Sotheby's: What is the significance of this painting and where does it fit in to the existing collection?
Simon Martin: Painted in 1903, the painting, translated as ‘Model seated in a chair, combing her hair’, depicts a brunette model in Vuillard’s studio in Rue Truffaut in Paris, where his mother ran a family sewing business. An evocative example of the Nabi painter’s interiors, it is an exciting addition to the Pallant House Gallery collection. The intimacy of the pose and subject of the figure in an interior resonates with a particularly important work in our collection - the Edgar Degas drawing ‘Femme se peignant’ (Woman combing her hair) (c.1887-1890), also allocated through the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme with Sotheby’s assistance, in 2016.
Degas was himself an important influence on Vuillard, who in turn was an important influence on the development of Modern British art, in particular the artists Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman, subjects of two major exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery in recent years, and resonances can be found with other works in the collection: Sickert’s Jack Ashore (1912-13), a much later work by RB Kitaj entitled ‘Girl braiding her Hair’ (1999), and works by Howard Hodgkin, who described himself as a ‘fanatical admirer’ of Vuillard.
The previous owner of the painting was Jeremy Hutchinson QC (1915-2017), a fascinating figure in 20th century British cultural life through his role in landmark trials such as the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover censorship trial and his defence of Christine Keeler, the art thief Kempton Bunton, the Great Train robber Charles Wilson and the Soviet spy George Blake. His mother, Mary Hutchinson, had been part of the Bloomsbury Group - the cousin of author Lytton Strachey and the lover of the critic Clive Bell. She was memorably painted by Clive’s wife Vanessa Bell (a portrait she described as being “perfectly hideous”). She and her husband St John Hutchinson collected paintings by Derain, Matisse, and Marchand, passing on their love of art to their son Jeremy, who became a passionate promoter of the arts, becoming a trustee and later Chairman of the Tate Gallery from 1980-84 as well as Vice-Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1974-79. Pallant House Gallery was chosen by the recipient of Lord Hutchinson’s estate to receive this work in lieu of Inheritance Tax through the AIL scheme. The deal was brokered by Sotheby’s.
What does it mean for Pallant House Gallery to have acquired this painting?
At a time when so much in politics seems to be about Britain cutting ties with Europe, the acquisition of this remarkable painting reminds us how closely British art has been connected to European influences. Although Pallant House Gallery is most celebrated for its collection of Modern British art, it is impossible to tell its story fully without taking into account the exchange of ideas, knowledge and influence with artists on the continent. Our collection already includes works by artists including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, André Derain, Pablo Picasso and Gino Severini, allowing us to explore the international connections with British art that have shaped 20th century art history on both sides of the channel. Our ambition is to be an international centre for British art, and works such as the Vuillard help us demonstrate that British art has never been in a vortex, but closely connected to international developments.
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming director of Pallant House Gallery?
I have been overall Director of Pallant House Gallery for the past three years, but I’ve worked here for 17 years. Originally I studied History of Art at the University of Warwick and in Venice. Whilst I was a student I undertook internships at Sotheby's, the Mead Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Estorick Collection, and after my Masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art in European Modernism I went straight to Pallant House Gallery to be Assistant Curator, later being promoted to Head of Collections and Exhibitions; then the Artistic Director during a Co-Directorship, and Director in 2017. I suppose it's unusual to have stayed in one institution, but it has changed beyond all recognition since I have been here. Our profile has grown and, so too, have our ambitions. Over the years I have curated dozens of exhibitions of Modern British art, my favourites have probably been Edward Burra, Keith Vaughan, John Minton, but also thematic surveys such as Conflict and Conscience: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War and The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, but also working with contemporary artists such as Clare Woods, Pablo Bronstein, Lothar Götz and Nick Goss to commission exciting new work.
Why is it important for a gallery’s collection to evolve?
It is incredibly important for a gallery’s collection to evolve. I am passionate about developing Pallant House Gallery’s collection, and working with collectors to do this. This doesn’t just mean filling gaps, although I have a list of artists I dream of acquiring, not least Francis Bacon. In 2018, we received a wonderful group of works through the Cultural Gifts Scheme with the assistance of Sotheby’s from Damien Hirst’s former manager Frank Dunphy and his wife Lorna. The collection includes sculptures and paintings by Hirst, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Gavin Turk, Michael Craig-Martin and Peter Blake. We need to look to the future as much as to the past.
Can you explain a little bit about the ethos and legacy of Pallant House Gallery?
We often describe Pallant House Gallery as a 'collection of collections': not only is it one of the best public collections of Modern British art, but also it gives an insight into the history of collecting in this country. It is a unique setting, a historic Queen Anne townhouse, with a contemporary wing by Long & Kentish, in association with Colin St John Wilson, who was the architect of the British Library and with his wife MJ Long, a passionate collector of British Pop including his friends such as Richard Hamilton, RB Kitaj and Patrick Caulfield. It all started with the Dean of Chichester Cathedral Walter Hussey, who had commissioned artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Marc Chagall.
He bequeathed his collection, and numerous others followed - attracted to the domestic nature of the building, and the quality of the collection. It feels like a home for art, rather than an anonymous white-cube. Hussey’s view was that as long as the quality was good modern and contemporary could be presented in a historic setting, and that has set the tone for an ambitious programme. Now we have almost 5,000 items in the collection, including a dedicated Print Room for our collection of works on paper. Alongside the collection we have a programme of exhibitions, events, and an award-winning public programme for our learning and community activities.
Are there any exciting projects we can expect to see at Pallant House
We have an exciting programme of exhibitions over the coming months, including Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain this spring, which features a celebration of mid-century posters, war art and book designs. Our main exhibition this summer Ben Nicholson: From the Studio will explore the fascinating relationship between the still life objects and the artist's abstract paintings. In the autumn, we will have the first major exhibition of Glyn Philpot in over 35 years, featuring both his celebrated society portraiture and his sensitive depictions of black models. In addition, we are working on a number of projects with contemporary artists.
We have recently purchased the historic Coach House behind the Gallery, and are launching an exciting fundraising campaign to build a new Collections Centre, gallery, community spaces and visitor facilities that will equal the international significance of our collections. The design team will be led by Wright & Wright architects, whose other projects include the lower galleries at the National Gallery; the Paul Mellon Centre in London, the RIBA Library at the V&A and the Lambeth Palace Library and Archive.