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Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

An Untold Story: Helen Watson Gordon and Her Passion for Art

The first eight lots in the Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale are from the collection of a remarkable woman - Mrs. Helen Gordon. Wife of a senior American diplomat to India, Mr. Herb Gordon, Helen was a path breaker, visionary, educator and an ambassador for art and culture like few others of her generation. Sotheby's is honored to offer a selection of works from her collection. 

EARLY YEARS

Born in 1918 to a Canadian American family Helen Watson was driven from an early age with a passion for art. In her words, "I love to draw... I am always dreaming of things such as the kind of house I would like to live in, the kind of clothes I’d choose, where I want to travel and the career I hope to make,”  the last a rare ambition for a woman in the 1930s. In 1938, at the age of twenty, Helen traveled across Canada and the United States as a single professional woman  – unheard of in those days - serving as Rural Youth Director for the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture. The same age as most of her students, Helen distinguished herself through her sophisticated style -- wearing suits her mother made her.

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HERB AND HELEN ON THEIR WEDDING DAY. © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

In 1942 Helen was recruited to the position of National Supervisor for the National Film Board of Canada. Her recruiter and mentor was Donald Buchanon, one of the leading art critics of Canada at the time.  It was an incredibly senior role for one so young and an unprecedented position for a woman to have in those times. The Film Board produced films on culture, art, education and agriculture that were screened on rural circuits to educate Canadians about the unifying legacy of their own culture and thereby strengthen national unity.

At war's end Helen, ever the adventurer, continued to break new ground by moving to Sydney, Australia as a Film and Information Officer for the Canadian Information Service. Here Helen was instrumental in producing a number of films including one on aboriginal artists whom she considered to “have a great, natural talent for painting.” In 1948, resigning from the Canadian National Film Board, Helen married Herb Gordon, an American Foreign Service Officer. They had two daughters- Laura and Anne.

INDIA: DELHI (1954 – 58)

In 1954 Herb was assigned to the American Embassy in New Delhi and moved there with Helen and their daughters.  It was Helen's first encounter with India; its people, art, culture and it became a lifelong connection for her. In Delhi Helen immersed herself in organizing and establishing initiatives that continue to flourish to this day, a testament to her visionary leadership. Her most enduring achievements revolved around art and education. Helen was a driving force behind the establishment of the International School in New Delhi, a large, respected institution of higher secondary education, which remains to this day the school of choice for diplomats' families in India. 

She played an equally key role in the foundation of The Playhouse School, today the premier early learning center in New Delhi, which she helped establish in 1955 together with two like-minded women - Padma Nanda and Julie Haddow. Children at The Playhouse School were engaged in active learning through art and creativity and teachers were encouraged to teach through visual observation. This revolutionary experiment in education soon garnered widespread renown with accolades in the Hindustan Times (1956) and other publications. Bimla Bissell, Director and sole proprietor of the school, still pays tribute to Helen in the first paragraph of the school brochure: “The original idea and strong encouragement came from Mrs. Helen Gordon who saw the need for a creative nursery school in New Delhi. Helen coined the name “The Playhouse School” inspired by the real playhouse she had built in her backyard for her young daughters.”

The value of early education was instilled in the upbringing of Helen’s own daughters, making a positive impact on their lives as well. For Anne, it manifested into marrying someone whose life is devoted to education by being dean at Cornell University. For Laura it was having the determination and bravery to enter one of the first woman’s classes at the Ivy League School of Dartmouth.

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PICTURE GALLERY AT THE OFFICIAL GORDON RESIDENCE, 5 HO CHI MIN ROAD, CALCUTTA- 700071, INDIA. @ GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

INDIA: CALCUTTA (1968 - 1973)

During the Gordons’ second stint in India, Herb was posted to Calcutta as Consul General. This was a watershed moment for it occurred against the backdrop of the Bangladesh National Movement and brewing Indo-Pakistan conflict.

