Lawrence Gowing

Lawrence Gowing Slade Professor of Fine Art at University College, London, is the author of several books on painting, including Vermeer and Turner: Imagination and Reality. A retrospective exhibition of his paintings will be held at the Serpentine Gallery from 26 March to 24 April.


Lawrence Gowing, 19 March 1987

Thinking far away about my friend and teacher, who died a fortnight ago, I am aware of how many owed to William Coldstream, not necessarily, as I did, the circumstances of their whole lives, but the terms of reference through which they came to the painting and thought of their time. It must have been in 1936 that I met him at the suggestion of W.H. Auden, the friend of a friend, in the pub in Charing Cross Road nearest to Soho Square. I have told the story often – Auden had written: ‘You want to get into film because you think it is the art of the future. It isn’t. Art is the art of the future’. Coldstream looked over his shoulder back towards the offices in Soho Square. ‘My life puts whole districts of London out of bounds’. Something neither furtive nor taciturn, but functionally economical with words, put an 18-year-old, on adult ground for the first time, at his ease. He asked me what I was painting and forbade wallpaper in the background of a picture of my sister. ‘One can’t paint wallpaper any longer’. He must have thought I had a Vuillard-type pattern in mind.’

In the future, when people are wondering whether they ‘like’ that cyclopean mass of concrete, the Hayward Gallery, or how they can endure the dictates of British Gaullism, or whether they love that faithful wing of it that is charged with cultural governance, I hope they will remember the successive anxiety, bafflement, reassurance, and ultimate aesthetic conciliation, which chased one another across their hearts in this cold spring of 1984. They should think of the sensation, as if of coming home, of the enormously affecting rediscovery, in the concrete gallery, of the beauty – itself both gigantic and delicately faithful – of English Romanesque.–

The Raphael Question

Lawrence Gowing, 15 March 1984

When I used to give a survey course for first-year students, I dreaded December. That was when I reached the High Renaissance and my audience fell away. It was not only the alternative seasonable employment that left the slopes of the theatre to echo vacantly my conventional claims for the ideal. Although I did not disbelieve the convention, it was hard to feel sure that the perfections of Leonardo and Michelangelo – the ideally empirical theory of knowledge and the ideal of human physique in the likeness of God – did not outclass the merely intelligent perfection of pictorial form, which was the apparent distinction of Raphael.

Human Stuff

Lawrence Gowing, 2 February 1984

Day after day I find an excuse to be in Piccadilly and once there give up any attempt to stay out of the galleries at the Royal Academy. Venetian art of the 16th century is running in one’s head like music, complete with its resounding orchestration. One abandons oneself to it. Yet it is not merely indulgence. One is drawn by the magnetism of an idea: the idea of art invented in Venice soon after 1500, at just the moment when this incomparable exhibition begins, an idea that one recognises, without reasoning how, as the modern idea.

The Rainbow

Lawrence Gowing, 17 March 1983

The idea of the painter as a power of nature, an organ of creation in himself, has been as deeply-rooted and long-lasting as anything in the Western legend of the artist. Rubens was every kind of power. He was the instrument of divinity, the tool of statecraft, the agent of dynastic aspirations, the wielder of philoprogenitive potency until the last month of his life and the progenitor not only of children but of generative images to match.

English Art and English Rubbish

Peter Campbell, 20 March 1986

In England, where the opposite can easily seem to be the case, there is always someone around to say that the visual arts matter. Not just that they are life-enhancing or give pleasure, but that...

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