Issue 21 : Spring 2006
Empathy for Art and Artists; Lillian Browse, 1906-2005
Lillian Browse, who died 2 December 2005 aged 99 was a very generous benefactor to the Courtauld Institute. In 1982 she presented 32 works of art to us, in fulfilment of a wish she had expressed some twenty years earlier. This gift has been followed by a bequest of a further seven sculptures and a charming portrait of her by Mané Katz, painted in 1936. I had the privilege of her friendship for some forty years and first met her in the course of my work at the Tate Gallery, when a regular visit to the exhibitions put on by Roland, Browse and Delbanco (of which she was a founder partner) was both a duty and a pleasure. I also benefited from her love and knowledge of the work of W. R. Sickert, whose paintings and drawings I was researching for the Tate Modern British School catalogue, published in 1964. I remember the pleasure of first dining with her in her beautifully furnished house in Linden Gardens, before we began our discussion of Sickert. She visited me in Washington DC in 1965 and introduced me to her second husband, Sidney Lines, whom she had just married. They were to enjoy a loving partnership until his death in 2000.
In 1999 Browse published Duchess of Cork Street: The Autobiography of an Art Dealer, the title a reference to Rex Nan Kivell’s (of the Redfern Gallery) apt description of her and a tribute to her always elegant appearance: she favoured a slightly Edwardian style of dress with high ‘choker’ collars. A Whistler drawing Woman Seated, Back View that she gave us, fortuitously conveys an idea of her, so we told her at the time, a comparison she found amusing. Although born in London, her parents emigrated to South Africa in 1909, and she was brought up in the Transvaal; even in the late 1950’s she still retained a slightly clipped enunciation. She trained as a ballet dancer, first in Johannesburg, then in London at the Cecchetti School. Whilst she soon realised she would never be more than a competent profession ballerina, her ramrod-straight back and graceful walk never left her. Her interest in art developed slowly, and, needing a job, she was taken on by the dealer Harold Leger, first as an unpaid assistant in 1931, and later progressing to manager in this firm of old master specialists. She made her first business trip to Paris in the early 1930’s and was befriended by Mané Katz. She recalls how gauche she was, but a good grasp of French gave her the entrée to some Parisian dealers, and through Katz, she met some of the younger generation of School of Paris painters such as Moïse Kisling, Jules Pascin, Othon Friesz and Albert Marquet. Her interest in contemporary British and French art was to be underpinned by a close study of Degas, to whose work she was drawn by her interest in ballet, and of Whistler and Sickert. While still at Leger’s, she organised an exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s early work. The Second World War temporarily cut short her embryonic career as a dealer, but after serving briefly in the Ambulance Corps, she was released from this duty to organise the first of the wartime exhibitions at the National Gallery, British Painting since Whistler, 1940, after persuading an initially sceptical Sir Kenneth Clark that the public needed a visual counterpart to Dame Myra Hess’ morale-boosting lunchtime recitals at the gallery. Browse organised several more exhibitions, both for the National Gallery and for other institutions.
After the war she again met Henry Roland (1907-93), who had given her German lessons in the 1930s. He and his business partner, Gustave Delbanco (1903-97), invited her to join them, and in 1945 the firm of Roland, Browse and Delbanco was established at 19 Cork Street. They specialised in British and French art of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, with a strong bias towards contemporary artists, and helped to introduce to a British audience painters and sculptors as diverse as Fritz Wotruba, Henryk Gotlib, Henri Hayden and Josef Herman; Browse organised one-man shows of Philip Sutton, Norman Adams and Joan Eardley; even Henry Moore, whose reputation had not become fully established in the late 1940’s, was promoted by RB&D. Browse’s personal taste was for ‘belle peinture’ and this is reflected in her own collection, that was first shown almost in its entirety at the old Courtauld Galleries, Woburn Square, in 1983. It is an intimate collection and almost all the works are small in scale but of uniformly high quality, and those given and bequeathed to the Courtauld admirably complement the other nineteenth and twentieth century pictures in the Courtauld Gallery. There are five Sickert oils, including San Trovaso, Venice and two views of Dieppe, plus a characteristic low-toned interior Reclining Nude, Mornington Crescent. Browse published two books on Sickert (in 1943 and 1960); she also wrote Degas Dancers (1949) – a pioneering work, and we are the fortunate recipients of Degas’ bronze Danseuse en Quatrieme Devant, Pointe Tendu that she bought just before her book was published, having mortgaged her royalties for it! She also gave us two delightful Degas charcoal drawings. Of the four beautiful Rodin bronzes that she has bequeathed to us, the little Nijinsky is the most astonishingly dynamic piece: it shows the famous dancer in a twisting pose, coiled like a spring on the point of release. Sir William Nicholson, a catalogue raisonnée of whose work she published in 1955, and Matthew Smith, are also represented by fine examples, as is Philip Sutton, whose exuberant Tree and Landscape, Snape was acquired in 1958. Two Emilio Greco sculptures, an elegant Piccolo Bagnante No. 4, and a clay head of L[illian] B[rowse], have also been bequeathed.
Although a highly successful dealer, Lillian Browse had an empathy for art and artists that often overrode commercial considerations, as she wrote of her partners and herself in her autobiography: ‘We often used to say we were bad art dealers because we were too fond of painting; but we would act in the same way again because dealing in art is something special and totally unlike any other form of commerce’.1 In 1977 she founded a successor to RB&D, Browse and Darby, in association with William Darby and only retired in 1981. She was appointed CBE in 1998.
Dr Dennis Farr
Former Director, Courtauld Galleries
1. Duchess of Cork Street. Autobiography of an Art Dealer,1999, p. 169.
Lillian Browse on her 90th birthday, 21st April 1996 photo: Edwina Sassoon