Peggy Guggenheim

I heard a talk by Jasper Sharp last night at the Wallace Collection in London, about Peggy Guggenheim the collector. She started collecting in Paris in the late thirties, and opened her first gallery - Guggenheim Jeune - in Cork Street in London in 1938. Soon afterwards she got a 'cease and desist' letter from uncle Solomon, who accused her of 'birsmirching the Guggenheim name' with 'vulgar commercial rubbish'. This vulgar commercial rubbish - including works by Picasso, Max Ernst, Braque, Duchamps and others, was held at Customs in the UK when imported from France for her new home in London, as they did not classify it as art. She had to appeal to the House of Commons to get it released.

Herbert Reid, at the time, gave a her a list of 'must purchase works and artists' that she should follow to build up a worthy collection - when the list was sent to Paris, her friend and mentor Duchamps crossed out many of the names, including Matisse (so last century dear), and added a few of his own that were unknown to Reid. This list formed the basis of her buying decisions that were to create her great collection.

Collecting followed in Paris, which she fled three days before the Germans arrived, in the south, where she joined a refugee community of avant garde artists all flogging their works to earn a passage to America (she was offered a Picasso which she had no room for - ended up worth millions in MOMA) and then, finally, in New York, where she opened her Art of This Century Gallery in two converted tailor shops in Manhattan. She gave the first shows there to Rothko and Pollock (misspelled Polloch the first time she showed his work). 

In 1947 she was invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, in the empty Greek pavilion, and while there she saw and fell in love with the half finished Palazzo on the Grand Canal that would become her new home. For over 30 years, until her death in 1979, this palace was, effectively, a house museum - she lived there, many artists came to stay, and during the summer months when it was open to the public you were just as likely to catch one of them shaving as admire their work. When she founded the museum, she already had collected the bulk of her collection - 170 works. The Peggy Guggenheim collection today stands at c. 240 - though during the course of her life there has been a certain amount of 'churn', as she gave away over 130 works to other museums and institutions around the world - often to very small ones, as she was keen to seed new collections and so grow public interest in her twin passions - abstract and surrealist art.

Today the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice is more of a traditional museum - but the eclectic and personal nature of the collection makes it one of the most special anywhere in the world. Every picture and sculpture, literally, tells a story.

She was a hard lady to like for some, however, despite her brilliant taste. She married a number of times. When asked how many husbands she had had, she famously replied: 'Mine, or other peoples?'

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  • James Dunford Wood

    Founder and former MD of, James teamed up with online publisher James Blackwell to launch Worldreviewer …

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