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Gowing, Lawrence, Sir

    Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

    Full Name: Gowing, Lawrence, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir Lawrence Burnett Gowing

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1918

    Date Died: 1991

    Place Born: Stoke Newington, Hackney, London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period) and painting (visual works)

    Career(s): artists (visual artists) and curators


    Artist, curator and historian of modern art history. Gowing was born to Horace Gowing, a successful draper. His early years were spent at the Downs School at Colwall, Herefordshire. He was tutored in art first by Maurice Feild (1905-1988) and later by William Coldstream (1908-1987), the latter frequenting the school because of its unconventional English teacher, W. H. Auden. Gowing further attended Leighton Park School continuing to study under Coldstream and then at Coldstream’s Road School, where his fellow students included the painter/art historians Quentin Bell and Adrian Stokes. Gowing’s study of the literature of art history was largely self-taught. His paintings of the 1940s were subsequently collected in major museums, but like Stokes, his explorations of art would more and more become literary. During World War II, he was a conscientious objector, a product perhaps of his Quaker training. It was during this period as well that he began to write, first anonymously in the Notes of a Painter, published in John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing. In the late 1940s, Gowing began to write books on art. At 29 he was made professor of Fine Arts at the University of Durham, a remarkable advance for someone without significant training or experiences. He remained at Durham between 1948-1958. While recovering from tuberculosis, Gowing wrote his most influential, Vermeer (1952). The same year he married the writer Julia Frances Strachey (1901-1979). He moved to the Chelsea School of Art, London, England, 1958-65. In 1953 he was appointed Trustee of Tate Gallery, (until 1960) and again 1961-64. Gowing left Chelsea in 1965 for two years as Keeper of British Art at the Tate Gallery (1965-67). He was not the administrator the Tate needed and although he expected to become the next director, the trustees passed him over. Important exhibitions at this time included the New York show “Turner: Imagination and Reality” (1966) one of the first where Turners were lent to America. Gowing was also responsible for the reinstallation of Turner’s work in the Tate in 1967. Unhappy at being passed over at the Tate, Gowing returned to teaching to become Professor of Fine Art at Leeds University. His marriage to Julia Strachey was dissolved in 1967 and the same year he married Jennifer Wallis. During those same years, (1961-91) he was trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, London. In 1975 he took the leadership of the Slade School within University College, London. “He walked into the interview and appointed himself,” one member quipped (Hilton). He presided over the Slade during the meager art funding years of the Thatcher government. In 1978 Gowing edited the three volumes of Adrian Stokes’ collected writings. Gowing was knighted in 1982. In 1985, retired from the Slade professorship, Gowing made a bid for President of the Royal Academy in London. Though recently knighted, he was not an academician and never received the appointment. He was appointed to an honorary curatorship of the Academy’s collections and its exhibition program. Toward the end of his career, was named curator for the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Phillips Collection in Washgington, D. C. Gowing had a pronounced stutter and accompanying speech impediment about which he was totally unselfconscious. His television appearances and personal style of black leather created an incongruous figure. Gowing’s book on Vermeer is considered his magnum opus. It illustrates best his “artist’s eye” approach to painting analysis. Great art, according to Gowing, was a balance between the human and imaginative experience and the intrinsic elements of observation. Gowing’s writing focuses on what he personally described as ”the pressure exerted by the presence of the real”.

    Selected Bibliography

    Paul Cézanne: the Basel Sketchbooks. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988; Cézanne: the Early Years, 1859-1872. New York: Abrams, 1988; Matisse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; Vermeer. London: Faber and Faber, 1952; Turner: Imagination and Reality. New York: Doubleday, 1966.


    [obituaries:] Hilton, Tim. The Guardian [London], February 8, 1991, Morphet, Richard. The Independent [London], February 7, 1991, p. 29, The Times [London], February 7, 1991.


    "Gowing, Lawrence, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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