A Failed Charm Offensive: Tate and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Keen to expand Tate’s holdings of modern international art, the Director Norman Reid tried hard to persuade the American collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim to donate her impressive collection of European and American modern art to the gallery in the early and mid-1960s. Drawing on information gleaned from the gallery’s records and from press cuttings, this essay examines the reasons why the gallery’s charm offensive was ultimately unsuccessful.

In her autobiography entitled Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, first published in 1946, later revised in 1979, the American heiress and collector of modern art Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) noted the failure of negotiations in 1964–5 to accession her art collection into the Tate Gallery’s own collection. This outcome was despite a series of promising discussions with the Tate Gallery’s director, Norman Reid, and other members of the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery. Central to the Tate Gallery’s charm offensive had been the invitation to Guggenheim to show almost her entire art collection, then housed in her home in the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni in Venice, at the Tate Gallery in London in an exhibition that took place under the auspices of the Arts Council from 31 December 1964 to 7 February 1965 (figs.1 and 2). In her autobiography Guggenheim proudly recorded events:

In 1965, I was invited to show nearly my entire collection at the Tate Gallery in London. A tremendous fuss was made over this. The Tate Gallery’s chief restorer came to prepare the paintings to travel. I felt very guilty to think how much I had neglected them and how badly they were in need of restoration. The Tate Gallery hoped to inherit the collection. They gave a big dinner party for me in one of the galleries borrowing old silver for the occasion. I was allowed to hang the pictures: this was the last time I ever did so. We had a very impressive opening. I went around on the arm of the new director, Norman Reid, receiving the guests. The show was a terrific success, with people queuing up all the way down the steps of the Tate and along the Embankment. My only rival was Churchill’s funeral. After the show, which was prolonged for two weeks, they restored lots of paintings for me.1

Guggenheim then tantalisingly ends her account of these negotiations between herself and the Tate Gallery inconclusively, going on in the next paragraph to recall the terrible floods in Venice in 1966 but leaving the ending to the story of her relationship with Reid and the Tate Gallery unfinished.

Likewise, the minutes from the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery’s meetings end inconclusively, leaving the reader to surmise that all did not go according to plan – that is, not in accordance with the Tate Gallery’s plans to acquire Guggenheim’s art collection. Dated ‘Meeting: 21 January 1965’, the last mention of these negotiations recorded the Trustees’ frustration that, in spite of all their courting of Guggenheim with the delivery of a high-profile show supported by British state funding, the provision of a lavish opening reception and dinner for the collector and her friends, and the considerable costs expended on the conservation of her artworks, no firm commitment from her about the donation had been forthcoming. The minutes recorded somewhat despairingly that ‘the Trustees are entirely at Mrs Guggenheim’s mercy over this despite the success of the exhibition’.2

What this article will examine is the historical background to the Tate Gallery’s desire to have the Guggenheim collection incorporated into the Tate Gallery’s collection in London as understood from the Tate Gallery’s perspective. Using primary source material gleaned from the minutes of the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery’s meetings to be found in Tate Public Records as well as Guggenheim’s autobiography and other published accounts of Guggenheim’s life and catalogues of her art collection’s exhibitions, it will investigate how these negotiations, after such an apparently promising start in the years before, came to such a sudden, and from the Tate Gallery’s point of view, unfruitful and inconclusive, ending in early 1965.3

To provide the background to these events, I first want to consider why Guggenheim even considered London as a possible home for her collection at this time when it had been shown previously and to great press and public acclaim in a special museum-gallery, the Art of this Century, in New York from 1942 to 1947. Following Guggenheim’s return to Europe in 1948, her collection had subsequently been installed and displayed in her Venetian palace home from 1951 after several high-profile exhibitions at leading European museums. After this initial contextual outline, I will consider how there was a particular urgency to these negotiations and the Tate Gallery’s charm offensive with Guggenheim, as there was a growing recognition in British art circles in 1964–5 of the inadequacies of the Tate Gallery’s modern art collection that the accession of the Guggenheim’s works would compensate for. Moreover, at this moment there were also urgent calls in the British art press for London to have a dedicated museum of modern art or, failing this, to have the Tate Gallery’s modern collection exhibition galleries improved in order to compete with the up-to-the-minute facilities available at the freshly renovated galleries of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and at the recently opened Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both in New York.

