Sir Alan Bowness CBE (1928-2021)

22 March 2021 By
Alan Bowness with Piet Mondrian’s 'Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red' at the Tate, 1980
Alan Bowness with Piet Mondrian’s 'Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red' at the Tate, 1980

Sir Alan Bowness CBE (1928-2021), the renowned art historian, art critic, curator and museum director sadly died on 1 March 2021 aged 93.

Educated at University College School, Hampstead, Downing College, Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute of Art – the latter at which he also taught between 1957 and 1979 – Bowness became the first director of the Tate Gallery (1980-1988) who was an art history graduate.

He had studied French painting under Anthony Blunt but was soon to champion both British and international modern and contemporary art, notably, with the influential exhibition at the Tate in 1964: 54:64 Painting and Sculpture of a Decade. He assisted his mentor the artist cum art scholar Lawrence Gowing (1918-1991), at the time Principal of Chelsea School of Art, both of whom were sons of drapers, had Quaker upbringings and had been conscientious objectors during WW2. Two decades later, as Tate Director, Alan Bowness inaugurated the Turner Prize, bringing young British artists to the forefront of many a conversation.

He began his career writing art criticism for publications such as The Observer, Art News and Art Review, The Times Literary Supplement and The Burlington Magazine. He became a Regional Art Officer for the Arts Council in 1956, with responsibilities for the South West of England. When he visited St Ives, Cornwall that year he met, amongst other local artists, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and their daughter Sarah – one of the triplets – whom he married in 1957. Recently, their daughter, Sophie, also an art historian, worked in close collaboration with her father, who had been an executor of Barbara Hepworth’s estate since his mother-in-law’s death in 1975, to re-establish Wakefield Art Gallery as The Hepworth, which opened in 2011. Previously, on his statutory retirement from the Tate, Bowness had become Director of the Henry Moore Foundation (founded by the sculptor himself in 1977) and had set up the Henry Moore Institute for the Study of Sculpture in Leeds.

What is often little mentioned but significant to our organisation and public museums and galleries, particularly to those outside London, is that Alan Bowness was an Executive Committee member of the Contemporary Art Society (founded in 1910), between 1961-1969, 1970-1975 and 1976-1986 – a lengthy tenure spanning three decades of the 20th century that cannot be underestimated. He was on the CAS sub-committees, who chose the artists for their hugely popular and ground-breaking two-venue exhibition in London: British Painting in the 60s, at the Tate and Whitechapel galleries in 1963 which then subsequently toured the regions and abroad. This was followed by British Sculpture in the 60s in 1965, both setting the lead for contemporary exhibitions by the Tate and the Hayward Gallery (Arts Council) after 1968.

“I like my colour subdued, often monochrome, the artistic gestures restricted and the eroticism present but hidden” – Sir Alan Bowness CBE

In each decade Alan Bowness was also one of two invited buyers for the CAS in the years 1962, 1972 and 1981, buying about a dozen in each of his stints. And for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year in 1977, he and fellow committee member Edward Lucie-Smith were given a sum to buy works for CAS corporate art sponsors Crown Wallcoverings Ltd who after a touring exhibition gifted them back to the CAS to be donated to museums. All of which have been distributed widely throughout the UK and abroad. He either directly bought from the young living artists or their art dealers – some of whom were treading new ground at the time – like Marlborough Fine Art’s Marlborough New Gallery London, Waddington Galleries, Kasmin Ltd, Anthony d’Offay and Angela Flowers, as well as the Penwith Gallery in St Ives. He selected both figurative and abstract pictures and sculpture, judiciously and daringly within what was always a woefully limited budget during a period when the taste and prices for contemporary art escalated.

In his later years, Bowness continued to be an astute advocate of a variety of modern art patronage. As Director of the Henry Moore Foundation from 1988 until his retirement in 1993, he was a great supporter of the Contemporary Art Society from which we continue to benefit to this day.