Obituary: Philip Graham
Wednesday 13 November 1996
This made him, like his late partner, Stephen Boyd, one of those rare creatures in the London art world - someone who was prepared to stand up for what he believed to be worthwhile and important, even if at times this brought the pair of them to the edge of penury. Graham's death at the age of 49 deprives the London art world of an insightful and often courageous curator.
Art was not Graham's first career choice, though it had always had an interest for him. He was born in Derby, but his family emigrated to South Africa in 1948. After school, Graham's fine voice and theatrical ambitions pointed him in the direction of a career as an actor and singer, and he entered the drama department of the University of Cape Town. Following graduation he decided that there were more likely to be opportunities for a young actor-singer in England, and he returned to London.
Modest parts as a singer and dancer came his way, but, after he met his lifelong partner Stephen Boyd, Graham's career took off in a new direction, when they started dealing in antiques. The two men, similar in age, were an almost perfect couple, Stephen small in stature, wiry, resilient and imaginative, Philip taller, equally slight, but with an astute understanding of the workings of the business side of the art market.
Eventually they moved out of London in the late 1970s, opening St Judes, a shop in Somerset specialising in ceramics with theatrical connections. In a relatively short period they built up one of the strongest collections in the country and later they extended their interests to 18th- and early 19th-century pottery and porcelain, again establishing a national reputation for high-quality work accurately attributed.
Confident of the market, in the mid-1980s Boyd and Graham opened a tiny shop and gallery, again named St Judes, at the north end of Kensington Church Street, becoming one of London's leading ceramic specialists. A little later they became aware that few galleries were prepared to show images of the male figure and were determined to fill the gap in the market. Gradually ceramics gave way to figurative art, chiefly, though not exclusively, of the male nude. The gallery established a reputation for old master and academic drawings of the male figure, mostly of the 19th century, and they edited a well-illustrated book, Life Class (1989), on the subject. Alongside this programme, they showed work by living artists, some established, others at the start of their careers.
St Judes combined professional competence with ingenuity and flair, often appearing to whisk talented innovative artists out of nowhere. In fact both Boyd and Graham worked assiduously to find and nurture artists, to discuss their work, and give support. Clear, well-written, timely press- releases, and good-quality photographs of artists' work ensured maximum publicity. Private views were as much social occasions as an opportunity to view work, with a loyal following keen to see what they had to show. With no financial backing, the gallery was always a high-risk financial endeavour, but both partners were totally committed to the project.
A varied and imaginative exhibition programme ranged from academic drawings, many done in studio life classes, to exhibitions of delightful, but little- known work by Cecil Beaton, and studies of the male figure by Keith Vaughan, introducing these distinguished artists to a new audience. Shows featuring the work of young or little-known painters included David Hutter's delicate, sensitive watercolour studies of landscapes, flowers and nudes, contrasting with the fresh, homoerotic and sexy oil paintings of Philip Core. Notable artists showing in a gallery for the first time included Peter Samuelson, Gavin Murghfling and Stuart Bullen.
A combination of inflated business rates, general recession, and a fickle audience which often preferred to support by looking rather than buying brought the gallery to an end in the late 1980s. This also coincided with an HIV diagnosis for Stephen Boyd. Undeterred by what seemed overwhelming odds, Philip Graham set up his own gallery, Philip Graham Contemporary Art, in a spacious basement in the upcoming area of Old Street, just round the corner from the Independent's old City Road offices, extending his brief to include artists such as Jacqueline Moreau and Sandra Fisher. Despite its tucked-away location, patrons found their way, and the gallery was able to survive, mounting one-person as well as themed shows. Increasing ill-health, combined with the trauma of Boyd's death in 1995, brought a temporary halt to the programme, and the gallery closed earlier this year.
Philip Graham achieved his ambition in setting up a gallery showing work which crossed the conventional boundaries of gay/straight, male/female, historical/modern, choosing work for its quality and style as well as its content. He and Stephen Boyd supported and encouraged each other in the "shark-infested waters" of art dealing, succeeded in maintaining a gallery few thought could survive, and did so with flair, wit and imagination.
Philip Graham, gallery director and actor: born Shardlow, Derbyshire 24 July 1947; died London 19 October 1996.
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