Magazine article The Spectator

Ignorance, Then Bliss

Magazine article The Spectator

Ignorance, Then Bliss

Article excerpt

DUCHESS OF CORK STREET by Lillian Browse

Giles de la Mare, fl 7.99, pp. 190

Although born in London, Lillian Browse, aged three, together with her mother and elder brother, moved to South Africa to join her father who trained racehorses, without much success, in Johannesburg (his father, a White Russian, was in the ostrich-feather trade in Port Elizabeth). While still a child she showed such promise at dancing that a career in ballet seemed to beckon, so she returned to London in the 1920s to study under Margaret Craske before joining the Dolin-Nemtchimova ballet company in 1930. However, it became clear that she would never become a prima ballerina, so she gave up dancing and then was offered, although knowing nothing about art, a job at the Leger Gallery.

At Leger's, a colleague warned her not to fall in love with `Mr Harold', who ran the firm; this advice fortunately proved needless. She went to a school of adult education to learn some art history and was promoted to gallery manager. Leger's dealt mainly in old masters, but Browse wanted to branch out into contemporary work. She went to Paris and arranged several French exhibitions in Bond Street, including one of Boudin watercolours which, with a top price of 50, sold only a handful, one being bought by Browse herself.

Then came the war and a spell as an ambulance-driver. One day, going through the National Gallery on her way to a Myra Hess concert in 1940, Browse had the idea of filling the empty rooms with a loan exhibition. Having already met the director, Sir Kenneth Clark, she went straight to him with her proposition, which was instantly dismissed, but she persevered and finally got approval. Clark said he was far too busy to organise the exhibition and would need her help. She asked what time he got up: `Eight o'clock'. 'I suggested he rise an hour earlier.' Those who knew Lord Clark will be astonished at such temerity, but Browse has never lacked courage and this stood her in good stead when approaching owners for loans. The result, `British Paining since Whistler', consisting of 355 pictures, was a resounding success with over 40,000 visitors. …

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