Published  30/08/2006

Peter Townsend

After the obituaries

Peter Townsend, who died 21 July 2006 in London, has proved to be a daunting prospect for obituarists, which would amuse him.

This enigmatic shroud was maintained by him long after he had come to Studio. Before he came to Studio International, he had been described as English Publicity Secretary, Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (CIC) a post which he fulfilled from 1942 to 1952. On leaving, he produced a remarkable book on China, entitled China Phoenix, one of few first-hand accounts of events in China during those tempestuous years. It seems unlikely that he was of any less face value to the Chinese Communist Party than to Western Intelligence.

He was taken into the confidence of Mao Tse-tung, wore the Red Star and Maoist suit, and was subsequently honoured by Chou-en-Lai with a gift of Chinese graphic work. The story of his return and rehabilitation in Britain is only loosely documented, and the enigma was not dispersed when the old-established Chatham Kent printing firm (with Intelligence connections) were introduced to hiM and appointed him Editor of Studio, which they were anxious to expand following acquisition, mainly as a print vehicle.

There is no question that Peter's period coincided with, and propagated, the powerful, British Council-driven modernisation of British contemporary art as an international export in the 1970s. In return, the British Council ensured that a high number of subscription copies went to the Council’s Reading Rooms around the world. With an International Advisory Panel of prominent curators, Peter well knew how to gain sympathetic government support. It has to be said that there were remarkably few copies going to China at the time.

Studio International became a stable for budding curators and art historians during this period. Likewise these talented young activists gave ideas and new critique for a pittance. The Advisory Board were paid likewise virtually nothing, similarly but required a good appetite and strong head. The high social octane of the Museum Tavern and its successor wore on into the 1970s, the whole assembly was in some ways curiously appealing, with Peter Townsend in the role of father confessor. He presided with an insouciance that bore witness to his 'mandarin' years. He wrote virtually nothing, focusing on the orchestration of talents. The art novel of those seedy and threadbare days has sadly never been written, and Graham Greene is now long gone.

Peter Townsend had great charm, but gave little away. D.T. Bergen (USA), an American entrepreneur, and this co-owner provided for a while an urgent rescue package for what was in the early 1970s, an ailing vehicle. This was a period when Peter, somewhat innocently (and that was another contradictory quality one might cherish) was drawn into an active role with the Greater London Arts Association, but with his Chinese experience soon realised, too late, that he was trapped between in-fighting leftist groups with in the GLC. He resigned these posts honourably, but received little gratitude.

At this time Studio International was enabled to make a dash for recovery, but a new editor was required, especially one who could explicitly direct the magazine into just those areas selected by the rising critics, historians and curators. Individuals such as Rudi Fuchs in Holland, and Nick Serota (now both highly distinguished) helped provide a new network of writers for the second half of the 1970s. But Townsend's era of the 1960s was over. It can be said that he was directly responsible for the initial 'internationalisation' of Studio International. Under his successor Richard Cork, subscriptions continued to grow, but (in common with the situation across the art world) advertising collapsed, and the foundation of gallery advertisers and dealer network cajoled by Peter Townsend to give regular support duly vanished. Cork had achieved a genuine European subscription growth, but it had not been enough.

Peter Townsend, beyond Studio International, through founding his own art journal (until he fell out with these owners too) maintained a standpoint and a voice which remained influential to some degree in the UK art world (a low cost journal had long been needed), and he courageously went on to found Art Monthly (Australia). For a time he edited both Art Monthly in the UK and in Australia, a task he fulfilled without relapse. He was as instrumental as an internationalist first and foremost (this, after all, was what led him to China) in the final analysis, in the great growth of British postwar art, and its appreciation overseas, as he was in moving the British institutional public out of the provincial mode that still persisted long after the 1950s, into the uplands of the 1970s.

Michael Spens

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