Obituary: Alex Gregory-Hood

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The Independent Culture
NOTHING COULD have been more surprising and in its own way more exotic for the London art world than the sudden arrival on the British contemporary art scene in 1962 of Alex Gregory-Hood as director of a new gallery in Lowndes Street, Belgravia.

The Rowan Gallery was named after the maiden name of Gregory-Hood's first partner, Diana Kingsmill. The venue, as a new place to find mostly abstract forms of contemporary art, was strange to start with since Belgravia is perhaps still best known for antique shops and interior decorators and only one or two small, rather conservative, art galleries.

The artists selected by Gregory-Hood for exhibitions during the Rowan Gallery's first five years remain among the most remarkable English painters and sculptors of the post-war period. Among the earliest were the painters Paul Huxley, Jeremy Moon, Brian Fielding, Anthony Donaldson, John Edwards and Anthony Green and the sculptors Phillip King, Isaac Witkin, William Tucker, Garth Evans and Barry Flanaghan. Bridget Riley joined the gallery in 1967, followed by Sean Scully, John Golding, Brian Young, Michael Craig-Martin and Mark Lancaster.

Phillip King's first great inventions, Genghis Khan, Tra-la-la, Rosebud and Twilight, moody coloured sculptures which hugged or straddled the ground and dispensed with bases, were first seen at the Rowan, and so were Paul Huxley's majestic excursions into an original synthesis between colour-field painting and purely abstract forms animated, like King's sculptures, by a kind of Surrealist ripple of unpredictability.

The Sixties were a time without precedent in painting and sculpture in Britain, a time of vitality, confidence and constructive contact with important developments abroad. The Rowan enjoyed a receptive climate created by the first three or four American shows and the New Generation exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery and major shows at the Tate Gallery and the ICA.

In October 1960, Alex Gregory-Hood had been 45 and had just resigned his commission in the regular army. He had been with the Grenadier Guards for a quarter of a century, since 1935, when he joined on leaving Sandhurst, and he had ended his career, after a distinguished war record, by commanding the Grenadier Guards as Colonel.

He was then nominated for the Imperial Defence College, which in due course would have made him an exceptionally young general, but Gregory- Hood rebelled at the prospect of a staff job and separation from his men. He resigned and in the same year, 1960, technically unemployed for six months, he wandered into Annely Juda's Molton Gallery and bought from her a collage by the Israeli artist Baram. Twenty-two years later, in 1982, he and Juda would go into partnership.

Gregory-Hood had long been interested in contemporary art. He visited museums and galleries on leave, explored the artists' colony at St Ives and was stimulated by long conversations with that cultivated charmer, Victor Waddington (father of Leslie), who showed the work of several St Ives artists. He met many artists, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and others, through friendship with the sculptor Roger Leigh - studio assistant to Barbara Hepworth - whose family lived at Stow-on-the-Wold in a house near Gregory-Hood's aunt. As a budding collector, he was encouraged by the example of his grandfather, the Hon Marshall Brooks, who had built up a fine collection of Italian and Dutch art.

Alex Gregory-Hood's background was unusual for a patron of contemporary art. The landed gentry from which he was descended had often acquired art collections of variable, sometimes considerable interest, but in the first half of the 20th century the tradition was rarely carried through into any serious interest in contemporary art. Gregory-Hood himself had no compulsive acquisitive instinct, except for plants and trees.

He was born in 1915 at Tarporley, Cheshire, in his maternal grandfather's house. His father, Charles Gregory-Hood, had been in the Army briefly but in Alex's early childhood was working as a land agent for some relatives, the Heber-Percy family in Yorkshire. His mother was Dorothy Brooks, whose father was a cotton merchant in Manchester and son of the first Baron Crawshaw; her mother's brother, the Marquess of Willingdon, was Viceroy of India.

On his father's side, the Hoods became famous in the 18th century. Both the sons of Samuel Hood, vicar of a Somerset village, joined the Navy and became admirals under Nelson - Viscounts Hood and Bridport. The Gregorys were an old Warwickshire family of country gentlemen. His grandfather had been obliged in 1927 to pull down the family home since 1760, Styvechale Hall near Coventry, because of its vast and impractical scale. Alex's earliest years were spent at Loppington Hall, Shropshire, and then the family moved to Loxley Hall, near Stratford-on-Avon, when Alex was 12.

This is where he spent his youth, holidays and army leave, and where later in 1975 he was to plan sites for contemporary sculpture by Rowan Gallery artists in the spacious gardens, and to change the sculptures regularly, along with planning a sunken rose garden or vast beds for irises, new shrubberies or arboretums of exotic trees to vie with the colossal Wellingtonia and ginkgo trees. And this was where, from 1962, he began to entertain large house parties of artists, their families and other friends in the art world.