Following this discussion, I will signal how the success of the Arts Council exhibition The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in 1964–5 reinforced the growing calls for a museum of modern art and better exhibition facilities in London, which corresponded to a wider desire by the recently elected Labour government to use the Arts Council’s operations as a means of expanding audiences for modern art and gaining support for its cultural policies in Britain. Finally, I will conclude with the actual outcome regarding the future management of the Guggenheim art collection which did not come to the Tate Gallery but remained in her Venice palace-museum operating under the auspices of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, managed from New York by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

‘She is mad for London’: Peggy Guggenheim and England

One important factor in these negotiations with the Tate Gallery was Guggenheim’s attraction to England and its culture, engendered by the intellectual and artistic connections that she had developed through her romantic relationships with three Englishmen and through her residency in England in the late 1920s and the 1930s. As Mary Dearborn outlines in her biography Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism (2005), Guggenheim ‘had always … thought of England as her “spiritual home” and [said] she would go to live there like a shot’.4 Born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in New York City in 1898, Guggenheim’s expatriate life from 1920 was largely spent in France, mainly Paris, or on tours around continental Europe with return visits to the United States. Her exposure to British life remained limited until 21 July 1928, when Guggenheim met the English writer and man of letters John Holms in Saint-Tropez and their romantic relationship developed even though he was already married.5 In 1932, after a touring holiday in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, Guggenheim and Holms made their home in the small village of Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor where they rented the Tudor-style Hayford Hall.6 Here Guggenheim was introduced to many leading members of British literary scene through Holms, who was an editor on the Calendar of Modern Letters, and the pair developed ‘a bohemian, literary-artistic milieu in which she felt at home and alive’.7 Following Holms’s unexpected death in January 1934, Guggenheim did not leave England. Rather, she moved to a house in Woburn Square, London, and afterwards she rented a house in Hampstead, near where her daughter, Pegeen, was studying.8 Developing another intimate relationship with an Englishman, Douglas Garman, who worked for the independent left-wing London publisher Wishart, Guggenheim then moved to residences in rural Hampshire, first in Havant and later in Petersfield, living in the English countryside until the end of their relationship in 1937.

At this point, following the death of her mother and her subsequent inheritance of $450,000, Guggenheim had sufficient funds to embark upon her wish to build up a private collection of modern art. Guided in part by the British surrealist poet, painter and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, with whom she had a close relationship from 1937, she hoped to establish a substantial private collection of modern art based in London. In this aim Jennings was a useful contact with the London art world as he had been involved in setting up the International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London from 12 June to 4 July 1936.9 Jennings also had extensive connections with leading European surrealist artists and writers that supplemented Guggenheim’s own friendships with French artists and dealers from the 1920s.10 In particular, in late 1937, this led to Guggenheim opening a modern art gallery in London’s Cork Street, later to be called Guggenheim Jeune, which was to be run by Guggenheim and her friend, Wyn Henderson. Leased for eighteen months from 1 January 1938, Guggenheim Jeune specialised in contemporary French and in particular surrealist art after it opened on 24 January 1938. Featuring an inaugural exhibition of the work of Jean Cocteau, the gallery attracted extensive press and public attention, as Guggenheim recalled: ‘The London papers were full of praise. Many noted what a coup it was to open the gallery with a show of Cocteau’.11

In her modern art purchases Guggenheim, who had lived in Paris for long periods in the 1920s with her first husband Laurence Vail, benefitted from a friendship network of leading French and expatriate intellectuals, including many important artists and collectors from whom she took advice. In the selection of works to exhibit at her London gallery, Guggenheim exploited her many international contacts, including taking advice from her old friend, the French artist then resident in Paris, Marcel Duchamp. As Guggenheim recalled, Duchamp ‘introduced me to all the artists we were to exhibit and also organised exhibitions in Paris, which he sent to me in London’.12

