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When Giacometti lit up literary London

28 July 2023

The UK government’s decision earlier this month to defer an export licence for Alberto Giacometti’s Chandelier for Peter Watson should be welcomed not only by the sculptor’s British admirers, but by anyone with an interest in mid-century British culture. Sold in February at Christie’s for £2.9m, the modernist light fixture is a striking piece of decorative metalwork, but its main claim to significance depends in large part upon its provenance.

Commissioned by the art collector and patron Peter Watson (1908–56), the chandelier hung in the late 1940s in the offices of the cultural magazine Horizon, which Watson had bankrolled from its inception in 1939. Holding the purse strings gave Watson free rein to direct the magazine’s coverage of the visual arts while leaving the literary side to its official editor (and fellow Old Etonian) Cyril Connolly. Its pages frequently carried essays by eminent art critics, including Herbert Read and Clement Greenberg, as well as reproductions of work by artists whom Watson particularly admired: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Craxton – and, of course, Giacometti.

Watson knew Giacometti personally from his pre-war years in Paris, where he had kept an apartment in the Rue du Bac. Returning in 1946 to find that his collection had been looted by the occupying Nazis, he resumed collecting, including sculptures by Giacometti (who also painted Watson’s portrait in the early 1950s). It would have been around this time that he commissioned the chandelier for the Horizon offices.

Initially, Horizon had been published from a flat in Lansdowne Terrace, formerly the residence of the poet Stephen Spender who was an early contributing editor. In the spring of 1948, the London County Council requisitioned the building to help alleviate London’s post-Blitz housing shortage, and the magazine moved across Bloomsbury to the first floor of a corner building in Bedford Square, a stone’s throw from the British Museum. It remained there, as did the chandelier, until the end of 1949, when Horizon published its final issue.

It isn’t entirely clear what happened to the Chandelier for Peter Watson at that point. William Feaver, in his biography of Lucian Freud, hints that Freud suspected John Craxton of making off with it illicitly. The official and more probable version is that Craxton spotted the piece gathering dust in an antiques shop on the Marylebone Road in the late 1960s, and bought it for £250, later installing it in the music room of his house in Hampstead.

The music room in John Craxton’s home in Hampstead. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd

Despite the presence of the hollow sphere under the sconces, which establishes interesting links with Giacometti’s famous Suspended Ball (1930–31) – a piece regarded by André Breton and Salvador Dalí as a high-point of Surrealist sculpture – the chandelier isn’t an especially distinguished or distinctive work either of Giacometti’s sculptural vision or of material craftsmanship. Its secondary importance seems to have been reflected in the sale price of £2.9m: a pretty penny, but still considerably under the £7.6m achieved at Sotheby’s in 2018 by the comparable Lustre avec femme, homme et oiseau (1949), which has the notable advantage of featuring two examples of the etiolated human figures that would become characteristic of Giacometti’s most recognisable post-war work.

Is the chandelier important? Certainly, but only in part because of the attribution to Giacometti. What makes it really worth saving is its connection to Horizon, Craxton, Watson, and through them to the networks of arts patronage and production that kept up and deepened cultural connections between England and continental Europe during and after the Second World War. Watson spent much of his life in France, and Horizon was perhaps the most cosmopolitan English magazine of its time, publishing work mainly by English- and French-speaking writers, but also pieces translated from Spanish, Russian, German, and Italian. During the war, as the literary historian Ann-Marie Einhaus has noted, it remained ‘a magazine with a European outlook’, its editors going to great lengths to source material from émigré writers living in Britain, as well as from occupied zones, through neutral countries.

The minister responsible for the export block, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, notes that the Giacometti chandelier ‘is a prime example of sculptors blurring the boundaries between function and art in the decorative arts’. He might have added that it records a history of crossed borders and mutual cultural influence between Britain and continental Europe. An uncharitable observer might detect a certain irony in the concern shown for this monument to the Europhile intelligentsia of mid-century Bloomsbury by a minister whose most notable previous contribution to British-European relations was his ardent support for Brexit, as campaign chief for Vote Leave. But perhaps a closer involvement with the arts sector in his DCMS role has brought with it a new appreciation for the deep cultural and economic connections that patrons like Watson and publications like Horizon worked so hard to maintain.

James Purdon is the author of Modernist Informatics (Oxford University Press).