Robin Light is a director at The Crane Kalman Gallery, he was interviewed by Pat Harvey SGFA FRSA.
This year we are delighted to welcome as Opener of our 95th Annual Open Exhibition, DRAW 16, Mr Robin Light, a director of one of London’s most distinguished galleries, Crane Kalman at 178, Brompton Road, Knightsbridge.
PH: Tell us a little about Andras Kalman, the founder of the gallery.
RL: Andras was born in 1919 in the small town of Mateszalka in Hungary into the family of a well-respected local pharmacist. His parents and brothers were rounded up by the Brown Shirts in the late 1930s and tragically died in the Holocaust. Andras, fortunately, was playing tennis in France and with the help of cousins in New York had managed to escape to England. Having studied leather chemistry at Leeds University he arrived in Manchester in the 1940s, working nights in a leather factory, but an innate passion for tennis and art soon came to his aid.
PH: How did that help him?
RL: He was a tennis-player of professional standard, even making it to the early rounds of Wimbledon. He earned his living as a professional coach at weekends, but dreamed of running “an art shop”. An early enterprise was to turn Hartley’s Jam jars into table-lamps and sell them to the well-heeled of Manchester. Later he started writing to artists like Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Jacob Epstein and Bernard Leach, who took pity on him and lent him works, and in 1949, opened his first gallery in a disused air-raid shelter in South King Street, Manchester. A typographer at the Manchester Guardian mis-read his scrawl announcing the opening of the ‘New Kalman Gallery’, and mistook the word ‘New’ for ‘Crane’. Andras was so taken with this that the gallery has been called Crane Kalman ever since.
PH: Did it work?
RL: Eventually. His tennis contacts got him through the doors of the Manchester ‘great and the good’ whom he sometimes managed to persuade that owning a picture was preferable to swirly carpets and Babycham mirrors. Not everything went smoothly. Asked for Kalman’s views on his wife’s watercolours by the art critic of the Manchester Guardian, Andras, plied with a little too much wine over dinner, replied that they “reminded him of someone urinating (polite version) on a flannel”. Needless to say – no Crane Gallery exhibitions were reviewed again. But he worked tirelessly, dropping cards at stage doors in the wake of people like Richard Attenborough, Charles Laughton, Albert Finney and the Boulting Brothers in search of celebrity ‘collectors’.
Nevertheless the opening night of his first show was a failure. Nobody appeared as Andras watched the canapés curling on their plates. He was on the brink of locking the door for the night when L.S. Lowry walked through the door, apparently thrilled that there was to be a modern art gallery in Manchester. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
PH: How did that develop?
RL: Lowry, who had started out attending evening classes at Manchester School of Art, was working as a rent collector. They would meet over tea and sticky buns at a hotel in Manchester, and Lowry, despite later having a dealer in London, would always give Andras pictures to sell. He was one of the earliest to champion the cause of Lowry, whom he described as “warm, friendly, generous though lonely”, and to combat the image of the artist as a grumbling misanthrope, in 1968 he staged The Loneliness of L.S.Lowry. Beyond the conventional snobbery of the art world, a lot of contemporary artists ‘get’ L.S.Lowry, including Grayson Perry, Chris Offili and Damian Hirst.
PH: Why did the gallery move to London?
RL: It was the ‘way to go’. Manchester was difficult in terms of selling art in the 1950s. ‘Modern art’ was the ‘in thing’ in London in the 1960s. He was fed up with trying to transport Henry Moores in the boot and Sutherlands on the roof-rack. In 1956 he came to Brompton Road and saw a sign TO LET. Sensing ideal premises and being close to Harrods, he was anxious that no-one else should beat him to it, so inserted an “I”, to read ‘TOILET’. He had just enough money for 2 months but managed a few sales to keep him ticking over.
PH: And he still played tennis?
RL: Always. One day when playing in the early rounds of Wimbledon, he met Ben Nicholson.
Nicholson, who was fanatical about tennis, had heard of this Hungarian tennis player who was also a gallery owner. Andras proposed a show of Ben’s early works, much to the artist’s irritation, but Ben allowed himself to be persuaded and eventually conceded it to be a good idea, introducing the origins of his work to those not in the know.
Later, Andras became the champion of what he termed ‘underrated artists’ – those with a poetic, contemplative quality, summarised in an exhibition of 1999 called Silence in Painting.
One of these was Mary Newcomb, an East Anglian painter whom he met when she walked through the door in the 1970’s clad in a woollen skirt and with a pudding-basin hair-cut. Her work was described by the Spectator as ‘poetic realism of extraordinary oddness and gentle lyricism, which lodges in the mind and radiates a sensation of quiet revelation and benign surprise’.
PH: How did you get involved?
RL: After leaving Ampleforth, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Crane Kalman Gallery as a temp from Manpower. “How good is your carpentry?” they asked, “there is this gallery in Knightsbridge”. Gradually I progressed to answering phone calls, making coffee and running around obeying orders. On one disastrous occasion when I got a canvas measurement wrong, Andras described me as “a stupid English jumped-up public school-boy b—-d”. That brings you down to earth quite quickly. Within a year I was about to leave for a business studies degree when his PA tragically succumbed to a fast and virulent kidney cancer.
I stayed on to help out and worked on Saturdays for extra pocket-money.Every weekend came the same question: “How is the business studies nonsense going?” Silence. “I’m offering you a job”.
Thirty years later I’m still here with Andrew and Sally, Andras’ son and daughter
PH: How important is drawing?
RL: Hugely important. The truly great artists draw throughout their careers, whether simple sketches or finished works. We only have to look at Picasso, Calder, Miro, Nicholson, Hepworth, Lowry, Hockney ………….. the list goes on.
PH: How is the Gallery viewed by the art world?
RL: Probably ‘small’ but still here. We are now in a world with ‘mega-galleries’. They have multiple spaces in Paris, New York, LA, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Beijing, Moscow, etc. We cannot compete with these on a business-level but we can on a quality-level. There are dealers you get on with, and dealers you don’t. Andras saw himself as a bit of a maverick – away from the crowd in the West End and that is where we still like to be, doing our own thing and not watching others.
PH: Thank you.
Editor’s Note: Robin Light will be opening our Annual Exhibition “Draw 16” at the Menier Gallery, London on Tuesday 4 October at 6pm.