Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

Muriel Wilson

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

The Muriel Wilson Bequest

Written to accompany an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 

photo of Muriel Wilson

Muriel Wilson was born in South Wales to parents from the north east of England and on summer holidays she watched her father, the artist and teacher Alfred J Lavender, sketch his native Northumbrian coast. Lavender was, with Ceri Richards and Cedric Morris, a member of The Welsh Group of artists.

Straight from school, Muriel studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1951-4 and felt lost until she met tutor and architectural critic Reyner Banham. He and his wife Mary became her lifelong friends, and introduced Muriel to the architect Colin St. John Wilson who she married in 1955, honeymooning to look at Palladian architecture. They moved to Cambridge when Sandy became a professor at the School of Architecture and built them a remarkable house in Granchester Road, filled with their growing contemporary art collection.

Muriel ran the Arts Council’s Cambridge Gallery and students, would-be curators, sat at her feet to use her phrase; Nicholas Serota was one of these and recalled her elegance. She, too, remembered that whenever she visited London for shows or meetings she always wore gloves, hardly believing how the world changed from that formality to the liberation of pop art then the explosive phenomenon of the Young British Artists during her long career.

Characteristically dismissive of her own role on its fringes, she was a keen-eyed observer of the Independent Group both at the ICA and their seminal 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. She watched the making of Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? noting wryly that the parts played by wives and girlfriends were disregarded at the time. She made friendships with key artists including Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and with Rita Donagh: they saw each other at a party with Mary Banham just days before Muriel’s death in 2018.

After her divorce in 1971, Muriel moved to London and joined the British Council, first as an exhibitions officer, then curator of the collection, Head of Exhibitions and eventually Director of Visual Arts. She was one of a large number of women in the visual arts, before today’s cult of the star curator, who worked with determination and quiet effect behind the scenes: influencing, setting standards, training others. Muriel’s first boss at the British Council was Lilian Somerville; for many years, Margaret McLeod was its Deputy Director. At the ICA, the director was Dorothy Morland whose biography is about to be published; Joanna Drew, Muriel’s contemporary at the Arts Council, has recently been celebrated in a book. The story of such women and many more - eminences grises, powers behind perceived thrones occupied by men - needs to be written.

Muriel kept very quiet about her friendships with artists and the personal collection she amassed either through purchases or gifts. This was not just modesty or shyness but a deeply-held belief that artists are simply more significant than the professionals who work to support them. For that reason, she turned down an OBE on retirement because it came with the job rather than through personal merit.

She also served on the Arts Council and Contemporary Art Society committees, helping develop other collections. For the CAS in 1984 she bought work, amongst many others, by Richard Deacon, Rose Garrard, Lisa Milroy, Alison Wilding and Susan Hiller and remarked that the almost equal proportion of men to women in the final list was not a conscious policy … but amply demonstrates the quality of interesting women artists currently working in this country.

In retirement she had time to indulge her passion for the decorative arts and, in particular, contemporary jewellery. She joined various societies, and was extremely generous with her time, serving on several committees and councils, organising research trips. Muriel was a Founding Member of the Association of Contemporary Jewellers and Honorary Secretary for seven years. She initiated their magazine Findings and served as editor for 15 years, from 1998 to 2013. She was also Managing Editor of Jewellery History Today for the Society of Jewellery Historians. Precise, often sharp, in her use of words, it is not surprising that she was also a very accomplished fencer.

The Arts and Crafts movement was a major interest and she contributed substantially to scholarship about the jeweller John Houghton Maurice Bonnor (1875-1917).

Finally, it was with jewellery that she felt able to be bolder in her expressing her style, taste and knowledge. Always dressed in soft tones of grey, a beautiful woman at all stages of her life, she delighted in becoming a walking and talking support for strong pieces of jewellery, promoting the artists.

In an article for the 20th Century Society in 2013, Muriel wrote about her large bracelet, made by Maria Hanson: This is emphatically not an everyday piece; its 20cm span means that wearing it at a crowded party confers heavy responsibility to avoid puncturing other guests, but I discovered that its effect is most impressive when the wearer’s arm is gracefully raised to wave nonchalantly at a friend across the room.