Paul Liss, fine art dealer, on Colin Gill’s Allegory, 1920 – 21
GB Tell me why you chose this.
PL Allegory, the opus magi of Colin Gill, the first artist to win the scholarship to Rome (in 1913), was produced in 1921 during the artist’s final year at the British School at Rome. It shows a gathering of the artist’s fellow Rome Scholars and Italian Peasants cavorting in the landscape around Anticoli Corrardo – an artist’s community 30 miles from Rome that Gill escaped to in order to avoid the hot summer months in the Eternal City.
The first time I saw Allegory was in an exhibition called The Last Romantics at the Barbican Art gallery, (1989). A few months later, whilst working as a trainee at Sotheby’s, I was amazed to see this unforgettable painting in an auction. I could not afford it – but nor could I afford to let the moment pass. I bid on it and ended up paying well over the fairly chunky estimate. I later found out that the underbidder had been Bob Geldolf . I took out a loan from my bank; this was after all Thatchers Britain and everyone was in debt, so this seemed a good enough reason to me to join the merry throng. It was the first time that I had purchased a painting at auction.
I have now lived with this painting for 30 years. So many things have happened as a result of it that it has been like a talisman. I knew from the Barbican catalogue that the figure holding the bird cage was an obscure artist called Winifred Knights – she would become the subject of my first exhibition as an independent dealer (at The Fine Art Society, 1995). Even more exciting, she would become the subject of the sensational Dulwich Picture Gallery’s first ever retrospective on Knights organised and curated by Sacha Llewellyn, (my wife and business partner), in 2016. Directly and indirectly the painting has led to extraordinary things, such as exhibitions in association with the British School at Rome; It has been the bed rock of everything I have done since and the story is not yet finished. This year the painting is going to the National Gallery of Scotland for their landmark exhibition True to Life. And Sacha and I are determined to organise a major museum exhibition on The Rome Scholars at some future point – this is long overdue.
When the Gill was lent to the Tate for a year (in 1991) it hung next to a painting by Otto Dix and looked wonderful. I hope one day it will end up in the Tate or an equivalent institution.
GB Can you explain the meaning of title?
PL The title, Allegory, alludes to Milton’s Poem of 1645 L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. In fact, many lines from the poem work beautifully well with the picture. A photograph, however, given to Knights by Gill on completion of the painting is inscribed A Fools Paradise. And when you see the same large format canvasses that Gill produced immediately before Allegory, when he was an official War Artist, the meaning is obvious. WW1 had changed the world: you could paint an Idyll showing the glorious Tuscan landscape peopled by dancing nymphs and peasants; you could turn you back against the horrors of the war – but ultimately this was was only wishful thinking.
On a happier note, painting had a deeply personal meaning for Gill – it records his love affair with Knights. He was already married. She was what she loosely described as semi engaged (to another Slade artiist) Arnold Mason.
GB This was such a fascinating time in art, with the tension between traditional painting and the avant garde. There were so many manifestoes railing against beauty. Do you think Gill was affected by those? Would he have wanted you to find beauty in this work?
PL Who isn’t fascinated by idea of beauty – a quality which depends not on an object but simply different ways of seeing? When I first saw Allegory I fell under its spell. I was amazed to find out later that this tour de force had already been offered for sale at auction, before I had purchased it, and had failed to sell, (in 1987). That seems astonishing – but fashion is a curious beast. Everyone knows the story of Van Gogh’s paintings (being considered unsaleable in his lifetime and now being considered priceless); but many forget that the pictures have not in the process physically changed. Only the way of seeing.
GB How was the British School in Rome involved with the various art movements of the first half of the 20th Century? How did they take the Futurist’s declaration that “we wish to free our country from the stinking canker of its professors, archaeologists, tour guides and antiquarians?”
PL The British School at Rome was an Artistic Cul de Sac. If you want to be unkind you could say that all the wrong people won it and non of them had a particularly distinguished career afterwards. But that only adds to the fascination for me. Gill was never again to achieve the beauty of Allegory. And once in an artist’s life time is quite enough.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?
PL For me, it is that feeling the first time I see something, that I have known it all my life. It answers a yearning. But beyond that one should avoid too many words. We use the word beauty far too liberally – except perhaps in respect of nature. As far as man made things go, so many people get taken in by fakes and synthetic imitations . The art market is littered with fakes. Fakers understand the need for gratification. As such, it is very easy to produce something that combines elements of desire. And it is very easy to fall in love with the idea of painting rather than the painting itself. True beauty lasts. I could not fall out of love with Allegory – because each time I see it I feel moved; and I learn something new. Many paintings come close to beauty but ultimately fall short. The difference might only be apparent over time. Beauty grows. Something less resolved will slip away.
That it not to say that beauty has to be perfect. Imperfection is a quality that often complements beauty. Beauty’s natural bedfellow is ugliness. One of my favourite quotes was an observation made by Ashbee about Strang’s extraordinary portraits: “In each of his portraits there is some touch of his sitters’ ugliness revealed in the beauty of the draughtsmanship….Those of us who have sat for our portraits and prize the results….are also grimly conscious of an unpleasant something in ourselves that we don’t mention but that our love of truthfulness would not have us conceal…They have the quality of Dr Johnson, they are lexicographical.” (CR Ashbee, unpublished typescript of memories, Victoria and Albet Museum, vol IV, p. 71, quoted in Athill, William Strang, 1981, p 22)