Following on from a series of exhibitions of well-known artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy and John Tunnard, and some impressive group shows of contemporary sculpture and collage, as well as of work by lesser known artists and of children’s art, Guggenheim Jeune closed in June 1939. The reason for this closure was that gallery sales had remained low in spite of positive press attention and Guggenheim herself buying many works from the shows. She remembered afterwards that the gallery ‘proved to be too expensive for what it was so that after a year and a half I decided to give it up’.13

Following the closure of her London commercial gallery in summer 1939, but with a growing private collection, there now followed a key moment in Guggenheim’s developing relationship with the London art world, namely her desire later in that year to establish a museum of modern art in London based around her own art collection and with the British academic, art writer and critic Herbert Read as its director.14 In the original introduction to Guggenheim’s memoirs, the American art historian and first director of MoMA in New York City, Alfred H. Barr Jr, recalled how the plans took shape:

Early in 1939, Peggy Guggenheim ‘had the idea of opening a modern museum in London’, a project which must have seemed urgent, the director of the Tate Gallery having not long before declared for customs purposes that sculptures by Calder, Arp, Pevsner and others, which Guggenheim Jeune was importing for a show, were not works of art at all.

With her usual flair for enlisting the ablest help, she asked Herbert Read, later Sir Herbert, to become the director of this projected museum … the patron and the director drew up an ideal list of works of art for the new museum – a list which was to serve as the basis for the opening exhibition. A building was found, but before the lease could be signed World War II began and the dream faded, or better was suspended.15

Frustrated by the threat of war, and fearing for her and her children’s safety in London, as Guggenheim noted in her autobiography, she left England and moved to France: ‘I soon gave up the idea of going back to England, as Laurence [her first husband and father of her children] decided the children should remain in France … I therefore had to relinquish the museum, which would have been impossible anyhow since we could not have borrowed paintings and exposed them to the bombings of London’.16 Transposing her plans for establishing a museum of modern art from London to Paris, then later to New York, Guggenheim’s art collection arrived by boat in the American city in the spring of 1941. Guggenheim’s modest collection of modern art, started in London, had by now been augmented by the large number of additional artworks she had bought cheaply in Paris just prior to the German occupation of the city in June 1940. Displayed in the Art of this Century gallery that Guggenheim opened in New York City on 20 October 1942, alongside work she had purchased by leading American artists, hers was one of the most extensive collections of twentieth-century painting and sculpture in the world.17 It was against this background of Guggenheim’s favourable view of English life and culture, her valued friendships with artists and writers in Britain and in light of her desire to establish herself as a major contemporary art collector of international stature, that the possibility of the donation of all or part of her collection to a British institution in the early 1960s took place. It was a prospect that the British press highly applauded, as the Sunday Times later recorded: ‘Mrs Guggenheim is the stuff of which legends are made … an art addict. She is mad for London and has less love for her native land. “England,” she says, “is her spiritual home”.’18

Tate’s charm offensive

In the early 1960s it was clear that the Guggenheim collection needed a permanent home as growing concerns regarding the future welfare of her art collection, especially in the case of her own premature death, preoccupied the American collector. Her choices were, in part, shaped by its post-war exhibition history. In 1948, following the end of the war, Guggenheim had decided to bring her collection back to Europe, where a large part of it was shown in the Greek Pavilion at the 1948 Venice Biennale. Although only allowed in Italy on a temporary permit, the Guggenheim collection for tax reasons was subsequently toured in well-received exhibitions from 1948 to 1951 at several European venues, including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels and the Kunsthaus in Zürich. Brought back into Italy in the spring of 1951 with tax liabilities paid, the collection was put on display in Guggenheim’s own home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an unfinished eighteenth-century palace in Venice, even though there was restricted space for the works’ display. By 1957 Guggenheim was planning to establish a foundation for her art collection’s stewardship, although these plans had not advanced due to constant changes in her thinking about the membership of its advisory board and anxieties about how best to proceed.

