Professor Anne Massey reflects on the history of the ICA archives and her role as a researcher in advance of the upcoming conference celebrating the legacy of the Independent Group in April.
Anne Massey on the Independent Group and the ICA
This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.
― A.S. Byatt, Possession
The Independent Group will be celebrated at the ICA next month. This collection of highly significant architects, artists, designers, musicians and writers met semi-clandestinely in the Members’ Room at the ICA from 1952-1955. Usually celebrated as the ‘Fathers of Pop’, there was far more to the Group than this, and we aim to celebrate the unique approach of this unique band of cultural commentators. What I like most about the Group is that it wasn’t judgemental – all aspects of the cultural landscape was considered and analysed. And what a cultural landscape. This was the time of Hollywood classical cinema, modern jazz, rock and roll, sexy and sleek American cars, gorgeous advertisements for domestic appliances and science-fiction comics.
Building on the Surrealist roots of the new ICA, the Independent Group explored these avenues of design and popular culture – debating their relative merits, but never dismissing them. The Independent Group, and members like Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton, John McHale, Alison and Peter Smithson and William Turnbull emerged from the ravages of the Second World War eager to lap up the new delights of post-war consumer culture. The Independent Group was also a serious talking shop for discussing modern art, modern design and modern architecture.
The ICA was the perfect home for these activities, and is now the perfect home for a celebration, 60 years on.
My own experience began in 1981: I first viewed the ICA archives when they were located at the ICA in a variety of box files and overstuffed lever arch files. The archives are one of the most important of its kind for early post-war British art. There were plentiful copying facilities and I was more or less left alone to dig around and undertake my research. For me, this was such an exciting opportunity that I relocated to London from Newcastle to pursue my investigative work. I loved the hands-on, random nature of the archive, its physicality. This led me to write a number of articles on the history of the ICA and the Group for Burlington Magazine, Block, Art Monthly and Art & Artists. I then went on to pursue a PhD, awarded in 1985 and titled ‘The Independent Group: Towards a Redefinition’ and wrote a book The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press, 1995). The only monograph of the Independent Group, it considers the Group within the social and political context of post war Britain. This includes a consideration of national identity and cold war culture. The book also includes an early history of the ICA and a detailed account of the Independent Group, before during and after its meetings.
My own archives
I started building up my own archives on the Independent Group around that time, the Arts Council gave me a set of ICA bulletins, but also buying on eBay and from specialist dealers. I was also fortunate to receive gifts from individuals such as Dorothy Morland and Laurie Fricker who were former members of staff at the ICA . They were both tremendously helpful in my research, as were Julie Lawson, Roland Penrose, Freda and Eduardo Paolozzi, Mary Banham, Toni del Renzio and Sylvia Sleigh.
The untold story of fraud in the ICA’s archive – the John Drewe case- is fascinating and one in which I found myself directly involved in. John Drewe defrauded the art world, selling 200 forgeries for 1.8 million between 1985 and 1995.
The ICA was awarded Gulbenkien funding to order the ICA Archives. In addition I consulted the ICA archives in a warehouse in Hounslow. The ICA archive was then sold to the Tate in 1995.
John Drewe gained access to the ICA archives – just as I had- by offering to put the archive in order. He also claimed a loose connection to Jane Drew, the architect of the ICA’s Dover Street interior. Drewe later donated £20,000 to Tate to gain access to the ICA Archives after the ICA refused the donation of two Roger Bissiere paintings which were in fact fakes. He stole material from the Victoria & Albert Museum and doctored a lot of documents at archives, including the British Council. He was eventually arrested in 1996, and trialled in 1998 – at which he was charged with tampering with national art records to create false documents for fake paintings.
Having trawled through the archive myself for many years, I was contacted by Scotland Yard to assist in the case. Drewe served 2 years in prison, the money was never recovered and no one knows of his current whereabouts –which is quite worrying!
Making Archives Public: Digitisation and Display
My views on the digitisation of archives are divided; I believe broader public access is obviously a good thing, it means the material is more accessible and gets round the tampering problem, and affords the virtual a more authentic identity. Materials are also better preserved as they are not physically handled after initial digitisation. The interesting question for me is; would digitised archives have made my experience and research better? I honestly don’t know. I recognise the huge amount of effort to digitise collections, it is a type of work that is extremely time intensive but open access is always to be welcomed.
Fundamentally, I think there have been enormous changes in the role of the art and design historian, which sadly may have resulted in losing the thrill of the chase.
Professor Anne Massey (Kingston University) is Research Associate: ICA Archives, and curator of the two-day conference BUNK: Celebrating 60 Years of the Independent Group, 26-27 April 2012.