Peggy Guggenheim with Herbert Read in her London gallery, c1939, with a work by Yves Tanguy
Peggy Guggenheim with Herbert Read in her London gallery, c1939, with a work by Yves Tanguy © IMEC, Fonds MCC, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Gisèle Freund

It is one of the great “What ifs?”s of recent art history. What if the American collector Peggy Guggenheim had chosen to stay in London during the second world war, rather than moving back to New York, taking with her the exceptional collection of modern European work she had amassed, and an important clutch of Europe’s most significant artists too? The course of modern art in Britain might have looked very different.

As if to toy with this possibility, Ordovás gallery in Savile Row is showing a selection of works by two of those artists — Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy — in Peggy Guggenheim and London, a show that remembers Guggenheim Jeune, the gallery she set up in London’s Cork Street in 1938. She was London’s first and only female dealer in modern work.

Arp, the abstractionist, and Tanguy, the younger surrealist, embody two of the strands Guggenheim was eager to promote in the new venture. Among her close friends and advisors were the artists she had met in Paris, where she had been living since 1920, and where she had been introduced to the art world avant-garde by Marcel Duchamp. In her gallery, Londoners were now faced with startling work by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, Brancusi, Wassily Kandinsky and more. There was a sole Brit among them: Henry Moore. And the exhibition fliers Ordovás has on display show a rollcall of still more now-great names of modern art: Miró, Picasso, Braque.

Yet in just 18 months, it was all over: Guggenheim threw a party to close her gallery in December 1939. Partly because of the war, partly because she found her taste a tough sell in the conservative British climate, but mainly because she had a new vision. With the leading art critic Herbert Read, she had been making excited plans for a museum of modern art in London.

Yves Tanguy, Le Ruban des excès (The Ribbon of Excess), 1932, National Galleries of Scotland. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019
Yves Tanguy's 'Le Ruban des excès (The Ribbon of Excess)' (1932) © ARS, NY and DACS

Read had the expertise and the vision; Guggenheim had the funds and the contacts. Born in 1898 into the vastly wealthy New York family, Peggy had lost her father Benjamin Guggenheim on the Titanic in 1912; on her 21st birthday she inherited a mere $2.5m (about $36m in today’s values), much less than others of the clan. And she became, as she put it, something of a black sheep, fleeing the staid New York of her family circles for the delights of Jazz Age Paris.

So it was that in August 1939 she headed back to Paris, from London, on a now legendary shopping spree. In her pocket, a list compiled by Read, of works she should acquire for the London museum. In her handbag, her fat chequebook: she had pledged £40,000 to the new venture. And in her head, a family challenge: at home in New York her uncle Solomon Guggenheim had established a foundation to collect abstract art, and opened what was at first called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Although not yet installed in the now iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building on the Upper East Side (“my uncle’s garage”, Peggy disparagingly called it), it was a sharp spur — she, after all, was Guggenheim “jeune”, intimate of the artists and the avant-garde.

‘Untitled’ (1935) by Yves Tanguy
‘Untitled’ (1935) by Yves Tanguy © ARS, NY and DACS

The outbreak of war put the dampers on the London plan, but — amazingly, since both her parents were Jewish — Guggenheim seems to have thought she could transpose her plans to the French capital, and even rented a property on Place Vendôme for her museum-to-be. Just two days before the German army entered the city she decided to save herself, and her precious cargo of artworks, and decamped to the south of France.

And quite a cargo it already was. As she explained, in Paris she had put herself “on a regime, to buy one work of art a day”. In the panic of war almost no one else was buying and everyone was eager to sell; even so, it was amazing that her budget stretched to a treasure trove that included eight paintings by Miró, no fewer than 10 Picassos, works by Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, Klee, Magritte and Chagall. And some 30 works by Max Ernst, who became her second husband in 1941.

Jean (Hans) Arp, Fruit de pagoda (Pagoda Fruit), 1949 © DACS 2019
Jean Arp's 'Fruit de pagoda (Pagoda Fruit)' (1949) © Dacs/Nicholas Moss

By then, she and her beloved collection, as well as her two young children and a group of artists she sponsored, were safely in New York. For many of the artists, Jewish and otherwise, getting them out of Europe was quite an undertaking; they certainly owed her their lives. But her London adventure was over: her new gallery-cum-museum on West 57th Street, called The Art of This Century, made a New York power base for the abstract and surrealist work she loved; after the war, the city became modern art’s undisputed capital.

In London Herbert Read persevered, and in 1947 he and a group of like-minded thinkers managed to establish the Institute of Contemporary Arts, on Pall Mall, as an alternative to the stuffiness of the Royal Academy. But without Guggenheim’s deep pockets, there was no question of that wonderful shopping list: there was no collection at all, in fact. For a proper museum of contemporary art — in the shape of Tate Modern — London had to wait a long, long 50 years.

To December 14,

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