As early as 1960 there had still been no definite decision by Guggenheim as to where the collection would be finally and permanently based, as the collector repeatedly changed her mind. What is clear is that Guggenheim had already considered various options, including following Herbert Read’s advice to her in 1960 that she should leave the palazzo and collection to the Giorgio Cini Foundation, founded in 1951, or to the Venice Bell’Arte,19 or to the Galleria Internazionale d’arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro – all institutions based in Venice.20 At this juncture in 1961 and without any apparent frontrunner, the Tate Gallery launched its charm offensive to acquire the Guggenheim collection. However, the Tate Gallery’s early optimism was dampened in 1962 when the Venetian authorities awarded Guggenheim the honorary citizenship of Venice, which appeared in many observers’ eyes to seal the deal in favour of a Venetian venue. Nevertheless, as indicated by the quotation from Guggenheim at the start of this article, she seems not to have made any definite decision about the future of her collection when negotiations were underway for the major exhibition of most of it at the Tate Gallery in London in 1964–5.

What added urgency to the Tate Gallery’s desire to strengthen its modern art collection by incorporating any donation from the Guggenheim collection was that in October 1964, the newly appointed director Norman Reid had instituted the separation of the Gallery’s previously integrated collections into a British Collection and a Modern Collection, each with its own designated keeper.21 This reorganisation of the Tate Gallery’s management structure was partly in response to recent changes following the Robbins Report into Higher Education reform, published in 1963, that placed the Tate Gallery directly under the control of a new Ministry for the Arts and Education, rather than the Treasury. Recommending the expansion of higher educational facilities, increasing university student numbers and improved coordination between universities and other related institutions, the Robbins Report also gave museums a direct remit to expand their exhibition programmes and educational outreach.22

In trying to rectify this situation regarding the inadequacies of its modern art collection and its dated exhibition facilities, Tate Gallery Trustees had benefitted from the increased funding from the Arts Council for the purchases of works of art and for the renovation of museum buildings that had accompanied the recent election of the Labour government in October 1964.23 In February 1964 the Labour Party had published ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’, announcing its priorities, one of which was to increase arts funding. Moreover, in its manifesto entitled ‘The New Britain’, the Labour Party had clearly reaffirmed its commitment to increasing public expenditure on the arts with ‘more generous support to the Arts Council … museums and art galleries’.24 In part, the Labour Party and its newly appointed Arts and Education Minister, Jennie Lee, had recognised the growing interest of London audiences, including students, in the visual arts and the expanding demand for well mounted exhibitions of modern art.25 This trend had been confirmed by the phenomenal success of the Tate Gallery’s survey exhibition of post-war art, 54–64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, held between 22 April and 28 June in 1964, which had been the largest exhibition of its kind ever held at the gallery, attracting over 95,000 visitors.26 As a result, expectations were very high for the success of the show of the Guggenheim collection at the Tate Gallery.

Promoting the expansion and modernisation of the arts sector, the government arts policies also highlighted the perceived shortcomings in London’s cultural provision, namely the lack of a dedicated museum of modern art or existence of a gallery with an internationally admired modern art collection. The failure to establish a designated museum of modern art in London and the shortcomings of the Tate Gallery’s modern collection contrasted with the generous cultural provision of many continental European and American cities, notably New York, which had MoMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which had opened on 21 October 1959 in the specially built Frank Lloyd Wright building to showcase Guggenheim’s ‘uncle’ Solomon’s extensive collection of modern art.27 London’s inadequacy had been underlined in Mario Amaya’s review of the Tate Gallery’s 54–64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade show, when the critic declared that ‘this exhibition underlines the need in London for a proper museum of modern art’.28 The Whitechapel Art Gallery’s director Bryan Robertson concurred, arguing that ‘a museum of modern art must be created in London either developing from the Tate or independently’.29 Indeed, in November 1964 and keenly alert to the need to extend and update the Tate Gallery’s exhibition facilities, the Tate Gallery management had, in fact, commissioned the architects Lord Llewellyn-Davies and partners with this in mind. They also sent them to New York to see MoMA’s recently renovated facilities with its up-to-the-minute lighting and advanced display technology, praising the American institution as ‘the most successful museum of modern art in Europe and America’.30

The Arts Council exhibition The Peggy Guggenheim Collection at the Tate Gallery

Fig.3 Installation view of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Tate Gallery, London, 31 December 1964 – 7 February 1965

Installation view of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Tate Gallery, London, 31 December 1964 – 7 February 1965
Tate Public Records, Photographic Collection List No.11

Fig.4 Cover of the catalogue of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, London 1964