When the Gordons arrived in Calcutta, Helen threw herself into her new role as Consul General's wife with her trademark industry and enthusiasm. First on her agenda was decorating the Consul General residence located at 5 Ho Chi Minh Road. This led her to the eminent framers Chemould’s where she came to appreciate the art of framing. At Chemould’s, Helen was also drawn to an emerging coterie of contemporary artists, whose “…unexpected vitality…” appealed to her at once. “I came up with the idea to invite Calcutta’s contemporary artists along with local Indian and American wives to luncheons.  The artists came early with several of their recent paintings.  These were carefully displayed through the residence and all the way up the grand 42 step staircase on the wide landing. These luncheons produced sales for these artists and seeing them displayed in my home gave women good guidance in choosing art they could live with.  Artists began to be recognized." 

At some of the shows Helen was the sole buyer providing these artists crucial and much needed early patronage. Additionally, the Gordons sponsored art shows at the Academy of Fine Arts. One of these featured artist Laxman Pai and included his painting of a Kashmiri Village (Lot 6).  Opening one of the multi-artist shows, Helen targeted one piece in particular. Its creator had just begun to be displayed internationally in Yugoslavia and Paris. In Bikash Bhattacharjee’s “Rooftops of Calcutta” (Lot 4), Helen recognized Calcutta’s surreal, magical quality.  She intended to buy more than one in the series, wasn’t arguing price, and wasn’t taking no for an answer. Years later, Helen reflected on his paintings and him as a person: “The Bikash Bhattacharjee painting in browns would find its way up the grand 42 step staircase of the Calcutta residence to the wide landing between floors.  It was impossible to photograph there so high up it seemed to be among the rooftops itself. He is probably India’s number one artist today. He was a most interesting person, who often painted room scenes in a series of six or more. My work with Mother Teresa was also important to him.” The Gordons formed a warm friendship with the artist and when they left Calcutta Bikash gifted them with a watercolor of their favorite subject - Calcutta rooftops (Lot 5).     

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LETTER FROM BIKASH TO HELEN REFERENCING LOT 4 BEING OFFERED AT SOTHEBY’S UPCOMING SALE, MODERN & CONTEMPORARY SOUTH ASIAN ART (19 MARCH, NEW YORK). © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

Another artist the Gordons became close to was the grand master of the Bengal School – Jamini Roy. Roy personally selected his “Krishna with Gopis” (Lot 3) as a painting for Helen to own. When he passed away in 1972 the Gordons were in attendance at his deathbed. As she later reminisced, “Jamini had about five separate styles of painting.  After he died, his sons and nephews copied much….But I know the little painting with the two cows is one of his earliest.  He had someone open the wardrobe in his sick room, and take this one out for me.  I was much honored to be able to buy this very early one from him.  There are no lithographs of this one…”

However behind the Gordons’ celebration of Calcutta’s art scene lay a grave humanitarian crisis. Millions of refugees from what was then East Pakistan were fleeing the horror of war in their homeland and pouring into India, and Calcutta was the eye of the storm. Makeshift refugee camps mushroomed all over the city and soon a cholera epidemic broke out. All this was happening against the political backdrop when the situation worsened - US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger tilted foreign policy in support of Pakistan, and the Gordons were in the precarious and dangerous position of upholding unpopular American foreign policy in West Bengal. Some understood it better than others. A note from West Bengali film director, Satyajit Ray, who himself was battling censorship and condemnation for his newly released film, sent universal good tidings: “The situation in Calcutta is getting bad to worse and we all need good wishes of one another.”

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THE STATESMAN, MOTHER TERESA THANKS HELEN GORDON FOR HER EFFORTS FOR THE NIRMALA KENNEDY CENTER, CALCUTTA AS MR. SIDDHARTHA RAY, CHIEF MINISTER LOOKS ON. ©GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

The crisis necessitated an immediate response and Helen, the indefatigable organizer, immediately rallied resources to found a number of relief projects. Together with international institutions like Canadian Development, Toronto University, Ford Foundation, Terre des Hommes, and a motivated group of local supporters Helen helped to fund and build a model village and school for children. Known as Bustee # 1 this school later was christened as The Nirmala Kennedy Center. Together with Mother Teresa, Helen also helped to establish a space of solace and compassion for the thousands of women refugees who were hapless victims of the brutal conflict. She selected and devised self-help activities like carpentry, knitting and sewing for the refugees.

