Lucy Wertheim (1883-1971)

Born: Lucy Carpenter Pearson

Sector: Retail – Speciality Retailer

Lucy Wertheim’s main interest in art was as a patron and collector but in 1930, aged 47, she decided to try to expand her influence by opening the Wertheim Gallery. Although she ran eight galleries during her career, she later admitted that she was not cut out to be a dealer, too emotionally involved in the lives and careers of the artists she championed. However, her account of the nine years she devoted to running the Wertheim Gallery, told in her book ‘Adventure in Art’, is particularly valuable for two reasons. First, she is one of a handful of women in the FT-She 100 who had children and the only one (that I have found so far) who wrote openly about the challenges of juggling a job and a family. Even though Lucy was in a privileged position, financially secure and able to access a lot of help, she did not find it easy to pursue the work she loved. Second, it shows that even for a woman like Lucy who was educated, wealthy and well-connected, it was very difficult to break into established industry (male) power networks.

Born in Knutsford, Lucy was exposed to both art and radical ideas at an early age. She was very close to her father, William Henry Pearson, a cotton merchant and a respected botanist who specialised in the study of mosses. He regularly took Lucy into Manchester where she was exposed to a wide range of ideas, going to lectures on spiders and sermons by radical speakers including Annie Besant ‘in her white robe, calm yet impassioned, speaking for over an hour without recourse to a single note, holding her such tense silence that at any moment you might have heard the proverbial pin drop.’ He also fired her visual imagination with trips to the City Art Gallery. Another strong influencer was family friend and artist, Mabel Lenny-Smith. She was about five years older than Lucy and would turn up from Paris dressed in chic outfits and bearing armfuls of art catalogues. She regaled Lucy with tales of student life and conjured up an exciting world of painters and sculptors, models. They holidayed together and maintained a long correspondence and it was through her that Lucy met the fisherman-artist Alfred Wallis.

In 1906 Lucy married Paul Wertheim (1878-1952), a merchant who later became the Dutch consul in Manchester. They moved to Cheadle and had three children. Lucy was involved in fund-raising for the local hospital and became Honorary Secretary of the local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (N.U.W.S.S.)

Lucy Wertheim
Lucy Wertheim by Lafayette n.d.

In the 1920s Lucy started collecting art but initially favoured ‘restful’ pictures. However, she was jolted out of what she herself described as a ‘decidedly self-complacent outlook on art’ by the artist Edward Wadsworth and his wife, Fanny, who encouraged her to explore more cutting-edge artists. She was an early champion of Henry Moore and became particularly passionate about giving visibility to young British artists, forming the ‘Twenties Group’ Best-known among these artists now are probably Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth and Victor Pasmore. In 1930, encouraged by the artist Frances Hodgkins, she opened a gallery in Piccadilly, behind the Royal Academy. Private view invitations went out to a couple of thousand people and visitors included Rex Whistler, Vanessa Bell, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Wells Coates and John Piper.

Asked on one occasion by Mabel Lenny-Smith what meant more to her, Colour or Form, Lucy chose Colour and this comes across clearly when looking at a selection of work by artists she exhibited in the Wertheim Gallery, where the styles vary widely but all have used bright colour.

Women in art between the wars
Lucy was motivated by drawing attention to young British artists and was influential in the career of many men but analysis of the catalogues of her annual ‘Twenties Group’ exhibitions carried out by the curatorial team at the Towner Gallery show that between 1932 and 1937, nearly 50% of the 110 members of the Twenties Group who exhibited at the Wertheim Gallery were women. In 1936, she staged an exhibition of work by Rachel Reckitt, José Christopherson, Suzanne Cooper and Barbara Heale. Other women artists she promoted were Madge Tennent and Gwen le Gallienne and in 1937 she put on An Exhibition of Marionettes, featuring work by Lotte Reiniger. Some of the women Lucy employed in her gallery were also artists, such as Eve Disher, who for a short time worked as Lucy’s secretary, Kathleen Walne, whose work Lucy exhibited and who cared for Lucy in her final years, and Nan Youngman, who organised and curated the gallery’s first children’s exhibition in 1931.

Lucy also hired women who were more business-focused, including Biddy McNay who ‘could weigh up a business proposition with the acumen of a woman twice her age’ and a young Austrian woman, Ala Story ‘an enthusiastic saleswoman..It was a delight to witness her elation when she pulled off a sale. In my mind’s eye I still see Ala affixing with childish glee a little red ‘sold’ spot on a painting or watercolour.’ Ala went on to have a long and successful career, a partner in the Storran Gallery with another woman, the Hon Mrs Cochrane, and was involved in a number of other galleries in London before she moved to New York in 1940 and made her mark in the United States. Women who bought work from the Wertheim Gallery included the actress Cecily Debenham, Dorothy Elmhirst, who co-founded ‘the Dartington Experiment, and Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton.

Although Lucy does not mention any other women working in her sector in her book, she was not the only one running a gallery between the wars. Dorothy Warren opened her eponymous gallery on Maddox Street in 1927 and Marion Dorn did some work on the interiors for her. By the early-mid 1930s, Syrie Maugham and Betty Joel both had gallery spaces in their shops. By the late 1930s, Ala story was working over at the Storran Gallery on the Old Brompton Road, opposite Harrods, and there were two art-focused galleries run by women on Cork Street, just round the corner from the Wertheim Gallery. The London Gallery was opened by Peter Norton, a friend of Ashley and Margaret Havinden, with her cousin Marguerita Strettell in 1937 and in January 1938, Peggy Guggenheim launched Guggenheim Jeune a few doors down.