Cover of the catalogue of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, London 1964
Tate Library

Originally planned to be open from 31 December 1964 until 7 February 1965, this substantial loan exhibition comprised some 189 works, including African, Oceanic and Japanese sculptures (fig.3). The impressive hundred-page illustrated catalogue was designed by the leading designer-typographer Gordon House (fig.4) and a leather-bound copy of it was given to Guggenheim. It had an aerial photograph of Venice on the cover showing Guggenheim’s palace-museum location on the Grand Canal and it featured a full list of works in the Guggenheim collection, although some were not on display in the London show. The exhibition’s phenomenal success and the enormous crowds it attracted exceeded all expectations and it led to the show being extended by a month, closing on 7 March 1965. With long queues of people waiting on Millbank to get in, and with some 4,000 viewers an hour entering the gallery at its busiest, the exhibition signalled the desire of London’s art audiences to see world-class exhibitions of challenging modern art. Attracting 86,521 visitors over its relatively short run, the show’s appeal was comparable with that for the ground-breaking Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse show held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in December 1945, which had broken all previous records.

Fig.5 Peggy Guggenheim and guests at the dinner for The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Tate Gallery, 6 January 1965

Peggy Guggenheim and guests at the dinner for The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Tate Gallery, 6 January 1965
Tate Public Records, Photographic Collection List No.11

The exhibition also generated glowing press and media coverage that not only raised the profiles of the Tate Gallery and the Arts Council, but highlighted the international status of Peggy Guggenheim as both collector and celebrity. As noted above, Ernestine Carter wrote in the Sunday Times that ‘Mrs Guggenheim is the stuff of which legends are made’, and ‘an enfant terrible’.31 Photographed by Terrence Donovan in the Weekend Telegraph, Guggenheim, although ‘shockingly single minded’, is ‘the last of the great American heroines of art’, the art writer Edwin Mullins noted.32 In accordance with this status, the Arts Council organised an opening private view and reception for the Guggenheim show on 31 December 1964, followed on 6 January 1965 by a lavish silver-service dinner in the gallery for her friends as well as leading art world dignitaries, organised by the Tate Gallery (fig.5). Acknowledging ‘the importance of having everything done to the satisfaction of Mrs Guggenheim’, the Tate Gallery’s Trustees and the Arts Council were clearly bidding to win over the American collector.33

Not unsurprisingly the British press openly speculated about the likelihood of Guggenheim’s collection coming to London permanently. Under the headline ‘Art Bequest Would Be Welcomed’, the Guardian correspondent led the way, proclaiming: ‘it has been known for some time that Miss Guggenheim was considering leaving her collection to a British gallery, probably the Tate’.34 Noting that Herbert Read had confirmed the validity of this story, the Guardian article nevertheless stressed that this was not a done deal as museums in the United States and Italy were also interested in securing the Guggenheim collection, although complex tax negotiations were now taking place that would affect the collector’s final decision.

In response to such press speculation, the Tate Gallery’s director Norman Reid was less forthcoming and in reply to the Spectator columnist’s question, he declared that he ‘was affronted by press suggestions that the Tate was touting for the legacy of a patron so very much alive’.35 Perhaps this reticence was tactical on Reid’s part because of the failure to establish a museum of modern art by Guggenheim and Herbert Read in London in 1939–40 and also because there had been a number of earlier unsuccessful attempts to get the Guggenheim collection for London. In 1951 John Rothenstein had suggested to the Institute of Contemporary Arts the possibility of a selective show of Guggenheim’s art collection in London that might facilitate its long term loan, but this had ultimately been unsuccessful.36 Then a proposal had come from the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s director, Bryan Robertson, in the early 1960s for Guggenheim to show her collection in London, although this had again failed due to its gallery spaces proving to be too small to accommodate the large number of works involved.37

What was not being divulged to the press was that the Tate Gallery’s then director Rothenstein had early in 1962 started a more vigorous charm offensive to get the collection for London. Launched on a visit to see Guggenheim in Venice while he was attending the Venice Biennale, Rothenstein had extended the Tate Gallery’s offer of an exhibition in its galleries in London. The move was a tactical one as Herbert Read, Guggenheim’s close friend, had signalled to Rothenstein that Guggenheim was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the municipality of Venice and reconsidering her earlier plans to leave the collection to them.38 The proposal, subsequently supported by the incumbent director from October 1964, Norman Reid, involved careful negotiations between Guggenheim, Reid, the Tate Gallery’s deputy keeper, Judith Cloake, its chief conservator, Stefan Slabczynski, as well as the Arts Council’s director, Gabriel White.

