Obituary: Ewan Phillips
Friday 03 June 1994
THE LIFE of Ewan Phillips was a paradigm of the art world of 20th- century Britain. A man of great modesty, charm and intelligence, invariably opposed to any form of injustice or intolerance, strongly inclined to the Left, yet resisting the siren-song of Communism, he was an art historian, an administrator, a critic and picture dealer, a founder member of the Artists' International Association, the first Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art and a member of the International Association of Art Critics since its inception.
Born of a family of well-to-do Dutch Jews who had acquired wealth through a butchery business, his Harrow-educated father had opened an art gallery in Duke Street, St James's, dealing in such avant-garde artists as Matthew Smith, Leon Underwood, RO Dunlop and Jacob Epstein, with whose family the young Ewan became very familiar. His mother, born in London, was a lively and formidable character, who lived to an advanced age, and had been greatly in demand as a model for Augustus John and Epstein. Her Christmas parties in Hampstead initiated in the late 1930s in memory of Peter Warlock, one of their close friends, became legendary.
Having left school in 1930 Phillips spent a year at Goldsmiths' College of Art in Lewisham, where his contemporaries included Merlyn Evans and his first wife Betsy Blake. He then became one of the first students at the newly opened Courtauld Institute of Art, under the aegis of Anthony Blunt. Deeply involved in anti-Fascist activities, he was beaten up by the police and arrested in the course of a demonstration against the excesses which followed the burning of the Reichstag, he was bailed by JBS Haldane, and fined pounds 2 at Bow Street. One of the founders of the Artists' Refugee Committee, he became acquainted with Nikolaus Pevsner, who was then working at Gordon Russell's showroom in Wigmore Street. When Franco was victorious in Spain, Phillips assumed responsibility for the artist Gali (Francisco-Gali Fabra), who had been the Republic's Minister for Fine Art, and who lived with the Phillipses for some time. In 1938 he became involved in the exhibition of 20th-century German art at the New Burlington Galleries, organised by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose as a counterblast to Hitler's degenerate art exhibition in Germany.
During the war he served in the Intelligence Corps, mostly in Mombasa and Mauritius, and at the end of it applied to Anthony Blunt for a post in 'Monuments, Fine Art and Archives', the unit dealing with the retrieval of lost and looted works of art. After a short interval he was posted, with the rank of captain to take over as MFA & A officer-in-charge of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, where for three years he worked in amicable harmony with German museum officials. He interviewed Eva Braun's parents, returned to their original sites some of the thousands of church bells from all over Europe which had been assembled on the Hamburg docksides to make into weapons of war, and did a good deal to encourage younger artists in Germany.
In 1948 he heard that the idea of creating a Museum of Modern Art in London, initiated originally by Peggy Guggenheim and Herbert Read before the war, had been revived with the co-operation of Roland Penrose, EC (Peter) Gregory of the publishers Lund Humphries and Peter Watson, the patron of Horizon, the magazine edited by Cyril Connolly. He got the job of Director, acting as midwife of an institution not yet fully born, but one which was to be of considerable significance in the history of British art. In 1953 he resigned from the job, partly in connection with a competition for the statue of the Unknown Political Prisoner financed by a group of American businessmen; he suspected something of the kind of influence exerted on the magazine Encounter.
On the advice of Peter Gimpel, Phillips then turned his attention to art dealing, working for some time on his own and then joining the Kaplan Gallery, opposite his father's old gallery in Duke Street, where he arranged the first London exhibitions of Jean Tinguely, Leonore Fini and Jean Atlan, as well as exhibitions of Colquhoun, MacBryde and other artists of that generation. Two of his colleagues at the Kaplan Gallery were Annely Juda and John Kasmin, both later potent figures. In 1965 he opened his own gallery in Maddox Street, where he mounted a series of interesting but unprofitable exhibitions, and after three years or so it closed. Doggedly explorative in his tastes and passionate in his artistic convictions, he was inhibited by his innate sense of tolerance and rationality from those powerful ambitions which bring spectacular success to some dealers.
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