It is not known to what extent these women collaborated with one another but Lucy did get support and encouragement from other women outside the art sector. Lynda Grier, Warden of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, borrowed paintings for a show in the Common Rooms and invited Lucy to give a talk, her first experience of public speaking. She was also invited to speak at the Women’s Provisional Club about what she was doing, writing later that she would ‘always treasure’ the letter of thanks she received from the then secretary of the Speakers’ Sub-Committee, the artist and illustrator Cecil Leslie.

Accessible art
Lucy was determined to make art accessible to all. She furnished and decorated the London gallery so it felt more like a sitting room than a gallery, with sofas and armchairs to encourage easy contemplation of the art on the walls. She made several attempts to reach outside the the London bubble, opening galleries in Manchester in Manchester in 1932 and Brighton in 1936 but both closed within a year. The magazine she launched in 1934, Phoebus Calling, ran for only two issues.

While the powers-that-be in the art world could not stop women entering the commercial sphere, particularly if they had access to private funds, they could shut them out of other taste-shaping roles. Lucy railed against the conservative views held by the curators of national and regional galleries who decided what would be bought and displayed in public spaces. She did not see it as coincidental that these ‘little tin gods’ who stymied her attempts to introduce young British artists into local and national collections, were all men. Her gender, her lack of formal training and her taste all put her on the outside of the power circle.

Faced with the failure of the ‘build it and they will come’ strategy, Lucy instead decided to send her art out. The Wertheim Loan Collection was made up work she owned that any organisation could borrow if it paid the costs of transport and insurance. Lucy’s initiative meant that contemporary art was displayed in schools, colleges, theatre foyers including the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage and the Little Theatre at the Adelphi, and even some restaurants. Women’s educational establishments were also active participants, with Manchester University’s Women’s Union and Bedford College in Regent’s Park both holding exhibitions.

One early champion of the scheme was Marian Frost, the entrepreneurial manager of Worthing’s public library. Appointed in 1897, she had written to Andrew Carnegie in 1902 and managed to secure a grant of £5,000 (c. £430,000 equivalent) to pay for the construction of a joint library and gallery space, now Worthing’s Museum and Art Gallery. At first the gallery had its own curator, but Marian was deeply interested in art and when he retired in 1920, she took over. Lucy’s family had a holiday house in Worthing during this period and so perhaps this is how the two women got to know one another but however the connection was made, in early 1932, Worthing Art Gallery became one of the first places to host an exhibition entirely comprised of ‘Twenties Group’ artists.

Working wife and mother
By the time the gallery opened, one of Lucy’s children was at university and the two younger ones were at boarding school so day-to-day childcare was not an issue. Still, ‘the report of an injured knee would send me dashing across the country to ascertain for myself the extent of the damage, or a disquieting temperature would keep me on tenterhooks awaiting developments.’ School commitments clashed with Private Views and important appointments: sales and exhibition opportunities were lost. When she was struggling to break through in London, she was offered various opportunities in the United States including a lecture tour and a gallery partnership but ‘family claims and gallery commitments made such propositions appear fantastic. I turned them all down.’

Initially Paul, Lucy’s husband supported Lucy in her endeavour, both financially and emotionally, though when he was made Consul for the Netherlands in Manchester in the spring of 1931, six months into the life of the gallery, life immediately became more complicated with an increased number of social commitments at home. As time went on he became more hostile as her work consumed more and more of her time and energy. During term-time, Lucy was commuting to London on a weekly basis, returning to Manchester at the weekends. ‘If I arrived home on a Friday evening looking tired and dispirited my husband grew angry: “For God’s sake up shut up that damned gallery that is turning you into an old woman before your time,” he would exclaim resentfully, so that I learned after a time to arrive home serene-looking and smiling however heavy-hearted I was feeling inside.’ Her children were also less than excited by her job. Her son warned one of his friends to ‘keep her off the subject of her young artists. If you encourage her to talk about them, she’ll never stop.’

Holding things together at home was Nannan, who had joined the household when Lucy’s first child was only a few months old and without whom Lucy could not have carried on ‘what might well have been described as this “double life”.’ Again, such overt recognition of the support network that made it possible to juggle work and family commitments is relatively rare and what made the difference was the extent to which Lucy trusted Nannan and got some of the emotional support from her that was not always forthcoming from her family.

An abrupt finish
The outbreak of war in September 1939 meant the closure of the Wertheim Gallery in London: on the 3rd, war was declared; on the 4th a regulation was passed forbidding the gathering of more than twelve people in a room and on the 5th the gallery was requisitioned as an air-raid shelter.

Lucy returned to Manchester and opened another gallery in 1940, the Mid-day Studio, which remained open throughout the war. Other post-war ventures included two galleries in Derbyshire, one open for just a year in 1940 but the second, The Old Tithe Barn, operating for two decades from 1951 until her death in 1971. She also had a second crack at the Brighton art market with Venture Eight, which opened in 1963 and also closed on her death. During her lifetime, Lucy gifted over 500 works of art to regional, national and international museums, ensuring a place in history for ‘her’ artists.

In its obituary, The Times wrote that ‘she will be remembered for her single-minded devotion to an exhibition policy which in the face of discouragement and financial difficulties was to a great extent justified by results’.

Between 11th June and 25th September 2022, the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne has two shows celebrating Lucy’s life and work and showcasing works by the Twenties Group. It is curated by Karen Taylor and has been a valuable source for this post.

Other sources include:

‘Adventure in Art’ by Lucy Carrington Wertheim (1947)

Common Cause 26/6/1914; Alderley & Wilmslow Advertiser 29/12/1916; Worthing Herald 14/11/1931; The Times 15/12/1971

‘Miss Marian Frost’ by T.S. Nature 137, 99–100 (1936)

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