Yvonne Robinson has been a significant figure in the art world for over 70 years. A friend of David Sylvester, Bacon, Freud, Pontus Hulton, Tinguely, Augustus John, Paolozzi, Turnbull, and latterly archivist to her great friend Niki de St Phalle, she has a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
she has a knack of being in the right place at the right time
By 1946/7, she worked for Sir Robert Witt in Portman Square / d1952) to set up the Courtauld Institute. In 1950 she joined the Arts Council as plans were underway for the Festival of Britain. The Festival was a triumphant and popular success. I was nine and taken by my parents. I remember it vividly to this day. It was said, “In an island hitherto largely given over to gravy browns and dull greens, after the 1951 Festival of Britain, British contemporary design boldly espoused strong primary colours.”
Meanwhile, Yvonne was in charge of all the art. “It was a terrible responsibility for a little girl (she was 24.) We went to Henry Moore with a van. I think the Moore we installed in Battersea Park is still there!”
The big show at the South Bank was titled ‘Sixty Painters’ Yvonne still has the catalogue. “It included Pasmore, Topolski, Piper, Tunnard, Nash, William Scott, Lowry, Keith Vaughan, Michael Ayrton, Colquhoun & MacBryde, Burra, Josef Herman, Prunella Clough, Ivon Hitchins, Claude Rogers (who taught me), Michael Rothenstein (who taught my mother), William Gillies, Ceri Richards, Patrick Heron, Ruskin Spear and William Gear, who won the prize.”
After five years with the Arts Council, Yvonne went to work with the famous Erica Brausen at the influential Hanover Gallery before moving to Gimple Fils when it closed in 1973. She stayed at Gimps – as she called them – till she retired and then took on Niki’s archive. By then, she had met almost every artist of note in the UK and Europe.
The Hanover Gallery was special. “Erica was a marvellous person. She knew how to pick artists; she was so sure of her choice. Bacon said she had the best eye in Britain?/Europe. Erica had been in Paris before the war and knew Picasso, Caesar, Hemingway, Man Ray & all that circle. Her connections enabled her to launch her very important gallery in 1948. She had access to Miro, Max Ernst, Duchamp, Giacometti, Manzu, Marini. She educated the British. She launched Bacon with his first show in 1949 & showed William Scott and Freud early too. It was an honour to meet her.” The Hanover also showed Matisse for the first time in the UK.
Yvonne’s family were not impressed by the art world. Having spent the war alone in the Lake District looking after her younger siblings, with “no heat, no light, food and no phone”, she begged her father to return to London. When she left school, she had to do compulsory full-time war work. “I spent two years of my life typing about the supply of bombs. I never lost my skill. It was always useful. I can type in French, too – French typewriters are quite different. I remember the day I was ‘released’ from war work, 1946. When I went for a job, I said I wanted to work in art. They sent me to the V&A, but it paid pennies. Next was a job with ‘a grumpy old man. But ‘you won’t last long.” But she did. “Sir Robert Witt was fascinating. He was the key to my whole future.
At Portman Square, Sir Robert needed help on his library of 2 million photos. “We got all the Sotheby’s catalogues, and I cut out the pictures, wrote the date of sale, stuck it onto grey paper and filed them into boxes. The last time I visited, my grey sheets were still there! Sir Robert always said – a photo is no use unless it’s written on the back. He was only interested in old masters. Nothing contemporary. I learnt such a lot.
The National Gallery reopened in May 1945 after the collection came out of safe storage from the Welsh slate quarry caves where the pictures spent the war years. The building had sustained severe damage during the bombing; tarpaulins and corrugated iron remained on the roof for many years. “We went to the first trustees’ reception. It was held in the few relatively undamaged rooms in the east wing. I pushed Sir Robert’s wheelchair.” The pix had been cleaned during their Welsh stay and after years of greyness from dust and rubble, visitors marvelled at the intensity of their colours. ‘Sir Robert would talk about the paintings and soon a crowd gathered. It was like an art history lesson for us all.”
Yvonne also got a scholarship to the Anglo-French Centre to study painting for a year. “I painted day and night’, she said.
Meanwhile, she had fallen for a young Polish artist, Stefan Knapp. “He was a spitfire pilot, still in the RAF and had a show in a small gallery. Later he went to the Slade on a veteran’s stipend and had four solo shows with Erica between 1954 and 1963. He was very well recognised for his wonderful enamel murals, which involved melting glass onto light steel.”
Yvonne had spent a year in the States. “We drove across America to LA!” She first stayed in the Hollywood YMCA till she found a well-paid job in advertising. Still beautiful now, she must have caught every eye. But when she got a letter from Stefan – she hightailed it back to London! When her son Robin was born, Erica was godmother.
The new Hanover gallery was a sensation in London, shining ‘like a bright deed in the dusty art world of contemporary London’ and by 1958, Yvonne was on the staff. “Erica trusted me. She sent us off to Paris in a little Fiat to pick up Caesar’s sculpture. She let me do things like that.” Yvonne stayed for 15 years till it closed, March 1973. Several of Hanover’s artists went to the famous Gimpel Fils, as in the end did Yvonne Robinson. Initially, she was hesitant. I knew Peter Gimple would be good to work with; he was wonderful, very kind to me, but Kay and the Gimple boys were was another matter.
Peter was the son of Rene Gimpel, the celebrated Parisian art dealer. Gimpel Fils was founded in November 1946 at? 30 Davies Street, Westminster, just off Grosvenor Square. The first exhibition was based on a small part of René’s French collection sent to London before the war. The bulk of his stock was lost in Paris. During the 1950s/60s, Gimpel Fils was highly influential. Representing major artists of the period, like Barbara Hepworth and Ben and Nicholson.
At Gimpels, Yvonne looking after Alan Davie, who spent much of his time painting in St Lucia in the Caribbean. Yvonne had to fly out with supplies of oil paint, plus hairpins for his wife, Billy.
Niki de St Phalle followed Yvonne to Gimples. Years later, she was at a dinner in Germany when Niki announced she was looking for someone to sort out her papers. “I was nearly 70, so I said I was interested. She said, come next week. So I went to Paris, to Poissy and lots of trunks appeared from the attic. It was a 3-year job. She rented a flat for me, for this huge task. Pontus, then director of the Pompidou Centre, gave me the best advice. He told me to get 30 trestle tables and put a pile on each, take Niki round and get her to rearrange them. It worked! I also stayed for six weeks in Tinguely’s chateau – very creepy. ”
After she retired, Yvonne lived in Aups in the south of France, where her son and family still are. This autumn, the Stefan Knapp museum opens in Poland, a fitting memorial to a visionary artist who survived the Siberian gulag, got a Churchill Fellowship and won the Polish Cross of Valor. No wonder she rushed back to him!
Words/Photo: Clare Henry Oct 2021