Peter Townsend

Writer and magazine editor who influenced a generation's conception of contemporary art


Peter Townsend, writer and editor: born Horsham, Sussex 28 August 1919; English Publicity Secretary, Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (CIC) 1942-52; editor, Studio International 1965-75; editor, Art Monthly 1975-92; editor, Art Monthly Australia 1987-93; married 1949 Rose Yardumian (two daughters); died London 21 July 2006.

As a young man, Peter Townsend witnessed and wrote about the birth of Communist China. He went on to change art journalism as editor of Studio International and founding editor of Art Monthly and Art Monthly Australia. At an event held at the Tate Gallery to celebrate Townsend's 80th year, Nicholas Serota described how formative Studio International had been for his generation's conception of contemporary art. But for all his genius for bringing people together socially and in print, Townsend was himself shy and elusive.

Born in 1919, Townsend was brought up in Kent. His parents were Quakers, his father, Lewis W. Townsend, a poetry-writing dentist who published a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. The eldest of Peter's four siblings, 10 years his senior, was the painter William Townsend and while he was still at the King's School, Canterbury, Peter met William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore and other Euston Road painters.

He was at the beginning of his second year at Worcester College, Oxford, reading History, when war was declared in September 1939. His regret was giving up his cello lessons rather than history - music and then poetry were his first loves. He registered as a conscientious objector and volunteered for medical service, working in hospitals in Bristol and London during the Blitz.

At the end of 1941, following a crash course in Mandarin, he went to China with the Friends Ambulance Unit, with a flute in his knapsack. When Peter Townsend abandoned his pacifism, the British ambassador told him to stay in China, "as there are too many Americans about", and he began work as the English Publicity Secretary to the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (CIC). The CIC had been started in 1938 with international voluntary support to sustain schools and small producers after Japan invaded China's industrial heartland. Townsend's job was to write reports on the co-operatives. He also worked as a stringer for the Reuters news agency and various newspapers. In 1949 he witnessed the fall of Shanghai to the People's Liberation Army and reported on it for the BBC.

His China Phoenix (1955), an uneasy mix of lyrical personal voice and factual record, evokes the wretched poverty, the corruption and the brutality of peasant life under the Kuomintang. "Revolution was better than No Revolution, and facts, most able propagandist, plucking you by the sleeve, convinced you that only revolution could resolve the problem. Sooner or later the road led to Yenan . . ."

At Yenan, Townsend met Mao Tse-tung. Mao backed the continuation of the CIC and questioned him on the condition of the labour movement in Britain, of which, Townsend was embarrassed to admit, he knew nothing. He became friends with Chou En-lai, who showed him contemporary Chinese woodcuts, and the collection Townsend went on to make is now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

In 1949 Townsend married the Armenian-American Rose Yardumian. The photographer Henri Cartier- Bresson was in China and came to the wedding; legend has it that Townsend greeted him with "Put the camera away, Henri, and have a drink." In 1952 the Townsends returned to Britain and Peter took various China-related jobs, lecturing and contributing to The Spectator and the New Statesman, among others.

In 1965, he became editor of Studio International, the art magazine founded in 1893. To see Studio before Townsend's editorship is to see how parochial the London art world had been. The roster of contributors in his years would include leading art writers from Eastern and Western Europe, the United States and beyond, including India, South America, Japan and Australia. He recruited a succession of bright young assistant editors - Frank Whitford, Tim Hilton, Charles Harrison, John McEwen and Irena Oliver. Many of the artists discussed also illustrated and designed covers for Studio and a generation of critics cut their teeth writing for the magazine.

The architect Michael Spens acquired Studio, and in 1975 he asked Townsend to give up the editorship. This blow and the subsequent disappearance into obscurity of the magazine pained Townsend for the rest of his life. He was also advised to step down from the various bodies he served - he was chair of the Greater London Arts Association and of Arts Services Grants which ran the AIR (Information Registry of Art) gallery and SPACE (Space Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational) which acquires studio space for artists to rent. Townsend subsequently discovered that a story was in circulation, generated out of Labour Party infighting at the GLC, claiming that he worked for the CIA in China. "Not all of the shits are on the right," Derek Jarman observed to Townsend.

He regained his footing when, with Jack Wendler, innovative gallerist and collector, and his wife Nell, in 1976 he co-founded Art Monthly, produced in newsprint, with token black-and-white reproductions of the art discussed. The idea of a cheap-to-produce art news and criticism magazine had been in Townsend's mind before he left Studio. A new generation of writers was encouraged into print, but the star contributor in those early years was Peter Fuller. His partial, passionate and political criticism was the quintessence of the magazine. He contributed to 64 of the first 100 issues.

An essential craft for the editor of a magazine such as Art Monthly is persuading people to work and contribute for derisory money. But many of the most exploited still loved him. Townsend was very persuasive; his currency was charm and hospitality. The great and the good, as well as the unheard-of, appeared in Art Monthly. Townsend was often to be found at lunchtime in one or other Museum Street pub with artists, writers or some international art luminary passing through London. One lunch with Carl Andre at the old Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street became dinner. He would often invite contributors back to his home for dinner with Rose. For many, it was a shock when in 1985 Peter left Rose. Their hospitality and warmth had made them surrogate parents to many a callow art scribbler.

In 1983 Peter Townsend was asked to do a lecture tour of Australia. This led to the founding in 1987 of Art Monthly Australia (AMA); Townsend edited both AMs, travelling between London and Australia, before returning permanently to England in 1993. The ending in 1992 of his editorship of the London Art Monthly was a bitter affair. While, with Nell's death in 2003 and the onset of Peter's illness, messages were exchanged via others, Peter Townsend and Jack Wendler never spoke again.

Peter Townsend and the partner of his final 11 years, Pat Barnes, were generous hosts at her house in Islington. There were regular lunchtimes at Mulligans in Cork Street, where Australian artists and writers passing through London would meet up with Peter and a changing population of his London friends. Over six foot and with a shock of white hair, he remained handsome even in old age. His genuine and intense interest in other people made him, for all his guardedness, an exceptionally sympathetic man.

Andrew Brighton and Jo Melvin

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