Sir John Rothenstein

I have been reading the fascinating and revealing new biography of John Rothenstein by Adrian Clark, which by dint of good research in the Tate Gallery archive, Treasury papers and Douglas Cooper’s correspondence does much to elucidate why Rothenstein was such an extraordinarily divisive figure at the Tate in the early 1950s:  starting well on his appointment in June 1938 aged 37, helped by his family friendships with artists;  mysteriously taking a prolonged trip to the United States in the early years of the war;  making a succession of disastrous appointments, including a South African adventurer, Le Roux Smith Le Roux;  getting rid of Humphrey Brooke, who became Secretary of the Royal Academy and an implacable enemy;  and persecuted by a gang led by Douglas Cooper and Denis Mahon.  It makes the twenty-first century art world seem comparatively peaceful.


4 thoughts on “Sir John Rothenstein

  1. edward chaney says:

    When Rothenstein turned 90 I published an article in Apollo hailing him as ‘The Vasari of British Art’ and i still believe him to be (at least) one of the two best ever directors of the Tate… As for the ghastly Le Roux and Douglas Cooper (the bi-polar Humphrey Brooke was more complicated), as Oscar Wilde said ‘You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.’ In the wake of Adrian’s book i am renewing my efforts to have my former student, David McCann, to publish a revised edition of his excellent PhD on ‘Sir John Rothenstein and the Advocacy of British Art between the Wars.’

    • Yes, he was obviously a very significant figure in forming a canon of British artists when he was in Leeds and Sheffield in the 1930s and, as you say, through his writings in the 1950s. Did you meet him ? We used to drive past his house in Newington.

  2. edward chaney says:

    Yes, i did… Clutching my recently acquired copy of Modern English Painters, the one that includes his life of Wyndham Lewis, i first met him on the steps of the Tate circa 1970; then again 20 years later in Chiswick and at Newington through the good offices of his lovely daughter, Lucy Dynevor (now Carter), when i got him to sign the same book again, this time in a slightly wobbly hand… His courageous advocacy of British figurative art as preferable to ‘The Demon of Progress in the Arts’ was as much the result of his friendship with Lewis as of being his brilliant father’s son…

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