Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery for twenty-six years (1938-64), died 27 February aged ninety. He received lengthy obituaries in the British press, which remembered his support for English artists such as Burra, Spencer, Moore, Bacon, Pasmore, Freud and Paolozzi. He was not, however, the chauvinist some took him to be, and he introduced the British public to a number of foreign artists, including Leger, Klee and Chagall.
In the early Fifties he passed through a difficult period when his directorship came under fierce attack from some art critics, none fiercer than the collector and famous critic of the Modern movement, Douglas Cooper.
This culminated, in 1954, with the episode which sent a delicious frisson around the English art Establishment and made Rothenstein’s popular reputation: going around the Diaghilev exhibition, he ran into Cooper, who started insulting him and then punched him. Opinions vary on what followed.
One account has it that Rothenstein laid out Cooper accidentally with his head as he straightened up; the other, that Rothenstein actually slogged him back. Be that as it may, Cooper was spoiling for a fight, as this unpublished letter shows.
John Richardson tells us that its violent tone actually protected Rothenstein. When Cooper lobbied government to get rid of him it persuaded M.P.s that Cooper just had a bee in bonnet and was not to be taken seriously.
Received 13 June 1953
Dear Rothenstein, Now that the Mexican president has provided you with the beak and talons of an Aztec eagle you may perhaps feel better equipped to face me in open contest. But do not deceive yourself into thinking that because your continual disservices to art bring you knighthoods and ribbons, I shall in any way weaken in my attack. There are still more than ten years in which to hound you out of Millbank [the Tate]—and it shall be done. Yours, Douglas Cooper. P.S. Do not forget to circulate this to all the Trustees. Their dossiers should be kept complete, as complete as those of my friends to whom copies of the present missive have been sent .
[Tate Gallery archive 8726]
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Douglas Cooper v. the Knight Commander of the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle: round one'