John Mcewen

Finding salvation

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A tragic love story lies behind the jovial title to this delightful exhibition, which unveils the David and Liza Brown Bequest, the largest ever received by Southampton City Art Gallery.

In 1967, David Brown was one of Britain’s most distinguished veterinary surgeons, the world authority on the cattle disease rinderpest, and newly appointed federal director of Veterinary Research for Nigeria. It was a daunting job, undertaken during a civil war and overseeing 400 staff, but he and his prospective wife, Liza Wilcox, eagerly accepted the challenge.

Brown was divorced when he met Wilcox, a tie-dying fabric specialist. She was married, but for both it was the love of their lives. By the time they decided to up sticks in Kenya for Nigeria, she had already changed her name to Brown. Nigeria represented their new life together, but within days of arriving she was thrown from his side as they were driving through the bush and died instantly. Brown was 42. He could contain his grief only by reinventing himself. Collecting pictures had long been a private obsession; he turned to art for salvation.

His first purchase, an 18th-century watercolour, had been bought on leave from Africa in 1958. But the gallery world intimidated him, so, as he was a Hampshire farmer’s son, he went for advice to his local English art museum, Southampton City Art Gallery. It was an inspired choice and proved the start of another, albeit slightly different, love affair.

Southampton is an oddity among British art museums. It was founded by a local worthy, Robert Chipperfield, who died in 1911 leaving the City Council with money to build a museum and art college and to form a collection — under the guidance of the director of the National Gallery. This wise provision meant that Kenneth Clark wrote the acquisitions policy, still used today, and laid the markedly unparochial basis of the collection.

The gallery was eventually opened in 1939, and the standards set by Clark were consolidated, especially by the gallery’s second curator, Maurice Palmer (1950–70), who filled some of the gaps in a collection which dates back to the Italian Renaissance. As a result, Southampton is one of the grandest, newest and un-parish pump of provincial art museums.

Palmer became Brown’s mentor and advised him to concentrate on British contemporary art. Brown blossomed as a private collector, taking a particular shine to the paintings of Roger Hilton, and became an expert in his field — aided by a photographic memory and trained scientific eye.

When he brought this formidable experience to bear on the art world, it was like opening a boudoir to a hurricane. Brown was old enough to know his own mind and had a manly experience unavailable to his student contemporaries, with whom he studied art history at the University of East Anglia. They were the children of peace and plenty. He had known the 1930s depression and worked down the mines as a wartime Bevin Boy. Art for him was not a job and a pension but a literal lifeline; a question of whether a work would ‘sag’ (last) or not, the world a case of ‘friends or fuckers’.

It was Brown’s zest which made him exceptional — as a student; as a research assistant at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and then as assistant keeper in the modern collection at the Tate Gallery, from 1975 until his enforced retirement — ‘I was just getting into my stride’ — at 60 in 1985.

He could not have looked or acted less like a curator. He let his beard run wild, dressed like Wurzel Gummidge, carried a hip flask at all times and zoomed around town on a motor scooter. Nothing amused him more than being turned away from a café, while on Tate duty in the East End, because the proprietor thought he was a tramp. And he took a roguish pleasure in producing a roll-up kit or a gralloching knife and a hunk of old pie from his old canvas bag at business meetings. ‘What museums need is more sex and more fun,’ he declared. As a ‘libertarian’ he even dared to admire Maggie Thatcher —‘though I know you’re not meant to!’

His Clapham house, ‘the grotty palazzo’, where he dispensed smoked salmon and Scotch with equal abandon, slowly became a bachelor’s tip, despite the best efforts of his devoted neighbour and daily, Flo Holmwood, as the catalogues, books and pictures stacked up. Those he did hang were in one dramatic group after another — in ‘boom boom clusters’ like a firework display.

One of his most rewarding art jobs was as official adviser on purchases for Southampton City Art Gallery, the role formerly played by the director of the National Gallery having been delegated to a senior Tate curator. The post could hardly have been more of a fulfilment, and Brown formed such a happy relationship with successive curators that the Tate rule was waived and he held it until his death in 2002.

Boom Boom Clusters, which comes with an excellent book of essays and illustrations, is the Gallery’s grateful tribute for his many years as an adviser and for leaving it almost all those pictures and other objects, 220 of them (not all displayed), which formerly cluttered the grotty palazzo. The show, in four linked galleries, begins with some of his official purchases — Auerbach, Gilbert & George, etc. — now worth a fortune, and moves on to his own collection in three parts: a boom of miscellanies; a bigger boom of 1950s St Ives paintings (his specialist interest), the majority by Roger Hilton — the pictorial embodiment of ‘sex and fun’; and a final cluster of sparkling Hilton gouaches borrowed from the British Museum, to which Brown bequeathed his works on paper. A Richard Billingham photograph is also on view, the first work bought from the purchasing fund Brown has left Southampton.

The show is a joy and the book a worthy memorial — a reminder to future generations that this charming bequest fulfils the marriage David and Liza Brown were so brutally denied in life.