Peggy Guggenheim was one of the most influential art collectors of the twentieth century, but very little is known about her beginnings as a gallerist of note in London. It all started in a former pawnbroker’s shop at number 30 Cork Street where Guggenheim, aged 40, opened her first modernist outpost Guggenheim Jeune in 1938. It was in existence for 18 months between January 1938 and June 1939, but while its lifespan may have been brief its influence was considerable, both on the art world at the time and on Guggenheim herself; by the time Guggenheim Jeune closed she was already a self-confessed art addict.
“I have been wanting to organise an exhibition about Peggy Guggenheim since I established my gallery in Savile Row, just around the corner from where Peggy set up Guggenheim Jeune in 1938”, says gallerist Pilar Ordovas. “No one has really paid much attention to what the London experiment meant to her as a collector and as a gallerist and, most importantly, her intention to open a ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in London. “Marking 80 years since the brief but seminal tenure of Guggenheim’s West End gallery this exhibition, curated by Ordovas and Susan Davidson, tell the story of the gallery’s activities through artworks by Jean (Hans) Arp and Yves Tanguy – artists that she championed and collected.”
Peggy Guggenheim and London is a celebration of Guggenheim as one of the first female gallerists in London and showcases her twin collecting interests in Abstraction and Surrealism through a display of works by Jean (Hans) Arp and Yves Tanguy. The accompanying catalogue includes an essay by Davidson, curator and art historian, with previously unpublished material unearthed as a result of research undertaken for the exhibition, including unseen floor plans of the gallery space. In late 1937, after the death of her mother, Guggenheim began honing the skills and expanding the knowledge required to become a gallerist and, ultimately, a venerated collector. At her friend Marcel Duchamp’s suggestion Guggenheim spent several concentrated autumn days at the Paris International Exposition of 1937 where she garnered a rapid overview of avant-garde art in a broadened context.
It was around this time that she acquired her first work of art, a sculpture by Jean (Hans) Arp, Tête et coquille (circa 1933). The acquisition of this small biomorphic object would come to both signal and straddle the two courses of her subsequent collecting pattern: Abstraction and Surrealism. Arp’s sculptures and works on paper featured in almost a quarter of all the exhibitions held at Guggenheim Jeune. During the same period, Guggenheim asked a friend from the publishing world, Winifred (Wyn) Henderson, to be the gallery’s chief steward. She charged Henderson with the minute details necessary to set up the gallery, most importantly finding a location.
Guggenheim Jeune is Born
Writing to her friend, Emily Coleman, just before Christmas, 1937, Guggenheim explained: “The first day Wyn looked she found a bargain lease at half price in Cork Street for 1-1/2 years. It used to be a pawnbroker’s shop with little cubby holes for private discourse. Djuna [Barnes, the author] said how much misery must have passed in here in all those years. Thinking all the misery to come may be of disappointed artists. Anyhow I am in for it now + so are they.” It was Henderson who gave the new business its name with a double pun reference — the first to Peggy as the younger (jeune) Guggenheim involved in the art world (her uncle Solomon being the elder) and the second to the name of the leading Parisian gallery of the day, Bernheim-Jeune.
Guggenheim Jeune’s most significant commercial success occurred with one of the smallest exhibitions the gallery staged. Titled ‘Exhibition of Paintings by Yves Tanguy’, 6-16 July 1938, it was billed as the artist’s first solo exhibition in London. On view for just 11 days, it included 25 paintings and five gouaches, the majority executed in the previous two years. Reviews in the national press included The Times critic describing Tanguy’s technique, skill and associating the imagery with “that of moon landscape peopled with osseous and mechanical forms”.
