Sir Lawrence Gowing

Portrait of Sir Norman Reid


Not on display

Sir Lawrence Gowing 1918–1991
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 660 × 451 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Tate Gallery 1981

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 26 × 17 3/4 (66 × 44.2)
Presented by the Trustees of the Tate Gallery 1981

Exh: Lawrence Gowing, Serpentine Gallery, March–April 1983 (163)

Sir Norman Reid, DA (Edinburgh), FMA, FIIC (b.1915) was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1 October 1964 until 31 December 1979. He studied at the Edinburgh College of Art 1933–7 as the first Andrew Grant Scholar and then for a postgraduate year 1937–38, and travelled through Europe 1938–9. He and a fellow student Jean Bertram were married in 1941. During the Second World War he served in the army 1939–46, attaining the rank of major in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He joined the staff of the Tate Gallery on 3 October 1946, and was appointed Deputy Director in 1954 and Keeper in 1959. He was made an Honorary D.Litt. of the University of East Anglia in 1970; an oil painting by him ‘Mr Pencil at Annestown’ is in the Tate Gallery collection (T03478).

To mark Sir Norman's directorship the Trustees of the Tate Gallery decided as individuals, not as Trustees, to commission a portrait of him for presentation to the Gallery. The artist whom they eventually chose to paint the portrait was Lawrence Gowing, Slade Professor of Fine Art, University College, London, who served as a Trustee of the Gallery from 1953–60 and 1961–64, and worked there 1965–67 as Keeper of the British Collection and Deputy Director.

The portrait was painted in Gowing's studio at the Slade in the latter part of 1980. He made an oil study on canvas 14 × 10 inches, which was later rubbed down and the canvas re-used. In a letter to the compiler (8 November 1982) Gowing wrote: ‘A few years ago shaving under a pergola at La Cournière near Lambesc in Provence I dropped my shaving-mirror and broke it. When I picked it up the effect [of multiple images] struck me so much that I thought providence had spoken and this experience has possibly influenced self-portraits. But my first self-portrait incorporating multiple images was painted many years before [in the early 1960s]. I had already painted many pictures incorporating multiple images and one is in the Tate. The repeating lines of the elder tree in the centre of my landscape in the collection [‘Path with Elder and Hazel’ 1959 (T00475)] are in fact due to the binocular vision of vertical contours. There are many pictures like this’.

The above part of the catalogue entry is based mainly on two letters of 8 November 1982 and 13 October 1983 from the artist.

Sir Norman Reid himself wrote of the portrait (letter of 1 November 1983): ‘The Trustees’ first choice was Graham Sutherland and he had arranged a first sitting but died before this took place. The Trustees then suggested either Gowing or Auerbach and I favoured Lawrence as I know him well...

'L.G. asked two sittings only of about an hour each (I think). The first was entirely a photographic session with Lawrence snapping away with a short telephoto lens through the shattered shaving mirror at about three feet distance. The results were very interesting - nearer Cubism than Futurism, I thought.

'L.G. at the 2nd sitting painted a head which he said was intended as a colour note. The portrait must have been painted largely from photographs as far as the design was concerned. There was a suggestion that we shd. paint each other (rather like Matisse and Derain if one dare make such a comparison) and I did a small drawing of Lawrence while he was painting me. There was certainly no time to do more than that.

'I saw the portrait only once before it was given to the Tate. I am told it looks like me but I think it catches only the discontented side.

'Perhaps I shd. add that before we began, Lawrence asked me if I wd. like one of his “straight” portraits or should he follow what was interesting him most at the moment. I encouraged him to do the latter.

'This note is frank and factual...But it is an accurate record of his [Lawrence Gowing's] procedure as far as my memory serves.’

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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