Gimpel Fils, Barbara Hepworth and the Promotion of British Sculpture in the 1950s

By Correia, Alice | The Sculpture Journal, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Gimpel Fils, Barbara Hepworth and the Promotion of British Sculpture in the 1950s


Correia, Alice, The Sculpture Journal


'I found great difficulty in interesting a London dealer until I went to Gimpels who had just opened in Duke Street. I think I was the first artist they took on.'1 Robert Adams's reflections on the London art market of the late 1940s illustrate the difficulties that avant-garde artists faced when seeking to make a living from their work. Commercial galleries were cautious of taking on artists working in a modern, abstract style, whose work would inevitably be difficult to sell to a conservative art-buying public. For sculptors, the situation was worse; as Alistair Grieve succinctly put it, 'modern sculpture was especially hard to sell'.2 Nonetheless, during the decade from its inauguration in November 1946, Gimpel Fils, London, became a prominent space for showing and selling modern British sculpture. Although displays of painting and works on paper dominated its exhibition programme, the gallery directors, brothers Charles and Peter Gimpel, quickly forged a reputation as champions of a select group of modern British sculptors, working with Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick and Geoffrey Clarke, among others. Having taken risks on a generation of young artists, Gimpel Fils' reputation as the purveyor of avant-garde sculpture was cemented when Barbara Hepworth joined the gallery in 1955. Arguably, Hepworth's attraction to the gallery was based on the Gimpels' dedication to the modern cause, their awareness of sculpture as a distinct branch of contemporary British fine art, and their track record of promoting artists both at home and on an international stage. By examining the various contexts that framed Hepworth's association with Gimpel Fils, and making a detailed analysis of the organization and reception of her first solo show at the gallery in 1956, this article sheds light not only on the status of modern British sculpture in the 1950s, but also on how artists engaged with commercial dealers, viewing commercial representation as crucial to the advancement of their careers and reputations.

That art history has been shaped by the market, and should include within its purview the expanded field of the art market, is well accepted, and scholarship outlining the activities of the commercial art world has increased significantly in recent years.3 However, detailed analysis of the interactions between named artists and dealers and the ways in which specific exhibitions were staged during the 1950s is still rare, and perhaps as a consequence of the paucity of scholarship in this field, Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède have characterized the art world after the Second World War as centred in 'the numerous venues and public art funded by the newly-elected Labour government'.4 Nonetheless, Adrian Clark's British and Irish Art 1945-1951: From War to Festival provides an overview of significant artists, galleries and patrons active in the immediate post-war period, and histories of individual galleries active in the 1950s are beginning to emerge.5 This literature shows that the post-war period witnessed considerable commercial activity in London, with new dealerships opening alongside older, established galleries around Mayfair. Charles and Peter Gimpel opened their gallery, Gimpel Fils, on Duke Street, off Oxford Street, in the winter of 1946, and moved to larger premises at 50 South Moulton Street in late 1948. The Gimpel brothers were born and raised in Paris, and several of the new dealerships that opened in London after the war were also established by European émigrés: Austrians Frank Lloyd and Harry Fisher established Marlborough Fine Art in 1946, and German-born Erica Brausen opened the Hanover Gallery in 1947 following a stint working for the long-running Redfern Gallery.6 This new generation of dealers focused on promoting modern art and, in comparison, many of the galleries active before the war found themselves out of step with contemporary trends; as Evelyn Silber has noted, by the 1950s the long-running 'Leicester Galleries had become an institution, perceived as a distinguished but no longer a vanguard gallery'. …

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