Now we are 70

A brief history of ArtReview, founded in 1949 by a retired British doctor and a designer...


‘In the art of any period there are two processes at work. The one may be called discovery, the other digestion.’ So go the opening words, in a profile of figurative painter Bernard Meninsky, of the first issue of what was then titled Art News and Review (titled so as to distinguish it from the American Art News), published 12 February 1949 as a fortnightly newspaper. The editors enticed Meninsky to contribute a self-portrait to illustrate the article, a regular feature titled ‘Portrait of the Artist’ that would continue throughout the 1950s and (sporadically) into the early 60s, 122 examples of which were acquired by the Tate Gallery Archive in 1982 (Tate exhibited them in 1989).

The publication was the brainchild of Richard Gainsborough, a retired British doctor, who felt there was a gap in the market for an art title that would appeal to an audience beyond the Cork Street in-crowd. It operated out of a one-room office in Chelsea with the stated aim of representing the world of the artist to the world of the collector and an ambition to cover every exhibition on view in Britain. Joining Gainsborough was his wife Eileen Mayo, a designer of some note, who had studied with Fernand Léger in Paris and art-directed until the couple’s separation. Mayo would emigrate to New Zealand, where, among her achievements, she designed stamps for the postal service of her adopted country. Art News and Review made much of its coverage of artists in lesser-known groups based outside London or in the capital’s less-fashionable suburbs. While an editorial published on the occasion of the first anniversary set out the newspaper’s project of ‘building up an English school of criticism’, from the off it was interested in art from outside the UK. In 1950 it had retained the services of Lawrence Dame to ‘send us from time to time accounts of the visual disturbances in the United States’. Early articles charted the art being made in India, China, Mexico and particularly South Africa, Gainsborough’s former home, among other scenes.

In the main, its aim was to bring art out of its bubble and into daily life, or, from the other point of view, to bring the troubles of daily life into art (In 1949, Mayo, reviewing a book, worried that the object in question was ‘sumptuously produced and bound with pre-war lavishness. It is perhaps too lavish in these days of austerity?’) This has continued as its guiding principle, even as the political stance has veered from left to right and back again in the intervening decades.

The newspaper’s original editor, Bernard Denvir, who was key to its foundation, departed in 1954 over a dispute about ‘critical versus financial responsibilities’ (an issue with which every successive editor has continued to struggle) with regard to the matter of gallery advertisements. Gainsborough took over the editorship himself, continuing until his death in 1969, whereupon his son, the architect John Gainsborough, took up the reins, steering the title, which was simplified to Arts Review in April 1961, through to the end of 1980. At that point it was bought by Graham Hughes, formerly art director at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, who edited the magazine through to November 1992, taking it from a fortnightly to a monthly publication in January 1992 and giving it a more crafts-based focus.

He left with a declaration that ‘our environment’ was the dominant issue of the time and a debate about Nicholas Serota’s rehang of the Tate Gallery’s collection raging in the letters pages (Serota and former Tate Gallery director Norman Reid were among the correspondents). While Hughes retained owner- ship of the publication, Catriona Warren became editorial director with David Lee as editor. In April 1993 Lee announced that the magazine had changed its title to Art Review, dropping the s ‘to convey to our new readers that we deal predominantly with visual art’ and, in an unconscious echo of Art News and Review’s founding ethos, simultaneously declared that the magazine had a new mission to ‘win back a wide audience for the visual arts’ by ending the ‘unintelligible guff’ that was currently being written about it. By June, ‘the contemplative nun’ and TV star Sister Wendy Beckett had been hired as a columnist and artist Peter Blake was offering up his thoughts on wrestling in the latest instalment of a new sports column (R. B. Kitaj would tackle boxing in September, when a profile of designer Philippe Starck was the lead feature and Iain Finlayson was reporting on Britain’s love of fashion). Lee departed in May 2000, his final editorial lambasting Tate Britain’s ‘foolish rehang’ and a portrait by L.S. Lowry gracing the cover. June saw the arrival of a new editor, Charlotte Mullins, and an editorial lambasting Tate Modern’s opening hang.

Fashion and arts journalist, and briefly editor of American GQ, Meredith Etherington-Smith became editor in September 2001, opening her tenure with an issue dedicated to the legacy of Surrealism and urging readers to cross the Thames and explore the art scene of South London. By July 2003 she had moved up to editor-in-chief, with former deputy editor Ossian Ward taking over the monthly running of the magazine until the March 2004 issue, featuring a cover by Richard Prince and a focus on the rise of celebrity culture. Rebecca Wilson arrived (from rival title Modern Painters, which had been set up in 1989 by former Arts Review stalwart Peter Fuller) in the summer of 2004 with a promise to present not only the most compelling art criticism but also the views of the best novelists, poets and cultural historians. By the summer of 2006, John Weich, formerly a senior editor at Wallpaper* magazine, was installed as editor-in-chief, announcing his arrival with a ground-zero redesign, a curator (Hans Ulrich Obrist) on the cover and a promise to make contemporary art ‘bigger’ and more accessible. Weich departed in September 2007 when the current regime came into place. The real point, though, is that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Throughout, of course, it has been the writers that have really made the magazine, often under trying circumstances (‘the pay was minimal but the experience was invaluable’, remarked one contributor during the early part of the magazine’s history, tongue firmly in cheek, while the painter Donald Hamilton Fraser, employed as Richard Gainsborough’s assistant between 1954 and 1955, recalls one issue that was almost entirely written by himself under a variety of pseudonyms). Over the next pages we look at some of the more interesting moments in ArtReview’s colourful life (although actual colour was only, grudgingly, introduced to the magazine’s pages during the 1960s).   

From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview