Skip to content

Rothenstein, John

    Full Name: Rothenstein, John

    Other Names:

    • John Knewstub Maurice Rothenstein

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1901

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: Kensington, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom


    Director of the Tate Gallery (1938-64). Rothenstein was the son of the painter Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) and Alice Mary Rothenstein (1869-1955). He was educated at Bedales School (1913-19) and Worcester College, Oxford (entering 1920, graduated 1923) and University College London. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926. His initial publications were The Portrait Drawings of William Rothenstein in 1926 and a monograph on Eric Gill in 1927. After teaching art history at American universities (University of Kentucky, 1927, and University of Pittsburgh, 1928) he married the American Elizabeth Kennard Whittington (b. 1905). Rothenstein returned to England to run art galleries (Leeds and Sheffield). He received a doctorate in art history from University College, London, in 1931. His thesis was later published as Nineteenth-Century Painting: a Study in Conflict in 1932. In 1938 he assumed the directorship of the Tate, his father was a trustee, succeeding J. B. Manson, who had resigned. The Tate was suffering from chaotic installation practices and an ill-defined relationship with the National Gallery, of which it was still a part. Rothenstein is credited with exhuming the many Turner paintings from storage and bringing them back to popular appeal. As the second world war approached, Rothenstein found safe haven for the Tate holdings, fortunately, as one bomb in the Battle of London hit the empty building squarely. Rothenstein himself took a lecture tour of North America in 1939/1940, which appeared to many, including his own father, as an attempt to escape the war. After the war Rothenstein mounted a series of highly publicized exhibitions of major works of art, many from German and Austrian museums. He worked with the newly established Arts Council of Great Britain (formerly Burlington House). However, Rothenstein as a director was a person of limited taste. His autobiographies make clear his distaste for both European art in general and the work of the Bloomsbury group. At a time when public interest in these works was rising, and values still modest, Rothenstein clearly lacked the qualities for his job. When staff discontent rose, his tenure suddenly broke into national scandal. It began with the Tate’s unscrupulous assistant keeper, a man Rothenstein had hired himself, named Leroux Smith Leroux. Leroux leaked accusations to the British press of Rothenstein’s maltreatment of Tate staff, misappropriation of funds, and purchasing pictures at inflated prices. Prevented from responding to these allegations because of a civil servant law, Rothenstein was subjected to scandal and humiliation. Joining the condemnation was the collector and art historian Douglas Cooper, an obstreperous personality who nevertheless represented a major British private collection of modern art. Rothenstein for his part, was clearing avoiding non-British such as Cubist masters. After Rothenstein threw a punch at Cooper during an art reception, the Trustees of the Tate seriously discussed dismissing their director. Eventually, Rothenstein was essentially exonerated of the charges. But the newspaper publicity of “Tate Affair” as it was known, left his reputation tarnished. Rothenstein’s concentrated his writing and research on British artists and introductory works on Victorian and twentieth-century British art. His three-volume Modern English Painters,1952-74, brought the newer, albeit conservative English artists to worthy public attention. After his retirement from the Tate in 1964, Rothenstein lectured widely, including Fordham University, New York (1967-8), Agnes Scott College, Atlanta (1969-70), Brooklyn College, New York (1971-2), and the University of California, Irvine (1973). His 1996 entry on his father, the painter William Rothenstein, in the Dictionary of Art makes no mention of himself. He died after succumming to senility of bronchopneumonia at his home in Oxfordshire. His brother was Sir [William] Michael Francis Rothenstein (1908-1993), a printmaker.

    Selected Bibliography

    Summer’s Lease: Being Volume One of an Autobiography. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1965; Brave Day, Hideous Night: Autobiography, 1939-1965. London: H. Hamilton, 1966; Time’s Thievish Progress: Autobiography [volume 3]. London: Cassell, 1970; An introduction to English painting. London: Cassell,1965; Modern English painters. 3 vols. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952-1974; A Brief History of the Tate Gallery: with a Selection of Paintings and Sculpture. London: Pitkin, 1964; The Portrait Drawings of William Rothenstein, 1889-1925. London: Chapman & Hall, ltd., 1926; British Art Since 1900: an Anthology. London: Phaidon Press, 1962.


    Contemporary Authors, NR 1: 555-6; [autobiographies:] Summer’s Lease: Being Volume One of an Autobiography. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1965; Brave Day, Hideous Night: [volume 2] Autobiography, 1939-1965 London: H. Hamilton, 1966; Time’s Thievish Progress: Autobiography [volume 3]. London: Cassell, 1970; London: H. Hamilton, 1966; [obituary:] The Times (London), February 28, 1992.


    "Rothenstein, John." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: