Stuff vs. Theory

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives which most women of their background and time
lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t
know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’s ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanisation, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialisation of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be
segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels versus legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly
different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place… where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being
unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, and Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons,
carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us
little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and
weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the 19th century. Every household management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste
was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because
walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about status. The very transience of the white announced the householder’s respectability: she had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting
became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late 19th century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’s second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on 17th-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly
depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables, or owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the 17th century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The pioneering curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for the verisimilitude of Dutch
Golden Age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the symbolic nature of supposedly realist works as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularisation in the 19th century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

This article first appeared in The Author.

Ticket, Brandy, Pistol: All you need on the first Tube ride

On 9 January 1863 was both a day of celebration, and sheer relief. 650 of the great and the good travelled three and a half miles by underground railway, from Paddington to Farringdon Road, stopping to admire all six intermediary stations before lunching at Farringdon Station to mark the completion of what, two decades before, had seemed nothing more than fantasy: a railway under the earth. Palmerston, the Prime Minister, had refused the invitation, saying that he thought it prudent, at the advanced age of 79, to stay above ground for as long as possible. (Allegedly. Almost as many bons-mots are attributed to Palmerston as they are to Churchill. And some of them are even true.)

Most Londoners thought the day would never come. When the Great Northern Railway arrived at Euston in 1850, a few visionaries – or fantasists – had seen that, in the world’s most densely populated city, underground was the only way to go. As with HS2, from the beginning the political will was there, but money was harder to come by. It was 1859 before Charles Pearson, solicitor to the Corporation of the City of London, persuaded his paymasters to invest in the project, and building began.

London had been a building-site for most of the century. If it was not gas-pipes being laid for street-lighting, it was Bazalgette’s great sewer, or water-mains, or new bridges, or streets. But what followed was worse than anyone had imagined. The word ‘Underground’, despaired the Daily News, implied ‘mole-like secrecy’, but ‘this is a great mistake.’ Just as Crossrail today has devastated whole neighbourhoods, nothing was more visible to Victorian Londoners than the installation of the supposedly invisible tube. (And while Crossrail – theoretically – will take eight years, construction of the underground continued for three decades.)

The first Metropolitan Railway used the ‘cut-and-cover’ system: a trench was dug, the railway was inserted and then the ditch was covered up again. Endless streets were therefore boarded off, or narrowed to a single pathway for carriages and pedestrians alike, for years at a time. For the creation of the District line, Parliament Square was one great pit for much of the 1860s, resembling some hideous natural disaster.

Certainly enough disasters, natural and man-made, occurred along the way. In 1860 a locomotive exploded, killing two; in 1861 there was a landslide; and in 1862 the Fleet River, long covered over and filled with sewage, ruptured. The western embankment of the new railway, its brickwork eight feet thick, was tossed up in the air by the power of rushing water, and a hundred feet of wall was carried away in an instant.

Meanwhile, the poor were more permanently disrupted. Where possible the railway lines followed the roads, but often whole neighbourhoods were demolished. As usual, the poor suffered the most. Compensating large tenement-owners was cheaper than compensating individual homeowners, with less chance of vexatious lawsuits. (The Duke of Buccleuch’s claim for compensation when his house was razed to make way for Bazalgette’s sewer took eight years to grind its way through the courts.) Theoretically the railways were obliged to declare how many people they displaced, but without oversight their reports were plainly fiction: a mere 307 people, they claimed, had been made homeless between Paddington and Farringdon Street, whereas contemporary observers put the number at closer to 12,000 for just half that distance. Between 1850 and 1900, as many as 100,000 people may have been evicted, their homes destroyed.

In 1848, a Royal Commission had drawn a line around central London, into which the railways would not be allowed to stray. Instead of one or two mainline stations in the centre of the city, therefore, as in most European capitals, London is ringed by terminals. A mere ten years later this seemed like the natural order of things, and so the first underground silently follows this path: its later extension followed the border too, creating the loop we know as the Circle line.

Then as much as now, great civic projects routinely overran. One newspaper wrote in exasperation in 1862, the opening ‘was fixed for May last; then it was positively promised for the 1st of October; and, finally, for the 1st of January next.’ It wasn’t quite the 1st, but on 10 January 1863, the public was finally allowed to see what all the fuss was about.

