Exhibitions: Modern and Estorick

Eric Estorick was Jewish by race, Russian by descent, American by birth and British by marriage. And, in art, he was an Italian, as his private collection makes clear
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The Independent Culture
LIKE A number of other successful art dealers, the late Eric Estorick was a supportive friend to artists, a bit of an intellectual and an obsessive collector, who often sold his best pieces. Estorick also had a generous public spirit - which lives on after his death in 1993 in the new Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, a unique museum set up by the Estorick Foundation. It's housed in Northampton Lodge in Canonbury Square, just five minutes' walk from Highbury Corner in north London. The handsome original building dates from 1810. It has been neatly converted into a contemporary museum. There are six galleries, a library, a shop and a cafe. Educational programmes are planned and there will be temporary exhibitions beside the permanent display.

So it's a special addition to the British cultural scene; and we are indeed lucky that it's in Britain at all. The story of the collection - and of quite a number of the works it contains - reflects 20th-century political history and the fate of refugees. Eric Estorick was born in 1913 in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish emigres from Russia. His first career was academic. Estorick studied sociology and taught the subject at New York University. In the war years, no doubt looking forward to the new world order that would one day arrive, he made a special study of Commonwealth leaders. This project led him to England, where he collected material for a biography of Stafford Cripps.

Today, Cripps may appear a somewhat dated subject. In 1949, when Estorick's book appeared, he was known as a vital figure in recent international affairs. Estorick was an internationalist by conviction, British by adoption and by his marriage. On the Queen Mary he met and became engaged to Salome Dessau. She was of a refugee family who had settled in Nottingham and had become rich in the textile business. They made all the underwear for Marks & Spencer. So, by 1950, Estorick made a surprising career move. He joined M&S. Coincidentally or not, at just this time he also started dealing in art.

As far as one can gather, he dealt shrewdly, swiftly and in quantity. By the standards of the London art trade of the day Estorick was adventurous. However, his liking for minor European figurative artists is marked. Perhaps he could sell their canvases by the dozen. He had no feeling for American painting, though the abstract expressionists were his contemporaries. I think he preferred painting by people who were 20 or 30 years older than himself. Above all, he had a relish for Italian art and was ambitious to form a major collection. This appetite is still rather a mystery, even though the results are so amply displayed at Northampton Lodge. What was the real attraction of Italian painting?

Estorick's son Michael thinks that it was because he was a city boy and remained an urban creature all his life. And certainly 20th-century Italian art crackles with novelty, machinery, city life and transport. It comes from a largely rural country yet is more anti-pastoral than the art we find in any other modern developed nation. Futurism is evidence enough of this attitude, a movement which dominates the Estorick collection. At the same time one cannot walk through the Northampton Lodge galleries without noticing how many paintings give off a sense of political futility, personal sadness and estrangement from homeland. My guess is that Estorick had a sympathy for earlier generations who had lost out. For the story of modern Italian art is not of triumph, but rather the opposite.

Significantly, Estorick's first major purchases were from the veteran Mario Sironi. He befriended him and bought the contents of his studio. There were hundreds of drawings and as many paintings as he could pack into a van. Sironi's fascist past did not trouble Estorick: what he liked was the feeling of a connection with the early days of Futurism. All the Sironis now in Northampton Lodge were acquired in this swoop. The drawings are clever but tentative. Works in oil, undated but later than the futuristic period, are quite desolate. The best of them, Urban Landscape, shows a locomotive puffing past blocks of flats. There is no sense of human activity. The modern world is deserted.

In this way Sironi is allied to the pessimistic vision of Giorgio de Chirico. The Estorick Foundation has two examples of his early, "metaphysical" painting. Melanconia (Melancholy) is typical of the style. In some deserted piazza is a Greek statue. Two distant figures cast long shadows. The atmosphere is gloomy rather than meditative. The picture's paint quality is deliberately drab, as though its artist had played down art's ability to be expressive, or to convey thought. One can quickly tire of de Chirico, but paintings such as this one always give an initial frisson.

As one would expect, the more energetic pictures in the collection come from the futurists. There are dashing, even headlong works by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra and Luigi Russolo. Gino Severini is not at his best, though his breakfast-time picture, Quaker Oats - Cubist Still Life, has a deftness that reminds us of the excellence of modern Italian design. That capacity for design (also present in some pieces of Twenties and Thirties furniture) is more apparent in futurist drawing than in painting. In fact the most successful gallery in the museum is the first, which is entirely devoted to drawing. These sheets benefit from being in black and white. Painting on canvas, the futurists were often over-vehement in their colour sense.

Estorick was colour-blind, which must say something about his responses to painting. Do we expect colour-blind people to have a more acute feeling for sculpture? Maybe so, but it must be said that the three-dimensional work at Northampton Lodge is lamentable. Giacomo Manzu and Marino Marini both pretended that modern art could derive from the sculpture of the Renaissance. Both failed, and fell into laxity and falsehood. Among the more interesting pictures in the Estorick Foundation are a vehement communist deathbed scene by Renato Guttuso and a delightful Modigliani portrait. The library (which can be used by appointment only) contains more than 2,000 rare books.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39 Canonbury Square, N1 (0171 704 9522).