Loxley Hall is a William and Mary stone house built c1700 with a substantial red-brick Victorian extension, a courtyard with outbuildings and barns and a series of large, enclosed gardens of varied aspect and character, well planted with trees, bounded by a stream which separates the house and its substantial grounds from the gently undulating Warwickshire landscape.

The grounds also contain a small, pretty church with discreet decorations by Anthony Green. Weekend visitors were invited to attend the Sunday morning service, where Gregory-Hood sometimes dutifully read the lesson clad in a black leather bomber jacket, but most did not. Instead, they found themselves bemusedly learning the names of the flowering plants in the herbaceous borders or learning how to play croquet with Gregory-Hood as an amusingly vicious opponent.

Gregory-Hood liked to relax in the country and it was disconcerting after getting used to him as an art gallery director dressed in impeccably conventional dark suits, shirts and ties to find him sweeping into dinner at Loxley in a patterned flowing caftan worn in a highly degage manner over purple tights.

In the gallery Gregory-Hood radiated enthusiasm, expressing opinions on art amiably but forcefully in an extremely loud upper-class drawl which brooked no opposition, rather as he had no doubt cajoled the ranks and junior officers in the Army. He had a keen sense of the absurd and although quite democratic and classless in many ways in his dealings with the world as a whole, with a keen distaste for pomposity or self-importance in others, he also retained a real love for the lineage of ancient country families and he adored genuine aristocrats with an intense dislike for those who, in his view, failed in their duties by selling off parts of their estate or great paintings.

Although the policy of the Rowan Gallery bravely from the beginning was to deal only with contemporary art and to attempt financial solvency through this pursuit only, without the financial support of blue chip investments in other kinds of art, the gallery survived and actually began to balance its books. In 1968, in need of new premises, the Rowan moved to Bruton Place and occupied a grander space beautifully designed by the architect Timothy Rendle, who also often appeared with his wife at Loxley. Along with Kasmin's Bond Street premises, elegantly structured by another fine architect, Richard Burton, it became one of the two best-looking galleries in London.

Gregory-Hood travelled all over Europe, the US, and eventually Australia and Japan on behalf of his artists - attempting to make sales and to secure shows in museums or other commercial galleries, with variable success. He was particularly devoted to Phillip King, always well represented in the grounds at Loxley, and Bridget Riley. He worked hard to establish company collections in England among his business friends as well as to convert his country acquaintances and neighbours.

He succeeded significantly with Sebastian de Ferranti in the business world, and with James West, a country friend with a particularly beautiful house and grounds who built up a fine collection of contemporary art and set local craftsmen to work as assistants to Phillip King in the making of a very big commissioned sculpture for Munich.

After Diana Kingsmill retired from the gallery in the late 1960s, Gregory- Hood worked alone, helped by an exceptionally able, cultivated and intelligent personal assistant, Celia Plunkett, and then in 1982, with another lease running out, he moved to Tottenham Mews and merged with Annely Juda's Gallery to form the Juda-Rowan partnership.

This worked very successfully until 1987 when the partnership and shared premises came to an end. Both sides remained on friendly terms but their ways of handling business affairs were not compatible: the Juda side was hectic but straightforward and in plain style, while Gregory-Hood received everyone as if he were conducting an informal but ineffably grand levee at Government House with champagne vaguely in the offing.

By chance, the lease at his old Bruton Place premises fell vacant and Gregory-Hood returned there in 1987, but this time with a working relationship, for a degree of financial subsidy, with the Mayor Gallery. The Mayor-Rowan Gallery put on some good shows including Warhol and Basquiat, and one particularly important exhibition in 1988 of paintings by Tom Wesselman, which was really a Mayor Gallery initiative but presented at both galleries.

In 1993, Gregory-Hood moved out and continued to deal from offices in Dover Street, finally moving back to Loxley, definitively, to administer the sculpture gardens and to find homes for work by sculptors to whom he had been closely attached: notably Phillip King and Garth Evans. He never admitted to retirement and continued to improve his garden and only gradually lost the energy, from the age of 80, to maintain more than a cursory interest in business affairs.

Alexander Marshall Horace Gregory-Hood, soldier and art dealer: born Tarporley, Cheshire 18 July 1915; MC and bar 1945; MBE 1954, OBE 1959; married 1943 Diana Gilmour (died 1987; one son, one daughter); died Loxley, Warwickshire 13 June 1999.