Lillian Browse

'Duchess of Cork Street' who spent 50 years as an art dealer and wrote on Sickert and William Nicholson


Lillian Gertrude Browse, art dealer and historian: born London 21 April 1906; CBE 1998; married 1934 Ivan Joseph (marriage dissolved), 1964 Sidney Lines (deceased); died London 2 December 2005.

Browse & Darby opened in 1977, but I first encountered the formidable Miss Browse 14 years earlier. I was in my early twenties, a junior in the picture department at Sotheby's. An elegant Edwardian figure, Lillian Browse cut quite a dash in her extravagant hat and veil, together with kid gloves.

She had been invited to inspect a group of Sickert paintings and help with dates and titles. Already a distinguished art historian and partner in Roland, Browse & Delbanco, she had published two books on Walter Sickert - Sickert, an illustrated monograph edited by her and with essays by her and R.H. Wilenski, in 1943; and Sickert, a biography, in 1960 - that were generally regarded as the last word on the painter's oeuvre. She had shown Sickert's paintings in Cork Street after the Second World War, but sadly never met him. They were meant to meet at his last home in Bathampton, but her invitation was cancelled because he was unwell, and he died shortly after.

William Nicholson was another English painter to attract her attention. Her William Nicholson (1956), with catalogue raisonnée, was, and still is, the only published catalogue, but it was her pioneering work on the giant of French 19th-century painting, Degas, which inspired me.

By 1972 I had left Sotheby's to start dealing on my own. I rented small first-floor premises next to Sotheby's, and often visited Lillian Browse in her basement office in Cork Street in the hope of selling something to the triumvirate, and occasionally she visited me in Bond Street. I was in her office, five years later, when her partnership was going to announce their retirement. I at once offered to take over their lease, although daunted by the prospect.

Browse confided that, although the other two wanted to retire, she would be happy to go on. I jumped at the prospect of our working together. And so, with her husband Sidney Lines's encouragement, we opened Browse & Darby in October 1977 with a major show of Euan Uglow's work. We combined contemporary British figurative work with dealing in classic British and French 19th- and 20th-century art, the only gallery in London to do so.

Lillian Browse's book Degas Dancers (1949) is still today considered a seminal work. She showed me how, as with Titian, Degas' work never diminished in old age, but constantly developed. We made a speciality of late Degas drawings, partly because they were so plentiful and undervalued, and partly because his earlier highly finished pastels were already out of reach.

Browse's more than 40 years' experience as a dealer was of inestimable value to our new enterprise. Born in London in 1906, and partly brought up in South Africa, she had first trained to be a ballet dancer, but crossed into art dealing in 1931, working for the Leger Galleries in Old Bond Street. " 'Mr Harold'," she recalled in an obituary of Harold Leger for The Independent in 1987,

"gave me my opening into the art world by agreeing to let me work in his gallery when everyone else - and I had tried many - regretted they had no vacancies. His acceptance of me - "You can come and work here if you like, but of course I shall not pay you a salary" - was typical of his kind of genial bluntness; it also made sense, for, as I knew nothing and could not even type, I was hardly an asset to anyone."

Soon she was taking over the gallery during Leger's absences abroad, and redecorating a space in it for her own regular contemporary shows.

During the war she organised exhibitions in the National Gallery (the contents of which had been dispersed to the country for safekeeping), and in 1945 she joined Henry Roland and Gustav Delbanco, Thirties refugees from Germany, in founding Roland, Browse & Delbanco in Cork Street. She became a busy author, too, publishing books on Augustus John's drawings, Barbara Hepworth's sculptures and the ballet designs of Leslie Hurry, as well as serving four years as The Spectator's ballet critic.

We had many buying trips to her old haunts in Paris, although, with the leading salerooms' increasing influence in New York, it became easier to buy French art there, rather than Paris. We never went to New York together, so it was left to me to find French work in the auctions and galleries there.

Lillian Browse's authority extended far beyond the art world. She often managed to stop the traffic when crossing Piccadilly on the way down to visit Christie's wearing one of her legendary hats. On one occasion, in the early days, we had bought a small group of pictures at auction, and I had suggested she could help me carry our booty back to Cork Street. "I have never carried pictures away from sales, and I am certainly not going to start now" came the retort. Thereafter, carriers were summoned to collect our spoils.

Her intimate dinner parties were an eagerly waited event. One such party was to include Lillian's friend the renowned gardener Christopher Lloyd. Having just embarked, as a novice, on an attempt to make a garden from nothing in Hampshire, I was very apprehensive, for fear of the conversation would be conducted entirely in Latin. Thankfully, that was not the case, and listening to them discussing plants and gardens inspired me.

As well as a beautiful garden in Sussex, Lillian had made an enchanting town garden in Pimlico, which was full of interest all year round. In 2000, my wife and I undertook a building project in Wiltshire, and Lillian was inspirational with the planting of the new garden which I had designed. On a visit to inspect the progress of the building, she was determined to examine the first floor, and follow our other guests up a precarious ladder. I refused to allow this, and she was most indignant.

Long after her retirement from the gallery in 1981, she kept abreast of the art market and rarely missed new exhibitions. We often bought pictures in half-shares, which she enjoyed doing. When she reached 80, I was admonished for ungallantly disclosing the fact to one of her admirers, so when we celebrated her 90th birthday the numbers were not broadcast. Her birthday cake was an exact replica of one of those wonderful hats, even down to spun sugar for the silk veil.

In 1983, she gave most of her own 19th- and 20th-century art collection to the Courtauld Institute. In 1998, at the age of 93, she was appointed CBE for service to the visual arts, and in 1999 she published her autobiography, Duchess of Cork Street.

This year, on her 99th birthday, I encouraged her to stay with us another year, so we could have a massive celebration on her centenary. She replied somewhat reluctantly, "I am too tired, but I probably will." She would have been 100 in April.

William Darby

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