Frances Spalding writes: ‘I very much enjoy doing exhibitions. This began early on. While I was a postgraduate working on Roger Fry, I suggested to Philip Trautman, who then looked after the Courtauld Gallery art collection in a building next to the Warburg Institute, that Fry’s portraits would be make a good subject for an exhibition. He agreed and I curated the show. There was a wonderful moment at the preview when Duncan Grant, then in his nineties, arrived wearing a straw hat, Paul Roche pushing his wheelchair.
One of Roger Fry’s best portraits was of Edith Sitwell. There are in fact two of her by him but the best is the one in the Sheffield City Art Galleries’ collection. She became the subject of my next exhibition. She sat for many artists and never fussed about the results, which were not always appealing. She would say: ‘If you are a greyhound, why try to look like Pekinese?’ I called this exhibition ‘Images of Edith: Portraits of Dame Edith Sitwell’, and it was held in the gallery of the Art School within Sheffield City Polytechnic. Reresby and Penelope Sitwell came to the opening and on the spot invited a handful of us back to Renishaw for a cold supper. Towards the end of the evening, I asked Reresby if he would sign my copy of the catalogue. He did so, sitting at his desk. He had just come back from a visit to China and announced that he would also sign it in Chinese. This involved licking the end of a small wooden tool, then banging it down on an ink block before stamping the page with an imprint of a Chinese character. Why I still remember this so vividly after all these years is inexplicable. Sadly, the catalogues of both these exhibitions are hard to find today.
In more recent times I very much enjoyed working on ‘John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach’ with David Fraser Jenkins, for Dulwich Picture Gallery. But best of all was the invitation to act as guest curator for the National Portrait Gallery in connection with ‘Virginia Woolf: Life, Art and Vision’, for which I also wrote the accompanying book of the same title. So much has been written on Virginia Woolf that at first it was difficult to know what to do. But the need for the exhibition’s story to have a strong visual attraction directed the narrative, and the attendance figures went beyond its target audience.
Three years later I co-curated with Simon Martin an exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester, timed to coincide with the centenary of John Minton’s birth. Pallant House is another of my favourite galleries, and it was a pleasure recently to write a longish piece for the Pallant House Magazine (Autumn/Winter 2021/22) in celebration of this gallery’s fortieth anniversary.