What made any possible negotiations with the Tate Gallery about the future bequest of the Guggenheim collection particularly sensitive, as noted by the Guardian correspondent, was the complex tax negotiations relating to Guggenheim’s will and estate. For its success, the plan required the agreement of both the British and the American tax revenue authorities. On 18 June 1964 this matter had been raised at a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery by one of its members, the lawyer and Board member of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), Anthony Lousada, in reply to queries about how the negotiations were progressing.39 Lousada had been investigating with the American tax authorities if they would accept a proposal that involved the bequest of a then undisclosed American art collection to CAS, which as a ‘non-governmentally controlled intermediary’ would render the deal tax exempted.40 At the next meeting on 16 July, Lousada reported that all the necessary forms had been submitted to the US Revenue Authorities by CAS without it being specified whose collection it was. Lousada confirmed that he would write to Guggenheim ‘in the hope that she would make the necessary codicil to her will’ to allow her collection to come to the Tate Gallery if a tax exemption was agreed.41

By October 1964, as plans for the upcoming Guggenheim exhibition at the Tate Gallery were progressing, Lousada reported to the Trustees that he had responded to some queries raised by the American revenue authorities and he had also written to Guggenheim and her solicitors saying that ‘he hoped it would soon be possible to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion’, re-stating that ‘the Trustees were still extremely interested and were sorry that the negotiations had taken so long’.42 At the meeting on 19 November 1964, Lousada reported to the Board that ‘it seemed … that a satisfactory conclusion [had been] reached after one year’s negotiations’ as ‘the American Revenue [had] accepted CAS’s case’.43 He also recorded that Guggenheim’s lawyers had affirmed in a letter to him that ‘the way now seemed open for their client to carry out her wishes’, although, as they noted, ‘they had not heard from her for a long while’.44 Sounding a note of caution that ‘it was still uncertain what Mrs Guggenheim would do’, Lousada nevertheless hoped to conclude the matter in person with the collector when she arrived in London for the opening of the Tate Gallery exhibition the following month.45

However, what had unsettled Lousada and would come to worry the Tate Gallery’s Board of Trustees in their negotiations with Guggenheim was a report published four days earlier in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, which Lousada had already read and summarised. Subsequently translated and circulated to the Trustees a few days later, it was entitled ‘Renewed Concerns in Venice. The Guggenheim Collection May Go Abroad’.46 In the article the journalist stressed that although Guggenheim had intended her collection to go to the city of Venice and that the city had recently accorded her the accolade of an honorary citizenship, ‘no definite decision had been made’.47 It was now believed that ‘the collection was no longer destined for the city … but for the Tate Gallery, London’, although ‘this was, however, emphatically denied by Peggy Guggenheim’.48 What was perhaps more alarming for the Trustees was what Lousada called ‘the unwelcome limelight’ that this article had shed on the Tate Gallery’s dealings with Guggenheim over the accession of her collection’ and her tax affairs and he signalled that ‘the difficulties with the Italians were not over’.49 Indeed, the final two sentences of the article were particularly troubling, stating that ‘developments in the situation are now awaited, but it appears that there is no substantial cause for concern. There is, in effect, no real evidence that Peggy Guggenheim intends to transfer her extensive collection elsewhere’.50

At the following meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery in January 1965, more doubts were raised about the successful outcome of the donation negotiations when the Tate’s director communicated that in conversation with Guggenheim she had said that she felt ‘no need to change her will’ as it was ‘presently framed’.51 Another Trustee, Sir Robert Sainsbury, concurred, stating that in his view Guggenheim ‘had no special enthusiasm for her collection to go to the Tate’.52 Moreover, he recounted that ‘she did not think her paintings looked at their best in a public gallery’ and was ‘longing to get them home’.53 As the minutes registered, the final decision about where the collection would go still hung in the air with the Trustees, who were ‘entirely at Mrs Guggenheim’s mercy over this in spite of the success of the exhibition’.54

