Obituary: Ronald Alley

Graham Hughes
Wednesday 05 May 1999 23:02

AS LATE as 1968, a small 48-page guide to the Tate Gallery gave only one page to America. By 1979, a similar small Tate guide rationed America to four photographs, whereas the rest of the world won 60. But in 1981 the Tate published Ronald Alley's huge catalogue of its modern foreign collections, and there we find a very different story. The Tate had become truly international. What happened to change its perspectives so radically? To a great extent, what happened was simply Ronald Alley.

Alley's knowledge of modern art was awesome and his love of artists legendary. He worked at the Tate for 35 years, starting in 1951, becoming Keeper of the Modern Collection in 1965, and retiring in 1986. Amongst his many artist friends were Francis Bacon, whose catalogue raisonne he compiled as early as 1964, Graham Sutherland, whose sketchbooks he catalogued for an exhibition at the Tate, and of whose museum at Picton Castle in Wales he was a trustee, and Patrick Heron, whose show at the Tate in 1998 gave him so much pleasure.

When he went to the Tate in 1951 (after studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art) the academic staff there totalled only about five brave souls, and the modern art collection was bounded by the ideas of Sam Courtauld, benefactor and founder of the Courtauld Institute. The French Impressionists, whose paintings Courtauld had not started buying until the 1920s, about 50 years after the Havemeyers and others in New York, still provided the acceptable borders of modernity in Britain.

The story of the arrival of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist art in Europe has never been fully told. There were shows put on by Bryan Robertson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, notably the Rothko retrospective in 1959. But it is arguable that it was Alley who had set the then unfashionable ball rolling and made it happen. In 1956 the Tate's exhibition of 20th- century American art broke the ice, and three years later the Tate returned to the charge with modern American Abstract Expressionism.

There was a big row in conservative Britain; even prominent and enlightened critics like John Russell questioned whether this was art, though mercifully, unlike some, he eventually changed his mind. Now, the Tate has six Jackson Pollocks and one of the best American collections in Europe.

Alley's first real personal contact with the New York painters may have been in 1958 when the American Expressionist Paul Jenkins was exhibiting at the Arthur Tooth gallery in London and Alley invited him to his flat, a visit that yielded wonderful personal fulfilment for them both.

He once told me about his first trip to New York in 1960. He visited Mark Rothko in the Bowery area, which seemed to him to be full of druggies, and other unsavoury presences. Rothko's own working environment was surprisingly rough, but Alley took it all in his stride, as he did most aspects of human deviation from the norm.

He played a big part in Rothko's gift to the Tate of the great series of paintings originally destined for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, which are now one of the Tate's principal modern treasures. The pictures arrived on the day Rothko's suicide was announced.

Rothko and his New York artist friends formed what Paul Jenkins calls a "sort of gang", intensively competitive with each other yet mutually supportive, often meeting in clubs or in the friendly Caesar's tavern. Alley did not seek out artists: one meeting led naturally to another. He was ubiquitous and seemed to know everybody. In New York, he saw Robert Rauschenberg introduce his major collectors to Jasper Johns - generosity indeed; he also talked with Leo Castelli, who became the leading dealer for these masters.

The Alleys' top-floor apartment in Putney attracted all sorts of artists from Paul Jenkins or the Nolans from Australia, to tennis champions from Wimbledon, or the critic David Sylvester nearby. He liked people who were odd or unfamiliar, wherever they came from, and many seem to sojourn briefly on his top floor.

Once in Kassel, at the Dokumenta exhibition of avant-garde art, Joseph Beuys was raising money for his green vision to plant 7,000 trees, and staged an exhibition boxing match. He offered Alley the boxing gloves he had used, hoping he would buy them for the Tate. The offer, which was possibly only a tease anyway, did not materialise, but it shows that Beuys, then a figure of world-wide fame, responded, as so many artists did, to Ronald Alley's seemingly hesitant magnetism. At the Tate's press parties I remember him being so self-effacing he was almost mysterious.

He was sad when, after returning from New York in 1960, he discovered the paucity of modern collections in museums outside London: only three small Picassos, and no really key works anywhere. On his deathbed he urged me to read the article he had written about this in the Museums Journal in 1962. Here, he for once betrayed the depth of his true feelings. He was devastated that modern art had so few British admirers.

In one sense the "Forty Years of Modern Art" exhibition at the Tate in 1986 was his monument: in it he proved how catholic and broad-based the Tate's buying policy had been during his time there. Purchases had included relatively obscure British artists as well as the new Americans whose works were by now worth millions each, an extraordinarily successful investment of public funds.

In another way, Alley's ground-breaking catalogue of the Tate's modern foreign collection was his great work: he was always extremely thorough, even making special journeys to examine the birth certificates of artists whose details had vanished. The book is an essential reference for all modern art. But it does have one defect: Alley left himself out of it, referring only occasionally to an impersonal "the compiler".

After he retired, he continued to write; he catalogued the Gilbert de Botton collection, and contributed massively to the Macmillan art dictionary. But he found time too to develop a newer interest, his rather little-known love of music.

He collected thousands of CD recordings which now fill the walls of two large living rooms in his flat. Often, he could be found sitting on a worn leather sofa with the second-hand gramophone experts in the Gramex shop behind Waterloo. Then there were the birds. He evidently needed a complete release from the hot-house of modern art, and he found it throughout his life by watching birds, often in such places as the remotest parts of Wales. He could himself sometimes be spotted catching the train or bus - always public transport - to find a rare bird about which he had been told. Alley was no lightweight: it was he who discovered how to differentiate between the male and the female coot, although in all obvious respects they are identical.

In 1955 he married the painter Anthea Oswell; they divorced in 1973, she continued to live upstairs in their Putney home, and they remarried on her deathbed in 1993; he had lovingly nursed her during her illness in the Charing Cross Hospital. He adored his two daughters, Fiammetta and Melissa, both of whom are painters.

"Why can't you get rid of Ronald, he's such a nuisance?" was one of many querulous questions at a trustee meeting at the Cecil Higgins Museum in Bedford, where for five years Alley advised on the purchasing of modern prints.

The questioner was the director of a national museum, and he was not accustomed to Alley's patient, dogged obstinacy. Ronald Alley was an unsung master of committee technique who almost always knew more than anybody else about the subject under discussion, and who got his own way not with bombast, but by slowly revealing his own quiet conviction.

Graham Hughes

Ronald Edgar Alley, art historian: born Bristol 12 March 1926; Assistant Keeper, Tate Gallery 1951-54, Deputy Keeper 1954-65, Keeper of the Modern Collection 1965- 86; married 1955, 1993 Anthea Oswell (died 1993; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1973); died London 25 April 1999.

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