As with the overground, the underground trains had first, second and third-class carriages, all lit by gas. Fares were 6d., 4d. and 3d., and 30,000 people were happy to pay that the very first day. By evening Farringdon station was so crowded, it looked like the opening of a West End play. Nearly a quarter of a million more travelled underground the following week, and by the 1870s the Metropolitan line alone was carrying 48 million passengers annually.

Not that it was always, or even often, an enjoyable experience. An American tourist was at first disappointed: it would be no more exciting than going through a tunnel, he grumbled. But he soon realized that, between the smoke from the steam-locomotives and the lack of ventilation, a voyage underground ‘was more disagreeable than the longest tunnel the writer had ever passed through’, and the foggy, smoggy London air above was, by contrast, as limpidly pure as that found on any Swiss alp. For below-ground, travellers’ mouths filled with the taste of sulphur, breathing was difficult. In 1867 a woman’s death was attributed to ‘natural causes, accelerated by the suffocating atmosphere of the Underground Railway’.

‘First’ is not always best. Other undergrounds learned from London’s early foray, and even today some of London underground’s problems arise from those first designs. Air-conditioning requires larger tunnels than the early engineers could have foreseen. And later systems were designed for electricity, not steam-power. (Glasgow and Liverpool’s Mersey Railway were exceptions.) Most countries, too, relied on central planning, whereas in Britain, private development rather than state control produced a spaghetti-bowl of lines.

By the 1880s, Punch magazine satirically recommended that essential equipment for any tube voyage include smelling-salts, a fan, potted shrimps, a brandy-flask, a pistol and a lamp. There was, however, no mention of a map: such were the constant additions to lines that it took over four decades for one to become available.

Finding your way, therefore, was a challenge. Station staff were just as bewildered as passengers. ‘If they do attempt to advise you, take some other ticket than the one recommended’: the odds are against them being right, claimed a west London resident. He added: ‘How many Kensington stations there may be…I do not know; but I know…that the officials always send you to the wrong one… All very well to say that we should look at the map at home and ascertain our route: firstly, there is no map.’ (After that ‘firstly’, pragmatism suggests he needed to go no further. Harry Beck’s iconic diagram, still the basis for us today, did not appear until the 1930s. The special Johnston typeface designed for clarity and reading at speed, and used across the underground came earlier, in 1916.)

Yet to the pioneers who had dreamed of an underground world, and then made those dreams concrete, these were details. They were men who failed to be daunted. Explosions, floods, wars, they overcame them all. A route was blocked by a canal? They re-purposed it as the bed of the new District line. Rivers were in the way? They moved them. (The Westbourne was culverted, and is still visible over the District and Circle line platforms at Sloane Square station.)

And so the oldest underground in the world, a matter of compromise, and patching, and scrabbling, is today still the third largest system in the world (surpassed only by Beijing and Shanghai), carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year.

On that triumphant 9 January 1853 at Farringdon Station, toasts were made to Charles Pearson, that forward-thinking solicitor, who had not lived to see his dream a reality. Let us hope that next Sunday, when the newly restored Met Steam Locomotive No. 1 runs along the original route, glasses will be raised once more to the man who, as his project neared its brilliant conclusion, rejected a cash bonus from the Metropolitan Railway Company: ‘I am the servant of the Corporation’, he said; ‘they are my masters and entitled to all my time and service.’

We shall not see his like again.

Sunday Times, 6 January 2013

Walking with Dickens

“Judith Flanders’s evocative and detailed survey of daily living in Victorian London, from the murk and the misery to the downright odd, is outstanding…” according to the Sunday Times,  which commissioned this short film for the online version of the newspaper. In it, Judith takes a tour of contemporary London charting the sweeping changes  that have taken place since Dickens’ day.

Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun, Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) was one of the most successful of the Tate’s Turbine Hall grands projets. Two million people came to stare at Eliasson’s big sun, many sprawling beneath the installation as though it really were a sun and the Tate had suddenly transformed itself into a public park. This is Eliasson’s gift: his art is incomplete until it elicits a physical response from viewers. With Little Sun, viewers carry individual “little suns” – 11cm daffodil-yellow flowershaped plastic lamps strung from lanyards – and walk around a specially opened gallery after dark, their “sun” picking out each artwork.

The lamps become our eyes. No longer passive, we are forced physically to engage with the works in front of us. No longer can we automatically find the best viewing spot in front of a work. We must make conscious decisions – caption or painting? – about things we rarely think about in daylight.

