1963 Dark Sunlight in Summer
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Summer Exhibition is the truce it stages between amateur and professional artists, a distinction which it ostensibly dissolves by accommodating both camps under one roof. Group exhibitions of contemporary art inevitably bring together artists of differing acclaim, and in the twentieth century, some exhibitions did so deliberately and successfully: the Leicester Galleries’ Artists of Fame and Promise hadput recognised alongside unestablished artists since the 1930s, and had generated enough interest to become an annual fixture. Few exhibitions stage this union as boldly as the Summer Exhibition, though: its combination of open-submission process with august institutionalising space make it an invaluable site for discussing amateurism, professionalism, and their connections and demarcations.
In June 1963—a month after the Summer Exhibition had opened—this distinction was the focus of a piece on British art in The Sunday Times Magazine by the critic David Sylvester. It was his response to the Contemporary Art Society’s two-part exhibition British Painting in the Sixties, split between the Tate and Whitechapel galleries. Titled “Dark Sunlight”, Sylvester’s article considered the attitudes of the painters Francis Bacon and William Coldstream in terms of amateurism and professionalism (Fig. 1). Sylvester described how Bacon’s tendency to work on pictures which interested him, and to risk ruining them through this sustained attention, was,
more deeply indicative of an amateur rather than a professional attitude to being a painter than the wholesale destruction of his work which went on at the time he had no need to sell. I mean that it signifies a complete dissociation between production and distribution—between the artist’s private activity in painting and his public role as a maker of objects collectors and museums can buy.1
Likewise, Coldstream’s output of around only eighty paintings in thirty years, and the part-time nature of his painting (he was a devoted administrator, on innumerable committees) indicated to Sylvester a “disregard of an existing demand for a certain kind of product”. Sylvester argued that where formalism was the guiding principle in art, “the only thing that can save a painter from [the purely aesthetic] is the strength of his obsession with his own particular subject …The painter whose concentration upon his obsession isn’t diverted by professionalism has a lot to gain.”2
It is curious that the Summer Exhibition has often found itself criticised for being both too commercial and too open to the leisure painter—in other words, both too professional and too amateur. Sylvester’s article was and is fairly typical in contrasting amateurism with commercialism, a binary that would make those dual criticisms of the Summer Exhibition slightly absurd. “Dark Sunlight” provoked an angry letter, signed by many prominent artists of the day, including Robyn Denny, Ron Kitaj, Peter Blake, Anthony Caro, and Eduardo Paolozzi. They asserted: “amateurism has been strangling British Art, just as it has been strangling our economy and our governmental system.”3 Their indignant response connected the problems of amateurism in the art world with a wider British cultural malaise, a point reinforced in October of that year by Harold Wilson at the Labour party conference in Scarborough. In a speech best known for its “white heat” of scientific revolution passage, Wilson compared the composition of the higher ranks of science and industry with the “purchase of commissions in the armed forces by lordly amateurs” of old, and warned that: “in science and industry we are content to remain a nation of Gentlemen in a world of Players.”4
Sylvester’s playfully provocative advocacy of amateurism and Wilson’s fear of it make 1963 a year of debate and anxiety about amateurism. Were there signs of that debate in the Summer Exhibition, given the show’s structural propensity to bridge amateurism and professionalism? Although coverage of the Exhibition focused overwhelmingly on the Academicians’ work, some pictures certainly nodded towards this debate. Ruskin Spear’s Do it Yourself Painting Outfit: Cliff Richard in Colourpointed to cheerful hobbyism in its title, while its embrace of popular culture refuted more institutionally stable subjects and art world tastes. William Roberts exhibited The Common Market that year, a potentially loaded subject in such a commercial exhibition, and Roberts also voiced concerns in the following year about professional artists—defined as those making a living by the sale of work—being “replaced by the artist-teacher, whose chief source of income is the art-school. Moreover both these are slowly being ousted by the amateur-artist” (Fig. 2).5
The profile of artists in this period, and questions of the artist’s status and relationship to notions of professionalism, were part of wider cultural shifts instigated in part by post-war social and educational change. These transformations inflect Sylvester’s criticisms of professionalism and the examples he used (Bacon’s disdain for the market was enabled partly by his independent wealth). In terms of the art produced, one register of that change was subject matter: conventional genres of still life, portraits, and pictures of horses were being relinquished by artists, at least those artists taken seriously by critics and collecting institutions, and given over to those outside the art world, especially amateurs. It was a point made explicitly by James Popham, the Treasurer of the Pastel Society, when he opened the Bury St Edmunds Art Society Exhibitionin 1955. He argued that: “It was on art societies supported and carried on by amateur effort that the future of art rested. Professional art was almost dead and it must be the amateur to keep the English tradition of landscape painting alive”; modern art was “for the men of the world and psychiatrists”.6
In the professional ranks of the Summer Exhibition, this was not yet the case. The professional artists here were still painting in quite conventional genres, a fact which complements the Summer Exhibition’s complicated relationship to amateurism and commercialism. Photographs of the Summer Exhibition banquet of that year show the great attention given to Winston Churchill, perhaps the most famous exponent of amateurism with his popular book Painting as a Pastime, endlessly reprinted since its first serialisation in The Strand Magazinein 1921. His presence illustrates the Summer Exhibition’s embrace of the amateur in a year when amateurism was a particularly contentious topic. During a period of great social change, the fact that Churchill was an aristocrat reiterates how loaded with class consciousness these debates were. His status as a politician, similarly, is a reminder that the question of who should make art is no less radical than that of who should legislate.
David Sylvester, “Dark Sunlight”, The Sunday Times Magazine, 2 June 1963, 5.↩︎
Sylvester, “Dark Sunlight”, 8.↩︎
“Amateurs in Art”, Letters to the Editor, The Sunday Times, 9 June 1963, 34.↩︎
Harold Wilson, “Labour’s Plan for Science”, speech given at Labour party conference, Scarborough, 1 October 1963 (London: Victoria House Printing Company, 1963), 7.↩︎
Andrew Brighton and Lynda Morris (eds), Towards Another Picture(Nottingham: Midland Group, 1977), 89.↩︎
“Painting: It’s up to Amateurs Now”, Bury Free Press, 24 June 1955, 4.↩︎
Thematic categories: amateur artists, commercial aspects of exhibition, independent exhibitions, landscape painting and drawing, modernism, political context of Exhibition, politicians, Pop Art, postmodernism, professionalism