Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

Movers and Shakers

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Movers and Shakers

Published in the Debate section: essay on three London post-war female gallerists for the Royal Academy Magazine, 

Despite the image of art dealing as a man's world, women played a crucial role in the display, promotion and sale of 20th-century British art. GILL HEDLEY profiles three female gallerists who changed the course of artists' lives.

The critic John Russell described the London art scene at the end of the Second World War as a rose garden in which the Cuisse de Nymphe had dropped off the stalk, moth had made short work of the climbing Mermaid, and Madame Alfred Carrière had been ploughed up for turnips. Several early planters and later pruners in that post-war period were female, their work helping British art to flourish after the fighting was over.

Their stories remain largely untold, partly because dealers, both men and women, play a supporting role to the lives of their artists. In the period around the war, the style of art dealing was moving away from the well-established family business, handed down from father to son, and becoming a more creative profession. Women dealers often played a particular part in expanding the ways in which art galleries supported their artists, staging innovative styles of exhibitions and attracting a new clientele.

A full history would include Helen Lessore, Lillian Browse, Lucy Wertheim and Lea Bondi Jaray among others. Bondi Jaray, for example, was a Jewish art dealer who ran a gallery in Vienna. The great-aunt of British painter Tess Jaray RA, she was forced to leave Austria in 1937; she came to London where she established another influential gallery (her heirs recently won an extraordinary fight to reclaim Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally, which was seized by the Nazis).

The three art dealers whose stories appear here - Ala Story, Erica Brausen and Peter Norton - have been singled out because of the ways in which their lives intersected both with each other and with so many others, as well as the international impact of their galleries and philanthropy. All three were particularly influenced by the German-speaking world, from expressionism to the Bauhaus. None of these women was born in Britain.

Ala Story

photo of Ala Story

Ala Story in New York's American-British Art Center, in 1941, which she set up

She acquired work by rising stars.

Ala Story (1907-72) had trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in her birthplace Vienna until the impact of a Van Gogh exhibition in 1928 made her realise she did not have the talent to become a painter. She moved to London in her early twenties to study English and got a job at the new Beaux Arts Gallery in Mayfair's Bruton Place, where Helen Lessore, later its Director, was the secretary.

Story's career progressed rapidly through the leading Modernist galleries: she worked as a secretary at the Redfern Gallery, became manager of the Lucy Wertheim Gallery in Burlington Gardens and, at only 25, a partner in the Storran Gallery in Albany Courtyard, next to the RA. Originally the Wednesday-Thursday Gallery, it had been set up by a Mrs Cochrane, who devoted two days a week to selling woodcuts and greetings cards; she was joined in 1933 by Story, who telescoped their names into 'Storran' and helped make it a highly fashionable gallery, exhibiting artists such as Gertrude Hermes RA, Andre Derain and Duncan Grant.

By 1936, Story had married and had returned to the Redfern Gallery as a director. At her usual pace, she took over the Stafford Gallery in St James's two years later. Its avant-garde reputation had dwindled and she developed it into the British Art Centre, a non-profit organisation helping the Contemporary Art Society purchase work from artists for museums. But, as war approached, timing was not on her side.

By 1940 Story had moved to New York to establish the American-British Art Center, an exhibition space and club on West 57th Street, mainly to promote support British artists but with a wider international and social function too. In 1952, by then living with the filmmaker and collector Margaret Mallory, she became the second Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, to which both women made substantial gifts and bequests of works by British and international artists. Story expanded-the museum's collection of European and Asian art and created the Pacific Coast Biennial, an invitation-only exhibition based on her exhaustive studio visits in the region. As a result, she acquired work by rising stars, such as Richard Diebenkorn Hon RA. helping to create a remarkable collection of American art.

Peter Norton

photo of Peter Norton

Peter Norton photographed by Ida Kar in the mid-1950s

A generous champion of young artists

Noel Evelyn Hughes (1891-1972), always known by her nickname Peter, was a daughter of Empire. Her father was a distinguished engineer after whom Hughes Road in her birthplace Mumbai is named. She rebelled against what she described as her 'very early Victorian family, every one of whom was of course interested in music, painting and poetry' - her grandfather and great-grandfather had exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy - and she went to work in a leading advertising company.

In 1927 she married the diplomat Clifford Norton, and an interest in the Bauhaus art school developed after she met students-turned-teachers Herbert Bayer and Marcel Breuer while skiing.

In 1936, the London art world was blown wide open by the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in Cork Street. When it closed, Peter was ready to fill the space and opened her trenchantly named London Gallery with her cousin Marguerita Strettell. The Redfern Gallery and the Mayer Gallery were both nearby and the street became the locus for modern art in London. Peggy Guggenheim's Guggenheim Jeune opened two years later.

The influences on Peter included Roland Penrose, co-organiser of the Surrealist show, and a wide range of emigre artists and designers, above all Bayer and Breuer. She was always a Modernist, determined to support artists as generously as she could, and, to spread the word, she created a lending library within the gallery.

In 1938 Peter's husband was sent to Warsaw as Chargé d'affaires. She sold her gallery to Penrose, and left with her husband for Poland, where she was an eyewitness to Hitler's invasion on 1 September 1939. The war gave her the chance to use her formidable energies in protecting lives and helping refugees, often at her own risk.

Later, having departed for Switzerland, she became an active and adventurous patron to John Craxton RA as well other artists in Switzerland, and later in Greece, when Clifford became Ambassador in 1946. Peter had lost much of her own collection during the war, but built it up again with less well-known names. She was an early supporter of the ICA in London and, on retirement to Britain, remained an indefatigable and generous champion of young artists.

Erica Brausen

photo of Erica Brausen

Erica Brausen in 1959 at Hanover Gallery, London, photographed by Ida Kar

Francis Bacon said that she had the best eye in the art world.

Erica Brausen (1908-92) was born in Dusseldorf and moved to Paris aged 21; during the rise of Hitler in the early 1930s she remained in the city, living near the Closerie de Lilas in Montparnasse. Her friendship with artist Joan Miro drew her to move to Majorca, where she ran a bar. In the summer of 1936, she helped many Jewish and socialist friends escape the Civil War blockade.

Later that year, Brausen came to London with a group of disciples of the guru Meher Baba, with whom she was acquainted, and she simply stayed on in the capital. She got a job at the Storran Gallery, then presented herself to the authorities at the outbreak of war, describing herself as in the fashion business and a picture dealer. She was not interned and after the war in 1946 she began her long life with the charismatic model Toto Koopman. Erica's marriage blanc the same year to a male friend gave them social protection as a couple and for their business ventures.

After the Storran Gallery, Brausen worked at Lea Bondi Jaray’s St George's Gallery in Mayfair, then at the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street. On Graham Sutherland’s advice, and with her own prescience, Erica bought Francis Bacon’s Painting (1946), which she then sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Brausen-Bacon partnership established both of their careers; both built brilliantly on this early coup and Brausen began to plan the Hanover Gallery. Bacon said she had the best eye in the art world.

In late 1947, she took over the original premises of the St George’s Gallery on Hanover Square, and created an influential, international gallery that flourished until 1973. Bacon left the gallery in 1958 to join the Marlborough Gallery, which was founded by Harry Fischer and Frank Lloyd, who had been Brausen's colleagues at Lea Bondi Jaray's gallery.

The Hanover Gallery's first exhibition was, appropriately, devoted to Sutherland and opened in the summer of 1948 during the ‘Austerity Olympics' in London. A phrase from Robert Melville's review of Sutherland's paintings equally well describes the future and lasting impact of the Hanover: 'It struck a hot gong-like note, a luminous widening stain.'

photo of Erica Brausen