The space the Tate has chosen is its Surrealism galleries, where pieces like Joseph Beuys’s Campaign Bed, or Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1979) – all 5 metres of charcoal drawings and stuffed birds – can no longer be encompassed in one glance: viewers must establish, section by section, the artists’ intentions. (And if the artists intended that their work be encompassed in one glance, well, that too must be pieced together.) That is Eliasson’s intention, at any rate. The Tate has, however, underestimated how much light the lamps cast, and overestimated how many people each room can hold and still remain dark. When I entered on the first blackout night, although the warder told me to turn on my lamp, there was no need: the number of lamps already lit meant that I could not only see the art, but even read the captions, with ease. Thus can artistic aims be subverted by practicalities.

Mundane necessities such as ticket sales or health and safety often win over art in contemporary galleries. The Weather Project was a simple concept, perfectly realized. By contrast, the execution of Little Sun is closer to Ai Weiwei’s notorious Sunflower Seeds (2010), where millions of porcelain seeds were spread across the Turbine Hall. There, too, visitors were supposed to interact with the piece as they walked across the crunching seeds. Then, when it was discovered that this was releasing toxic dust, the seeds were corralled behind barriers, like those public parks with “Do not walk on the grass” signs.

Eliasson’s  has a second intention, and a more important one. The 1.6 billion people worldwide who live without access to electricity pay on average 300 times more for their light than we do. These solar-powered lamps provide ten times more light than the kerosene lamps most people are forced to rely on, at one-tenth of the cost. Kerosene, as well as being a fire hazard, produces emissions which are the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. And so Eliasson established a business, the Little Sun company with the engineer Frederick Ottesen to create safer, less costly renewable artificial lighting.

Few are more fervent than I in the belief that art fills an essential need. Yet however fervent that belief, some things are more important than going to a gallery on a Saturday night. If Olafur Eliasson can enlighten those of us who have time and resources to devote to art, well and good; but if he can literally enlighten places of darkness, that must be more valuable.

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”.

Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped. Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three-storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died).

The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes.

There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust.

The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large.

The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Continue reading

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: [email protected]


For more information, please visit our website: -OR-


Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

Bryan Robertson: a hero for our times

I’m off to a preview of the new Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery in a few minutes, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first showing of that artist’s work in Britain, curated by the Gallery’s then-director, Bryan Robertson. I posted a somewhat bilious piece a few weeks ago about the use of the word ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’, so I think that it’s probably only right I post now about ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’ in the greatest sense – the way Bryan Robertson looked after artists – and art.

Robertson was mostly self-educated, without the university education that would have made him the right contacts (and the lack of which probably cost him the directorship of the Tate – that and his flamboyance, and his love of mischief, of which more below), yet by the age of twenty-four, in 1949, he mounted the first British museum exhibition of contemporary French art at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Then, at the age of 27, he beat out the ostensibly more qualified candidates to become the director of the Whitechapel, at the time a shabby gallery in a part of town that was not only unvisited, but unknown by the art world that clung to the West End.

And there, for nearly 20 years, he showed, as well as the great European modernists, Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and some of the lasting names of British mid-century art: Hepworth, Richards, Clough.

I met him in the early 1980s, when he was preparing his great Dufy show at the Hayward (1983). This was a revelation – not only an artistic one. It was a revelation because I had thought I knew what I thought about Dufy, but through the care and love and sheer blazing intelligence that Robertson gave to the show, I realized that I knew nothing. It was a revelation, too, because it took away that adolescent sense of certainty and made me see that aged twenty (or thirty, or forty, or fifty), there is always space for rethinking. That was Robertson’s gift. And he taught me, too, that you can have fun while you do it. He would talk about Dufy, and then leave messages on my grandmother’s answering-machine, claiming to be the Scotland Yard vice squad (all of it, I assume): ‘We have been watching for days, and we’ve seen 37 young men going in to your flat, and all coming out exhausted. And we just want you to know that we think it’s disgusting.’ (She was amused and more than a tiny bit thrilled.)

He got pipped to the Tate directorship, it going to someone who more closely resembled what the trustees thought a civil servant should be like. But he was a hero. And hooray for the Whitechapel for remembering not just Rothko, but 50 years on, Robertson’s brilliance, and foresight, and courage.