HELEN LESSORE was a painter of quiet but lasting distinction, the central years of whose career were dominated by her direction of the Beaux Arts Gallery, in Bruton Place, which she made one of the most important London dealer's galleries of the post-war period. She was also a notable writer; in prose of characteristic directness and clarity she identified the lasting values in art in which she believed and for which she fought, often against the tide.
She was born Helen Brook, in London, of Jewish parents, her father having settled there from Lithuania and her mother being British-born of a German family of Spanish extraction. Assisted by art prizes won in public competitions while still at school, she entered the Slade School in 1924, where she won further awards and was commended by Henry Tonks, the Slade Professor. Tonks's insistence on the visual truth of the observed world was a formative influence, while from the art historian Tancred Borenius she derived an enduring concern with the central importance of composition. Of her early experience, in the National Gallery, of the art of the Italian Renaissance she later observed that it left her feeling she had been put in touch with whatever it is that lies at the very centre of creation. The quest to discover where this quality might be found in the superficially very different art of the modern era and of her own day made her, even before her arrival at the Slade, a person of exceptional seriousness and determination, which she would always be.
In 1931 she became secretary at the Beaux Arts Gallery, which was directed by the sculptor Frederick Lessore. He was 28 years her senior and the larger of the gallery's spaces had originally been his studio. They married in 1934. In 1932 she had published the first of her articles on one of the gallery's principal artists, W. R. Sickert, who was the husband of Frederick Lessore's painter sister, Therese. From Sickert, Helen Lessore learnt to prefer the vitality of swift and direct drawing from observation over the painstaking precision Tonks had urged in preparation for painting. She shared both artists' belief in the importance of painting the world one knows, but was concerned to fuse the insights of observation with those of the imagination, so as to produce paintings true to her emotions and embodying the recollection of more than a single moment.
Curtailed by parenthood and by the war, Helen Lessore's work as a painter was further interrupted when, on her husband's death in 1951, she was obliged to assume the directorship of the Beaux Arts Gallery. She could not afford the work of the established artists she admired, but realised that this gave her the opportunity of fostering new work of promise. To her artists, she was at once encouraging and critical. The gallery under her direction has been described by Philip Oakes as 'one of the most individual and influential nurseries of talent in the country'. As Helen Lessore remarked, the fact that she was an artist 'put me on the side of the artist, rather than of anyone else'.
The artist and critic Andrew Forge has well described the very particular atmosphere of the Beaux Arts in these years:
You came off the street up a dark staircase and straight into the upstairs gallery. It was like entering an attic. The first things you saw were floorboards and a floor-level view of the pictures. The floor-boards creaked and the place always smelt of the paraffin stoves that were standing around . . . . Through the top gallery you came to a balcony hanging out over the large gallery below, just as it might over the squash court which the lower space resembled. On the balcony to the right was Helen Lessore's desk and she was almost always there, pale, beaked, a melancholy bird. To your left, a precipitous iron staircase took you down into the large gallery. A door opened straight on to the pavement of Bruton Place. Mrs Lessore's shoes would watch you go. More than anything else it was like a studio, an atelier de peintre spruced up for visitors, and it was this - that the gallery itself seemed nearer to the painting of pictures than to the merchandising end - that gave it its inimitable, irreplaceable quality.
Contrary to frequent assumptions, Helen Lessore did not favour a single kind of art; her 86 principal exhibitions at the Beaux Arts even included two or three of abstract art, while on the dominant figurative side of its programme the preoccupation was not with realism but with the artist's concern at once with the world as personally experienced and with the material reality of the resulting image. This gave scope for a wide variety of expression.
In the 1950s, the tendency with which the press most strongly associated the gallery was that which David Sylvester christened Kitchen Sink: John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith all showed there in the years before their great success at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Helen Lessore felt closest, however, to the work of a number of artists in whose paintings she identified a specially effective fusion of observation of the world in their own day with response to the central traditions of Western art. Among the artists she celebrated when painting an imaginary retrospective view of her gallery - 'Symposium I' 1974-77, which is in the Tate Gallery collection - were Aitchison, Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Kossoff, Raymond Mason and Uglow, to all of whom she had given exhibitions. She later described Bacon as 'great among the great of all times and places'. Other artists she showed included Martin Bloch, Jeffery Camp, John Dodgson, Sheila Fell, Heinz Koppel, Evert Lundquist and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. If the spirit of one artist other than Helen Lessore herself could be identified as continuing to preside over the Beaux Arts Gallery, it would be that of Sickert, whose work was almost always to be seen there. The gallery's final exhibition was of John Lessore, Helen Lessore's younger son, whom she had herself taught before he followed her to the Slade; one of her greatest sources of gratification was his subsequent development into one of the leading British figurative painters of his generation.
Financial considerations compelled the closure of the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1965, by which date its atmosphere and ethos were in increasingly sharp contrast to the developing London scene. The time thus gained made possible a return by Helen Lessore to more continuous painting, as did her move, shortly before the closure, to a house in Camberwell which afforded greater space, light and closeness to nature. Many of her subsequent paintings would be set in its interiors and its at times almost paradisal garden, dominated by her husband's sculpture of Pan. Her art merged the inspiration of appearance with her vision of human relations and of the passage of time. Typically, a painting was the long-considered image of a single moment, enriched by suggestions of past and future, her pictures often resembling stages and she the detached observer. Many works depicted her extensive family and others gatherings of friends - principally artists, a group who, using the term in its widest sense, she described as 'the salt of the earth, the leaven of society, the only hope for civilisation'. Her achievement as a painter was recognised by a retrospective at the Fine Art Society in 1987, and by her election as a Senior RA in the same year.
In the years after she closed her gallery, Helen Lessore was disturbed by the concern in art with innovation for its own sake and by the corresponding weakening, in art education, of the belief that the route to individuality of expression must lie through substantial experience of the disciplines of drawing and composition. In particular, she felt that to ignore the great tradition that lay behind them was impoverishing for visual artists. In her book A Partial Testament (1986), her passionate engagement with the greatest art of the past was combined with her teaching instinct. Though intended above all for students, the book is of relevance to all concerned with art. It distinguishes the character of the Northern and the Mediterranean strands in the Great Tradition of European Art and the vitality of the second Renaissance, which Helen Lessore saw as occurring in late-19th-
century France, above all in the art of Cezanne. Concerned to demonstrate the ways in which the central tradition can continue in the art of our own era, it examines in individual chapters the art of Giacometti, Aitchison, Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Balthus, Freud, Kossoff, Lundquist, Mason and Uglow. Opposing the cult of the fragment, it advocates a humanist art of formal strength, material fullness and affirmative spirit. The book ends with an appeal for 'an art - a new movement - which should acknowledge the dignity, the beauty, the mystery, of 'ordinary' life, or 'ordinary' people - an art . . . considered and monumental, both in painting and sculpture.'
Confirming the instincts of a lifetime, this conclusion was composed after a first visit to Egypt made in the period, her late seventies, when she also embarked on the study of ancient Greek, with a view to understanding the classic authors in the original. At each of her different ages Helen Lessore's appearance was of a grave beauty. In the art community, her presence had a certain severity that was allied to her stringency of judgement, but these traits went hand in hand with a lively curiosity and notable warmth. In her writing and her art the complementary sides of her personality are combined to lasting effect.
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