As the photographs of the show installed at the Tate Gallery attest, Guggenheim’s collection was both extensive and unique (figs.3 and 6). By 1964 it comprised over two hundred works of art by more than one hundred artists, and as Herbert Read acknowledged in the catalogue preface, ‘it is the only one in Europe which has a systematic historic basis. It embraces all the major movements which since about 1910 have transformed the very concept of art and which can now for the first time be seen in a unified perspective’.55

Apart from its extensive representation of early twentieth-century European avant-garde art, particularly cubist, dada and surrealist work, it was Guggenheim’s substantial number of contemporary American paintings that was especially noteworthy. Moreover, as the Trustees knew, if successfully accessioned into the Tate’s own collection these works would add significantly to the Tate Gallery’s limited holdings in this area. Indeed, by 1964–5 the Tate Gallery’s modern collection comprised a modest number of artworks by American artists with only a few major paintings or sculptures by leading post-war American artists.56 These included Painting 1957 by Sam Francis (Tate T00148) and an Alexander Calder mobile Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 (Tate T00541), purchased by the Gallery using the Knapping Fund in 1957 and 1962 respectively. Spending its limited Grant-in-Aid funds provided by the British Government, the Tate Gallery had only a few years before purchased Ben Shahn’s Lute and Molecules 1958 (Tate T00314) in 1959, Mark Rothko’s Light Red Over Black 1957 (Tate T00275) in 1959, Isamu Noguchi’s The Self 1956 (Tate T00338) in 1960, Ray Parker’s Untitled 1959 (Tate T00441) in 1961, and Larry Rivers’s Parts of the Face: French Vocabulary Lesson 1961 (Tate T00522) in 1962. In the face of complaints made by the Tate’s director to the government about the inadequacies of its budget for foreign art purchases, in 1964 the Grant-in-Aid had been raised to £60,000 per annum with a special fund of £50,000 allocated for buying foreign paintings and sculptures produced between 1900 and 1950. However, these funds had largely been spent on buying modern European art, particularly works by School of Paris artists, in preference to purchases of contemporary American art.

Given the acknowledged restrictions that such limited state funding placed on the acquisition of American art in light of the rising prices paid for significant works on the international art market during the late 1950s and early 1960s, donations from two associations, the Friends of the Tate Gallery, formed in May 1958, and the American Friends of the Tate Gallery, formed in March 1960, as well as donations by private patrons, were invaluable. The Friends of the Tate Gallery bought Philip Guston’s The Return 1956–8 (Tate T00252) and James Brooks’s Boon 1957 (Tate T00253) in 1959, Jasper Johns’s 0 Through 9 1961 (Tate T00454) in 1961, and Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall 1959 (Tate T00514) and Ellsworth Kelly’s Broadway 1958 (Tate T00511) in 1962. The American Friends of the Tate Gallery purchased Morris Graves’s Spring with Machine Age Noise No. 1 1957 (Tate T00520) and Mark Tobey’s Northwest Drift 1958 (Tate T00463) in 1961. Private donations included two works by Jackson Pollock, Number 23 1948 (Tate T00384) and Yellow Islands 1952 (Tate T00436), purchased by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and the H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd and given through the Friends of the Tate Gallery in 1960 and 1961, and Alexander Liberman’s Andromeda 1962 (Tate T00650), which was donated by the Montargent Foundation in 1964.57

The selective number of works by leading American artists in the Tate Gallery’s modern collection at this moment of January 1965 contrasted with the extensive representation of modern American art displayed in the Guggenheim collection exhibition. The show included important works by William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, nearly all of whom had had significant solo shows at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York following its opening there in 1942 and from which Guggenheim had bought major early works. Most impressive of all was Guggenheim’s purchase of eleven paintings dating from 1942–7 by Jackson Pollock, which were all on display in London. Guggenheim had given Pollock his first show at her Art of This Century gallery in 1943 and she had placed him under contract to her gallery from 1943 to 1947, the year she left the United States for Europe, thereby allowing Pollock to devote himself to painting full-time. Both in New York and in Europe, Guggenheim had actively promoted Pollock’s status as the pre-eminent American artist of his generation through the organisation of solo shows, notably in Venice and Milan in 1950.58