The Gordons even suggested their eighteen year old daughter get involved. Then a senior boarding at The American International School in New Delhi, Laura spent her senior spring travelling with Mother Teresa and reporting on her charitable work.  The report was mailed to the Kennedy Foundation and was effective in nominating Mother Teresa for the Kennedy International Peace Price at the time.

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LETTER FROM THE JOSEPH P. KENNEDY JR. FOUNDATION TO COUNSEL GENERAL HERB GORDON ACKNOWLEDGING THE FAMILY’S WORK. © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

According to “The Calcuttan,” the Gordons’ home soon became “the meeting place of American and other voluntary relief workers, and the stopping point of United States Senators and big wigs of humanity…” Some of the first international celebrities to be house guests in early 1971 were world renowned black musicians Duke Ellington and noted gospel singer Mahalia Jackson following the footsteps of American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. They were joined by political luminaries like Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Charles Percy, Senator Adlai Stevenson and Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen amongst others. Even a young Peace Corps volunteer named Tom Wolf – recently the Governor of Pennsylvania – who was assisting farmers in Orissa with experimental crops, frequently visited. The conflict reached a crescendo in December 1971 and ended with the formation of the independent nation of Bangladesh.

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SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY TOURING CALCUTTA SLUMS WITH MOTHER TERESA AND HERB GORDON AND HELEN GORDON, 1971. © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

For the remainder of their stay in Calcutta, the Gordons continued their many charitable duties, played host to a steady stream of dignitaries from their homeland and continued their association with the causes they had grown to cherish and love, including the arts. The Gordons supported the efforts of fellow American, Thomas Needham who in the ‘50s headed up the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Calcutta and became Jamini Roy’s earliest American collector.  In the midst of the Indo-Pakistani conflict, Needham arranged for Roy’s first US exhibit which launched international recognition of his work and asked India’s US Ambassador L. K. Jha to open the exhibit which included Helen’s “Five Women”. Interestingly watching Indian folk art evolve as a form of contemporary art mirrored Helen’s own personal journey from Canadian folk schools to Australian aboriginal art.

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HELEN WELCOMING DUKE ELLINGTON TO CALCUTTA. © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

Finally, in the summer of 1973 it was time to bid farewell. Helen recounted her last night at the Nirmala Kennedy Center, “… hundreds stood in the rain as the building would not hold them – the Chief Minister, the Calcutta dignitaries and some from New Delhi...” Amongst the many personal tributes offered was one from Mother Teresa: “Your compassion for the suffering people was so beautiful…If only politicians of today would free their hearts with compassion for the people they rule.  We would have a different world today…” Amrita Bazar Patrika noted: “Mrs. Gordon has worked untiringly, selflessly and unsung for eight years for our people.” Herb and Helen left India with a touching sendoff from their dear friend Lt. General “Jake” Aurora and his wife. As their plane took off, Helen looked down one last time at her favorite scene – the rooftops of Calcutta.

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LT. GENERAL “JAKE” AURORA BIDS GOODBYE TO HELEN. © GORDON FAMILY ARCHIVES

In her final interview for “The Junior Statesman” while speaking with then journalist Shashi Tharoor (future Under-Secretary-General at the UN), Helen’s heart felt attachment to Calcutta resonated:

“To tell you the truth when I’m here I don’t remember that I’m an American and I don’t remember which is the East and which is the West.  I have long forgotten what I am by nationality.  But I have never forgotten when I see people’s faces, what they suffer and what they feel and… while working with people like Mother Teresa, nationality doesn’t count much.”

Helen passed way at 98; Herb five years before.  Tributes to this dynamic duo spanned continents – from Saskatchewan’s prairie folk schools to The Playhouse School of New Delhi.  The Gordons belonged to a generation who believed passionately in the goodwill and bridges that could be built through diplomacy. Helen who sacrificed her career to support Herb’s diplomatic missions remarked with characteristic modesty: “What is a good foreign service wife?  Half of the team, if you have a husband that is suited to the role of diplomat. The wife is the unpaid half with fringe benefits.” This year Herb and Helen would turn 100. Sotheby’s is privileged to partner with their family in telling their story and offering this special tribute to them.  

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