Alan Bowness: Influential art historian who transformed the Tate

The curator and director built a platform for contemporary British works and established the Turner Prize

<p>Bowness helped shine a light on modern European art</p>

Bowness helped shine a light on modern European art

Sir Alan Bowness, who has died aged 93, was one of the most influential figures in post-war British art. The former director of the Tate was the gallery’s transformative leader at a time when it broke out from London, forging links with St Ives in the far southwest and building a new outpost in Liverpool. As the founder of the Turner Prize, he established an annual award that continues to challenge boundaries and stir controversy in the art world and beyond.

Alan Bowness was born in 1928 in Finchley, north London, to Kathleen and George Bowness, a school teacher. He was educated at University College School in Hampstead and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read modern languages. He continued his studies at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in French art of the 19th century.

In 1956, he joined the Arts Council as a regional art officer for the southwest of England and travelled to St Ives to visit the thriving community of artists who lived and worked there, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon.

Whilst in St Ives he met Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson, one of Barbara’s daughters, and the couple married in 1957. That year, Bowness was invited by Sir Anthony Blunt to teach at the Courtauld Institute. Christopher Green, a professor emeritus of Courtauld, said: “Shaped by and led by Bowness, the [modern] department was responsible for the formation of a generation of art historians, curators and critics committed to the rigorous analysis of visual art right across the period between the Pre-Raphaelites and modernism.”

His course in modern European art was a pioneering academic survey of what was at the time a relatively unstudied subject. He would later say of this time that “I did realise that temperamentally I’m probably a teacher, preacher ... more than an administrator.”

Bowness’ first major curatorial outing was for the exhibition 54/64 Painting & Sculpture of a Decade, co-curated with Lawrence Gowing, shown at the Tate in 1964. For Bowness, it was as important to study and exhibit living and working artists, as it was to show the great painters of the past.

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The Tate Gallery (then the National Gallery of British Art) was established in 1897 on a single site at Millbank, London, funded by the industrialist Sir Henry Tate. Bowness arrived as its director in 1980, as the first art historian to take on the role, and oversaw the Tate’s expansion at Millbank and beyond.

By extending the Tate Gallery (now known as Tate Britain) with the addition of the Clore Gallery, he made space to display the institution’s extensive collection of works by JMW Turner.

During his first year, he made links with the far southwest of England by bringing the Barbara Hepworth Museum into the Tate fold. This initiative would eventually lead to the creation of Tate St Ives, now a hub for the art and artists of Cornwall. He also instigated a project to create a “Tate in the north”, Tate Liverpool, which opened in May 1988 in the city’s Albert Dock. Bowness created the Turner Prize in 1984, as a means of promoting interest in contemporary British art.

He wrote the key studies Modern Sculpture (1965) and Modern European Art (1972), a lucid survey of art and architecture over the previous century. On retirement from the Tate in 1988, he became director of the Henry Moore Foundation and created the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. His six-volume catalogue raisonné of Moore sculptures benefitted considerably from his friendship with the artist.

Bowness was recognised for his contribution to art in Britain with a CBE in 1976 and a knighthood in 1988. He is survived by his wife Sarah and their children Paul and Sophie.

Alan Bowness, arts administrator, writer and curator, born 11 January 1928, died 1 March 2021

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