Sex, Soho, cocksure snappers and cigarette money: the making of Londons 1960s art world

Pauline Boty in 1963 alongside her painting titled With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo (1962) © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth/Bridgeman Images

In Michelangelo Antonionis 1966 film Blow-Up, Londons cocksure snappers, aristo publishers, reefer-toting models and guitar-smashing rockers encounter one another in fragmented islets of cool within a sprawling cityscape of lead-painted shopping parades, bomb rubble and eerie prefabs. The film portrays a city in which photographers have become wealthy celebrities—recognised by strangers, commanding a studio full of assistants, but envying the independence and integrity of their fine-artist brethren. The London of Blow-Up presents contemporary art as part of “with-it” style: an Alan Davie painting to go with your Italian furniture, Victorian curios and jazz records.

Blow-Up is one of seven cultural touchstones around which Lisa Tickner arranges her shimmering, scholarly survey of the decade, Londons New Scene: Art and Culture of the 1960s. We enter amid the stylised pop kook of Ken Russells “documentary” Pop Goes the Easel (1962). International glamour comes in through the Bond Street doors of the Kasmin Gallery and exhibitions by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney and Anthony Caro—a scene captured, in turn, by Lord Snowdon for his photo book Private View (1965). We depart amid the flaming, round-the-clock debates of the Hornsey College sit-in of 1968.

The gallerist John Kasmin recalls becoming “Idas sex slave for a few months”

Rather than offering a neatly contained art history of the 1960s, Tickner darts in from multiple directions—even adopting diverse methodologies—returning to examine a small cast of key players over the course of the decade from curatorial, journalistic and even foreign-trade perspectives.

Londons New Scene is as elegantly handsome as David Hemmings in a pair of white jeans. The picture research is formidable: fashion shoots, cigar adverts, protest posters, film stills and Sunday Times strip cartoons run side by side with paintings by Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Bridget Riley et al. We are treated to lavish behind-the-scenes documentation of Russell at work on Pop Goes the Easel, and Antonioni researching and shooting Blow-Up.

Snowdons mischievous portraits from Private View (Denys Sutton caressing a nymphs marmoreal rump; David Sylvester dashing past with Soutines Madame Castaing in his arms) are thoughtfully contrasted with different views of the same period by Jorge Lewinski and Ida Kar. The artists we see in Private View are overwhelmingly white and male: Kars 1950s portraits of Sandra Blow and Francis Newton Souza, among others, remind us that portraying it thus was Snowdons choice.

Richard Smith, John Kasmin and David Hockney were key players in the London art scene of the 1960s © Walker Art Center

Tickner offers images not as mere illustration but as raw material for analysis. The photographers, artists, film-makers and designers behind them are players in this books many dramas. The gallerist John Kasmin recalls becoming “Idas sex slave for a few months” when he started working for Kars husband Victor Musgrave at Gallery One in Soho in 1956. (“Quite taxing”, apparently.) Following his marriage to Princess Margaret, Snowdon had a role to perform in Britains youthful new public image. For overseas trade, the Snowdons were “indispensable for their embodiment of heritage values in combination with modern celebrity”.

There is much that is achingly familiar in this earlier incarnation of the London art scene: arguments about art, commerce and the impure alliance of the two; student bodies protesting the direction—or lack of it—in their art education; dealers puzzling how to show art and artists to best advantage while still making ends meet; artists struggling to balance teaching commitments with studio time. It is hard not to read of the young British artists who helped the country shed its fusty image and earned London status as a world art capital without a shudder of déjà vu.

This was not the citys first important art moment. (Hogarths circle in 18th-century Covent Garden? The founding Royal Academicians? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? Aestheticism? Roger Frys post-Impressionists and Wyndham Lewiss Vorticists? The Hampstead modernists? Take your pick…) Yet for good or ill, developments in the 1960s laid the foundations for the art scene of today.

From left: Sheridan and Lindy Dufferin, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Anthony Caro, Richard Smith and Paul Kasmin at the Venice Biennale in 1966 © Photo: Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pop art of the decades early years responded to new economic stability and, with it, consumer goods, entertainment and the emerging image culture of colour magazines. Art and its scene became bundled up in all aspects of this: artists became celebrities, and the artist lifestyle fodder for the new weekend colour supplements. Art became part of the new popular entertainment, which in turn generated demand for bigger museums, more responsive collecting and new spaces to house temporary exhibitions to draw in still greater crowds.

All this required more money: galleries and museums turned for support to private foundations (notabRead More – Source