmore and John Piper for his 1964 Private View volume. No account of the Sixties can exclude Time magazine’s “Swinging London” issue of 15 April 1966, and Geoffrey Dickinson’s cover is reproduced here in the context of the new celebrity achieved by the era’s fashion photographers, brought out so forcefully in Blow-Up.

Basil Spence’s British pavilion at Expo ’67, Montreal, was more about mini-skirts than trends in British sculpture

For her section on 1967, Tickner makes a delicate point about the relationship of art and commerce, noting the rise of London’s dollar-earning tourist industry, but also the exporting of British pop music, fashion, art and design. In Private View, the critic John Russell answered his own rhetorical question of what made this possible, by replying “Sotheby’s and the aeroplane”.

British Fortnight, Neiman-Marcus, Dallas, 9-21 October 1967 was a Texas-sized take on the commercial value of Swinging London. In my own memory of it, though, Basil Spence’s British pavilion at Expo ’67, Montreal, was more about mini-skirts than trends in British painting and sculpture.

Finally we come to the last chapter, 1968 and “Art School Revolution: The Hornsey Affair.” Some of its consequences prompt a smile: Barry Flanagan showed you could make sculpture from a few sandbags and some old rope, and Gilbert and George gilded their faces to show that sculpture could live and breathe, enough to make Praxiteles jealous. But this was also when London (and most university towns) developed a counter-culture.

This dénouement is dealt with as deftly and carefully as the art history in the 100 pages of notes, each a mini-essay in its own right. It has to be said, though, that this brilliant, ambitious volume is physically difficult to read, designed in an ungracious font, with mean margins that make it awkward to scan to the end of the line without tiring the eye.

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