Fig.6 Installation view of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection exhibition 1964–5

Installation view of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection exhibition 1964–5
Tate Public Records, Photographic Collection List No.11

As seen in this installation view (fig.6), Pollock’s paintings were exhibited together at the Tate Gallery in a way that considerably enhanced their impact and supported Guggenheim’s claim to Pollock being the pre-eminent American abstract expressionist artist. Her eleven paintings included, as seen in the photograph from left to right, Sounds in the Grass 1946, Eyes in the Heat 1946, Alchemy 1947, and on the next wall, Enchanted Forest 1947, hung next to Robert Motherwell’s Surprise and Inspiration 1943. These American paintings were accompanied in the gallery by sculptures such as Julio Gonzalez’s Cactus Man I 1939–40 and Jacques Lipchitz’s Aurelia 1946 at the centre left and right, and on the extreme right, two small bronze sculptures by Henry Moore, his Family Group 1946 and Reclining Figure 1938, shown beside Paul Klee’s Portrait of Mme. P. in the South 1924. What this hang reinforced was the key role that American abstract expressionism, in general, and Pollock, in particular, had played in assimilating the ideas and pictorial innovations of earlier European practitioners of cubism, dada and surrealism into an updated and distinctively American contemporary artistic idiom. These claims were reiterated in the exhibition catalogue where it was argued by Ronald Alley, Deputy Keeper at the Tate Gallery, that ‘the paintings by Pollock … in her collection all date from 1942–47, which was a crucial period in his development as it marked his break-through from Surrealism and Cubism into a kind of painting which was completely new’.59 No wonder then that the Tate Trustees were eager in early 1965 to get a firm commitment from Guggenheim that her collection would be coming to the Tate Gallery, hoping to allay any anxieties that they held about the American collector’s indecisiveness signalling a recent change of heart.

Conclusion to the negotiations

Such apprehension on the part of the Tate Gallery’s Trustees in January 1965 about the successful accession of the Guggenheim collection into the Tate Gallery’s own proved to be well placed. Following Guggenheim’s visit to New York in 1959 to see the recently opened Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, her cousin Harry Guggenheim, exploiting Peggy’s anxieties about the deposition of her estate after her death, wrote to her advising her about the future well-being of her art collection. While refusing any offer of it coming to the New York institution, a proposal she had tentatively broached with him while in the city, Harry indicated that in his opinion her collection ‘should, after your death, be bequeathed, as you have planned, to Italy’.60 Moreover, the Tate director and its Board of Trustees could not have known that on 6 August 1964, Harry Guggenheim had again written to her in reply to Peggy’s recent inquiry ‘concerning the possibility of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation ultimately taking over the administration of [my] gallery in Venice and operating it’.61 Clearly there had been a change of mind on Harry’s, and the American institution’s, part, as Peggy’s positive reaction to his response registered: ‘I am so very happy that you have not excluded my idea as an eventual possibility’, she replied.62 Unfortunately for the Tate Gallery’s Board of Trustees, this was to become the final outcome regarding the future management of the Guggenheim art collection, as it stayed in her Venice museum-palace under the auspices of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation managed from New York.

When 125 selected paintings and sculptures from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection travelled from Venice to New York in November 1968 to be shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 15 January 1969, Harry’s words in the catalogue introduction that ‘this is the first time that they have crossed the Atlantic and we are honoured and grateful to have them entrusted to us’ must have intimated suspicions of what the final outcome would be regarding the management of her collection.63 In spite of the Tate Gallery’s strenuous wooing of the heiress to accession her collection into its own, and the enormous positive publicity that the Arts Council’s London exhibition had generated, Guggenheim had indeed proved to be ‘very unpredictable’ in her decision making.64 Guggenheim’s plans for her art collection after her death on 23 December 1979 were eventually made public four months after her funeral, when the Venice palace-museum re-opened under the direct control of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, much to the Tate Gallery’s dismay.65