Published: 11 November 2010
by GERALD ISAAMAN
THE roll call of artists is remarkable, worthy of the Royal Academy on a fine day – Adler, Bacon, Epstein, Moore, Minton, Pasmore, Sutherland, and, from France, such stars as Leger, Lhote and Lurcat.
What were they all doing wandering through the tree-lined streets of St John’s Wood, visiting elegant Victorian houses in Elm Park Road, bought for £6,000 on a 35-year lease when the war ended in 1945?
As from next week, you can find the answer to that puzzling question at the nearby Boundary Gallery, where a tantalising exhibition opens telling the saga of not only the Anglo-French Art Centre but also the St John’s Wood Art School, dating all the way back to 1878.
It is a story that has been lost in time, only now the curtain being lifted on the birthplace of artistic talent, a treasure trove once accepted as the best teaching establishment London could provide.
And it has all come about almost by chance: Agi Katz, the celebrated Ben Uri curator who founded the Boundary Gallery 23 years ago, suddenly had to find a new show when the planned exhibition had to be cancelled.
She recalled reading Frances Spalding’s biography of the artist John Minton which mentioned the St John’s Wood Art School, known as The Wood, where he trained, then discovering that it subsequently became the Anglo-French Art Centre, which finally folded in 1951.
With typical tenacity, she traced to Paris the phone number of the art centre’s founder, the painter Alfred Rozelaar Green, now 93. “I called, and to my amazement he answered,” she says with delight.
“He could not believe that 65 years after the centre’s foundation someone was interested in telling its story.
“He started searching for documents and photos and I set off to create this exhibition telling such an historic story.”
It is also the story the St John’s Wood Art School, its radical forebear, founded by AA Calderon and EB Ward, then two of the best teachers in London, Byam Shaw, Lewis Baumer and Cadogan Cowper being among the early students, followed later by John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Kenneth Martin, their tutors including John Piper, Vanessa Bell and John Skeaping.
This later period was under the inspired leadership of joint principals Ernest Perry and Pat Millard, appointed in 1933, who broke the barrier of male and female students being segregated at life drawing classes and introduced a monthly sketch club.
The artist Breon O’Casey, recalling his student days there, remembered two pieces of advice from that time: “John Minton told me, ‘It’s no good being inspired if you’re sitting on the top of the No 19 bus. You must be in front of your easel’.”
And Jacob Epstein, in his rich Brooklyn accent, told him: “You stoodents must poisovere with your work; it’s the only way.”
The school established the pattern of inviting in famed artists of the day to criticise the students’ work in a relaxed atmosphere, and to present prizes. That was maintained after the war by the Anglo-French Centre with the arrival of artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein and Francis Bacon, Ronald Searle, plus that significant French contingent, and financial support from the Arts Council and the French Embassy.
The exhibition has a preview for collectors next Thursday and a grand private view opening by Mr Laurant Burin des Roziers, Cultural Counsellor at the French Embassy, on November 2. More than 50 pictures are on display, many of them for sale at prices ranging from £500 to £90,000.
“It’s all been so fantastic and I’m so excited,” says Agi, whose gallery concentrates on modern British art from 1900 to 1950, a prime period covered by the exhibition.
“We have retrieved a lost chapter in the art history of London. And to think it all began by my reading a book.”
Her only sadness is that Rozelaar Green and his wife, who is 87, are too frail to come from Paris to see the exhibition, which, she points out, is happening in the wake of the government’s harsh cuts in art funding.
“All my life I’ve tried to re-educate people about how they look at art for themselves, not through prism of critics and others who only seek sensationalism in the way they present culture,” she adds.
“No matter what else is happening elsewhere, they can do it at my gallery. And they can do it for free.”
• The exhibition, entitled Rediscobvery, 98 Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, NW1, from November 19-December 23, Wednesday to Saturday 11am-6pm, 0207 624 1126, www.boundarygallery.com