Remembering Richard Kendall (1946-2021): Richard Thomson on ‘The Degasists’

31 May 2022

Richard Kendall and I met in the late 1970s when we were both teaching the History of Art in Manchester, he at the Polytechnic since 1974 and me at the University since 1977. Mutual friends realised that we had a shared interest in Degas and put us in touch. We came from different backgrounds so our approaches were rather different. Richard had been trained as an artist at the Central School of Art, before going on to take the M.A. at the Courtauld Institute, where he specialised in Italian trecento painting. I had read modern history at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, taking a single course in art history in my final year – to my delight being tutored by T.J. Clark – and stayed on for the postgraduate Diploma year under Francis Haskell, before going to the Courtauld to widen my range in modern art. So our mutual enthusiasm for Degas’s work had contrasting perspectives. During the early and mid-1980s we would meet every few months at some pub or other in central Manchester and, among the early evening drinkers chatting after work, enjoy long and lively discussions about peinture à l’essence and prostitution, arabesques and pastel, laundresses and cire perdue. Our interests and growing expertise were diverse, Richard knowing and understanding about the qualities of different media, bringing his studio practice into our conversations, and I drawing in the socio-historical context, involving literature or caricature. But our enthusiasms were not divergent, and we learned much from each other over the years, both keen to deepen our understanding of the great and complex artist that was Degas.

 

This momentum began to see results. In November 1984 Richard organised a conference at Manchester Polytechnic to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Degas’s birth. Our two papers – his on Degas’s colour and mine on his sense of humour – typified our varied approaches, and we were joined by Anna Gruetzner Robins and Anthea Callen – both Courtauld alumnae – who contributed papers on George Moore and technique respectively. The papers, which Richard edited, were home published in a small edition by the Polytechnic, in typescript but fully if crudely illustrated. It was a start. That year I had the excitement of spending three weeks in the U.S.A. visiting museums and print rooms to negotiate loans for an exhibition I was curating for the Arts Council; Richard was very keen to hear what I had seen. The Private Degas was staged at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in early 1987. He and I had lively discussions both before and during the show about my selection, and debates about Degas continued at a conference at which Anthea and George Shackelford, invited from Houston, spoke. Ghislaine Howard, a painter friend of Richard’s and wife of his colleague Michael (himself a Courtauld alumnus), made a number of copies during the run of The Private Degas. She then decided to mark our shared enthusiasm with a double portrait. Entitled The Degasists, Ghislaine’s energetically brushed canvas shows me as exhibition curator, on the telephone (I posed holding a child’s plastic toy) with the show being hung in the background, and Richard as the scholar-artist, leaning over papers or drawings with his portrait of the elderly Degas based on Sacha Guitry’s photograph on the wall behind.

 

Richard saw the creative potential of exhibitions, and when offered the chance to select Degas. Images of Women for Tate Liverpool seized the opportunity. Staged in late 1989 the show was a rich thematic blend, largely based on British collections. The accompanying symposium was held in the full flood of feminist art history, requiring Richard determinedly to fend off some unfair allegations about his use of language. The climate had been much less combative the previous year, when we had both given papers at the international conference staged at the Musée d’Orsay to mark the great Degas retrospective held in Paris, Ottawa and New York. Its organiser, Henri Loyrette, flatteringly referred to the two of us as the “école de Manchester”. Richard was increasingly gaining an international reputation, the Liverpool conference papers being co-edited with Griselda Pollock as Dealing with Degas in 1992 and his first major publication on the artist, the ground-breaking Degas Landscapes, accompanying an exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, appearing the following year. (Though the then Met. curator Gary Tinterow simply could not believe Richard’s home address in a Pennine village: 1 Summerbottom, Broadbottom.) Our careers and interests had begun to branch by that stage, Richard going on to an outstanding, largely freelance, career, the books and exhibition catalogues – several co-authored with his wife Jill DeVonyar – of which established him as one of the world’s most penetrating yet sympathetic Degas scholars, a truly deep Degasist.

Book cover with two figures
Ghislaine Howard, The Degasists (Richard Kendall and Richard Thomson), Collection of the artist, Photography by Spencer Harrison.

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