• 1 October 2018 to 14 January 2019
  • Drawing Room, Paul Mellon Centre

Artists' Letters uses letters from artists to tell three fascinating art-historical stories, pieced together from materials found in the Paul Mellon Centre Research Collections.

More specifically, Artists' Letters has been generated by fragments of correspondence, newspaper pages, notes and diaries found in the archives of the art critic Brian Sewell (1931–2015), the art historian and editor Lionel Benedict Nicolson (1914–1978) and the librarian Frank Simpson (1911–2002).

The display focuses, in turn, on the twists and turns of the relationship between Sewell and the artist Maggi Hambling; the story of a fledgling Oxford University arts society called the Florentine Club; and the history and provenance of a little-known painting by Augustus John. It is our hope that these stories capture your imagination, as they have ours, and that they might entice you to take a closer look at the archives we hold at the Paul Mellon Centre.

The Friendship of an Artist and a Critic: Maggi Hambling and Brian Sewell

The relationship between art critic Brian Sewell and artist Maggi Hambling starts with a letter, like many found within Sewell's archive, from the artist requesting that Sewell brave the Great Storm to visit her exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1987. From this initial letter follows a story that spans almost three decades. From a scathing review published in the Evening Standard to a friendship formed on the panel of the National Gallery's BP Portrait Award, this display case uses Maggi's letters to Sewell as a basis to explore a fascinating friendship between artist and critic.

Handwritten letter in black ink

Letter from Maggi Hambling to Brian Sewell dated 19 October 1987, AR: BS/2/5/8a

Benedict Nicolson & the Florentine Club, 1934–1936

Through letters from Clive Bell and Duncan Grant accompanied by insights from Benedict Nicolson’s diaries, the short-lived Florentine Club is explored. Intended as an open club to generate interest in the study of art history, a subject not offered by Oxford University at the time, the Florentine Club instead became a highly selective one. After talks given by a number of notable individuals, including Bell and Grant (whose talk was described by Nicolson as being 'incomprehensible’), the Florentine Club ended after just two years yet left behind an intriguing legacy, which this display case explores.

Old bank note

Cheque returned to Benedict Nicolson by Clive Bell, AR: LBN/TN/4c

The sale of Augustus John’s La Belle Jardinière (The Beautiful Gardener)

The Frank Simpson archive includes material relating to the workings of the art dealers M. Knoedler & Co (1846–2011). Starting with a letter written by artist Augustus John to the dealers and correcting them on a mis-attributed location of the painting, this case explores the sale of La Belle Jardinière – a painting of John's wife and muse, Dorelia – which in turn reveals insights into how art dealers work in establishing provenance and preparing a painting for sale.

Page of handwritten notes

Research notes about La Belle Jardinère compiled by Knoedler & Co, AR: FHS/3/1/1/90c