Obituary: Professor Sir Alan Bowness CBE - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Obituary: Professor Sir Alan Bowness CBE

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Obituary: Professor Sir Alan Bowness CBE

It is with very great sadness that we report the death on 1 March 2021 of Professor Sir Alan Bowness CBE, distinguished Courtauld alumnus, former colleague and Honorary Fellow and former Director of the Tate Gallery and the Henry Moore Foundation.

Alan Bowness came to The Courtauld as a post-graduate (1953-55) to specialise in 19th century French art, having read for a BA in Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge.  Immediately after his studies he became active as an art critic, writing for The ObserverArts (New York), Art News and ReviewThe Times Literary Supplement and The Burlington Magazine. In 1956 as a Regional Art Officer for the Arts Council, with responsibilities for the South West of England, he visited St Ives, Cornwall, where he met artists Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron and others who had settled there. He also met Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson, daughter of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, whom he married in 1957. That same year, he began teaching at The Courtauld, becoming a Reader in 1967 and Professor in 1978. As Professor Chris Green, who studied with him, notes below, Alan was the first specialist in later 19th and 20th Century art to be appointed to a full-time post at The Courtauld; he played a pivotal role for a generation of art historians, curators and critics working in those periods.

As Chris also notes, Alan had strong belief that art historical research and scholarship should be made fully accessible to the public through exhibitions. He had an active curating career from the beginning of the 1960s creating exhibitions both for Tate Gallery, the Arts Council – Vincent van Gogh (1968), Rodin (1970), French Symbolist Painters (1972) and Gustave Courbet (1978, with Michel Laclotte) – and the Royal Academy (Post-Impressionism at Royal Academy, London and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1979–80). Retrospectives of contemporary artists for the Tate Gallery included Ivon Hitchens (1963), Jean Dubuffet (1966), Peter Lanyon (1968) and William Scott (1972).

Alan’s links with St Ives were fundamental to his life and his work.  Between 1960 and 1970 he published complete catalogues of the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth and, after her death in 1975, ran the Hepworth Estate. Following her wishes, in 1976 he oversaw the opening of her former house and studio in St Ives as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In 1980 he became Director of the Tate Gallery, a post he held from 1980-1988, presiding over a series of major exhibitions, making substantial acquisitions, adding strength to all collections, but particularly its holdings of 20th century painting and sculpture – and setting up the Turner prize for contemporary artists.  Through his instigation and creation of Tate Liverpool, he triggered the movement for national institutions to share their collections throughout the country. He then went on to become Director of the Henry Moore Foundation and created the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

Alan retained a warm attachment throughout his life both to his Cambridge College and to The Courtauld.  Here at The Courtauld he was in close contact with former colleagues, those whom he had taught, those who remained on the faculty, and their students. His connection was furthered through his daughter Dr Sophie Bowness, herself a distinguished Courtauld alumna, who took over charge of the Hepworth Estate from her father in 2008.

Later in life  he remained fully supportive of The Courtauld while occasionally challenging particular decisions or developments.  At 90 he retained his joie de vivre and those of us who had the privilege of enjoying his 90th birthday celebrations will always recall them with pleasure.  His focus and energy were an inspiration. As recently as December 2019, he determinedly joined us for lunch at the annual gathering of Emeriti and Honorary Fellows, despite the long journey alone from Barnes to Vernon Square (which he had not visited before).  Even in lockdown he retained his passion for art and music, regretting the impossibility of getting to art galleries or the Wigmore Hall – he had so little time left, he said.  It is very sad indeed that he was right.

Alan Bowness played a major role in shaping key aspects of this country’s artistic  landscape. He was much and rightly lauded, with a CBE in 1976 and a knighthood in 1988.  The Courtauld owes him much, we cherished his friendship, enthusiasm, engagement and support and we will miss him greatly.

Deborah Swallow, Märit Rausing Director, The Courtauld

Alan Bowness at The Courtauld

When Alan Bowness joined the teaching staff at the Courtauld in 1957, Anthony Blunt had been Director for ten years. Blunt balanced his scholarship in pre-modern European art and architecture with an actively engaged interest in 20th Century art. It was logical for him to see 19th and 20th Century art history as an area for the Institute to expand into, and indeed postgraduate research in early 20th Century art was already underway in the 1950s. Blunt would continue to lecture to students on Picasso until 1969.

It was Alan Bowness, however, as the first specialist in later 19th and 20th Century art to be appointed to a full-time post at the Courtauld, who led the teaching of what was then called ‘modern period art history’ between the late 1950s and 1980. This was a time of growth for the Institute, especially noticeable in the ‘modern department’. Shaped by and led by Bowness, the department was responsible for the formation of a generation of art historians, curators and critics committed to the rigorous analysis of visual art right across the period between the Pre-Raphaelites and modernism. Bowness’s own approach focused on the artwork itself and on the histories of artists, but he encouraged students to open up contextual perspectives too. Above all, it was the way he bridged the historical and the contemporary that made his leadership of the department so fruitful. The doctoral theses he guided took on topics that ranged from Monet and van Gogh to Henry Moore and art and politics in the decade following the Second World War.

Though himself as a postgraduate a specialist in 19th Century French art, he brought to The Courtauld job what was then a uniquely wide range of interests and contacts reaching as far as the contemporary British art world. His work with the Arts Council before taking up his Courtauld lectureship had deepened his commitment to modernism, and, as modernism emerged as a force in British art, his role was key. He was at the centre of a remarkable network of friends and allies – artists, critics, gallerists and curators – which meant that if a student planned to research Henry Moore’s drawings, or Naum Gabo’s relationship with Barbara Hepworth, he not only offered ideas but introductions to the artists themselves.

At a moment when academic art history was resistant to work on the recent past as a misleading merger of history and criticism, too close to journalism, he insisted that contemporary artists were not only creative forces demanding a response but living archives to be questioned and studied. He showed that art history and contemporary art belong together. In Britain through the 20th Century, after all, there had been practicing artists like Roger Fry and Lawrence Gowing who had written important art history and criticism, while John Golding, who joined him in the ‘modern department’ in 1961, was a painter-art-historian too.

Finally, Alan Bowness’s move to become Director of the Tate in 1980 underlines his conviction – a conviction that left its mark on many Courtauld students – that research-based art history and exhibition making should have a public as well as a scholarly mission.

Christopher Green, Professor Emeritus, The Courtauld


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