Another reviewer suggested that Tanguy’s painting “has something of the tenuous lyrical quality of a Whistler”. The longest review offered an apocalyptic—if not anticipatory— vision: “The skies are terrestrial and familiar, but exotic in quality… as colour snaps of a monotonous landscape, glimpsed in moods of mournful beauty, of a planet that may well one day be ours.” Positive reviews translated not only into record visits but generated numerous sales. Most significantly, in an effort to ensure Tanguy’s acceptance by the nation, Guggenheim offered “the only four remaining of the most important [Tanguy] works” to the Tate Gallery, who declined her generosity. It was not until 1964, nearly 10 years after the artist’s death, that the Tate Gallery acquired their first Tanguy painting – Les Transparents, 1951. Guggenheim for her part purchased three works from the show—two paintings, Le Soleil dans son écrin and Toilette de l’air (both 1937), and a small untitled gouache (1938)—that remain in her collection today.
Alongside artworks and archival materials the exhibition also includes a rosewood ring made by Tanguy in 1937. During the time that Guggenheim was organising Tanguy’s first solo presentation they began an affair, spending a great deal of the summer and autumn of 1938 at Yew Tree Cottage, Guggenheim’s home in Sussex. Perhaps as a symbol of his affection for his dealer and lover, and knowing her penchant for distinctive jewellery, Tanguy fashioned the ring out of rosewood found growing on the farmhouse’s grounds. During their relationship Tanguy crafted several special gifts for Guggenheim, such as painted miniature oval earrings and a small drawing for her Dunhill cigarette case.
In June 1939 Guggenheim Jeune closed its doors permanently with plans to be reincarnated as London’s first museum of modern art. During the course of Guggenheim Jeune’s existence, Guggenheim immersed herself in the capital’s avant-garde circles, learning that the city lacked a museum devoted exclusively to modern art. She proceeded to hire the illustrious British art historian and critic Herbert Read, who assembled a list of artists that functioned as a guide towards acquiring a distinguished core collection of what Guggenheim branded “M.M.M.M – my much misunderstood Museum”.
Due to circumstances beyond her control, her plans for London never came to fruition. The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 came just as she had travelled to Paris to buy what was intended to be the permanent collection of her new museum; stranded in France, she was forced to postpone her museum plans. The collection originally destined for London would first be shown to the public in 1942 at Guggenheim’s second gallery, Art of This Century in New York, and in 1949 it came to reside at a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, where it remains today.
Guggenheim’s overriding objective in opening Guggenheim Jeune was to provide foreign artists an opportunity to show their work in London, and its programme became both the foundation for all of Guggenheim’s future endeavours and a catalyst for modern art in Britain. Today’s growing roll call of female gallerists and collectors owe so much to her pioneering efforts.
Cork Street, was historically regarded as the “Mecca” of London’s art world and galleries, but where canvases once hung, Cartiers now sparkle in the windows. Its close proximity to the Royal Academy of Arts, auction houses in Mayfair and St James’s and art dealers gave it that cachet which attracted collectors and artists. Today, the street is almost bereft of the galleries that gave it its street cred and old world charm, supplanted by property speculators and fashion boutiques. Some galleries still maintain a foothold in the area whilst many have been forced to relocate to the periphery of Mayfair whilst some have vacated their street-level addresses driven upstairs.
Dadiani Fine Art — the first UK gallery to accept cryptocurrencies — founded by Eleesa Dadiani, a female art dealer of Georgian-Jewish-Russian descent – was the last known art gallery to occupy 30 Cork Street. A notice to clients on its website stated it was now closed and will be relocating.
Although Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery was short-lived and the building was bombed in the Blitz, it averaged an exhibition a month holding 20 shows of abstract and Surrealist works, including UK debuts for Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy. A 15-year-old Lucian Freud and Guggenheim’s daughter submitted works for its Children’s Drawing exhibition. Guggenheim closed the gallery, with ambitions to open her own museum of Modern art in autumn 1939 before the Second World War altered the course of history making London’s loss Venice’s gain. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection now resides in the Italian city.
Peggy Guggenheim and London at Ordovas 25, Savile Row, until 14 December 2019