Peter Gimpel

Co-founder of Gimpel Fils who helped shape the artistic taste of a generation

Art dealers are essentially intermediaries between artists and the buying public, but a few genuinely help shape the taste of a generation. Peter Gimpel was one such. With his brother Charles, he set up Gimpel Fils in London in 1946, first in South Molton Street, W1, then around the corner in much larger premises in Davies Street. No gallery did as much, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, to put contemporary British artists, notably those of the St Ives school, the abstract painters of the Ecole de Paris and, to a lesser extent, rising American painters on the map.

Pierre Gimpel (Peter Gimpel), art dealer: born Paris 26 October 1915; died London 12 June 2005.

Art dealers are essentially intermediaries between artists and the buying public, but a few genuinely help shape the taste of a generation. Peter Gimpel was one such. With his brother Charles, he set up Gimpel Fils in London in 1946, first in South Molton Street, W1, then around the corner in much larger premises in Davies Street. No gallery did as much, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, to put contemporary British artists, notably those of the St Ives school, the abstract painters of the Ecole de Paris and, to a lesser extent, rising American painters on the map.

They called themselves Gimpel Fils in homage to their father René, himself a second generation art dealer of Alsatian Jewish origin, who was not merely a dealer in the Duveen class (and considerably more of an expert than Joe Duveen), but was married to the youngest of the 13 Duveen siblings.

René Gimpel was also a peerless diarist, whose Journal d'un Collectionneur, first published in 1963 and subsequently in translation as The Diary of an Art Dealer, wittily chronicled his friendship with the likes of Monet, Renoir, Forain and Proust, as well as his dealings with difficult American mega-collectors like Henry Clay Frick. After the German occupation of France he joined the Resistance, aged over 60, and died in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944. Charles, who had been captured working for the same cause, was subsequently tortured. The youngest son, Jean, also in the Resistance, evaded capture. Peter joined the British Army.

The three Gimpel sons - Jean went into diamonds and became an authority on medieval technology - had been brought up in highly cultured luxury in a house in the Bois de Boulogne, on the west side of Paris, with some 15 servants. Charles and Peter (then called Ernest and Pierre - "Charles" was Ernest's Resistance codename, which he adopted permanently) were painted by Marie Laurençin aged seven and five respectively.

Peter was sent off in his teens to a smart boarding school in Switzerland, Le Rosey, which he loathed, and then conscripted into the French army. He and Charles did their military service in North Africa as troopers in the turbaned chasseurs d'Afrique, both being much concerned with what Peter described as "the personal hygiene and beautification of the horse".

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Charles hurried back to France from London, where he had begun to work for a firm of decorators, to join a French tank regiment. Both were bilingual: Peter was soon made a liaison officer with the 51st Highland Division and fought with them during the German breakthrough. Both brothers were evacuated via Dunkirk. Peter was given a commission in the 60th Rifles, fought in the battle of El Alamein from the first day, survived the Italian campaign and ended up in a small unit 100 miles inside Germany.

Gimpel Fils opened sensationally - if misleadingly, given the gallery's contemporary mission - in November 1946 with a show entitled "Five Centuries of French Painting", drawn from the small part of their father's collection that had been removed to safety in England before the Second World War. (While René knew and collected the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, he had specialised in 18th-century French painting, and was an expert on Vermeer. The bulk of his stock was lost in Paris during the war.) The proceeds from this exhibition, and from other works subsequently trickled onto the market, helped fund the gallery's commitment to contemporary art, and British art in particular.

Among artists with whom Gimpel Fils came to be closely associated were: from Britain, the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Bernard Meadows, Reg Butler, Hubert Dalwood, Kenneth Armitage and Robert Adams, and the painters Alan Davie, Peter Lanyon, Gillian Ayres, Louis le Brocquy, William Scott and Ivon Hitchens; from France, Pierre Soulages, Nicolas de Staël, Alfred Manessier, Serge Poliakoff, Yves Klein and Niki de St Phalle; and, from the United States, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Sam Francis and Larry Rivers. Despite the rise of Marlborough Fine Art and stiff competition from the likes of the Redfern, Waddington and Hanover galleries, Gimpel Fils was for a time unrivalled in the range and quality of its artists.

With the death of Charles in 1973, the rise of noisier, less painterly movements and then Peter's progressive withdrawal, Gimpel Fils acquired a somewhat split personality, shows by veterans such as Alan Davie and Albert Irvin and retrospectives of departed modern masters contrasting oddly with radically conceptual work by the new generation. But it remained a strongly family business, with Charles's son René assuming the helm and his widow Kay continuing until the late 1990s to play a role, along with Jean's widow Cathérine, who more recently moved to France.

The Gimpel fils were very different in style. Charles was more obviously passionate in his approach, and a gifted photographer with a mission to record the life and culture of the Inuits of the Canadian Eastern Arctic, whose carvings the gallery first showed (a first in Europe) in 1953. Peter, taller, darker and with his father's short moustache, was a more laconic and analytical observer of life and art, and excellent company.

Both were dedicated sportsmen. Charles played rugby for Blackheath. Peter sailed - most weekends a Dragon at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex, which he had joined in 1936 and of which he rose to be commodore; and for holidays a cruiser, moored at Antibes, which he shared with Jo Poupon of French mustard fame and continued to take around the Mediterranean and Aegean until well into his eighties.

Most of Peter Gimpel's friends were drawn from the world of sailing rather than art. He remained a bachelor, living for many years with his mother in a large Knightsbridge flat, latterly in a Wapping apartment with enviable views up and down the Thames. He also had a house inland from the French Riviera at Carros, next to the painters Louis le Brocquy and Anne Madden, and a stake in the collective family home not too far away in Ménerbes in the Vaucluse.

Roger Berthoud



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