When Eardley Knollys bought the Storran Gallery in central London in spring 1936 with Frank Coombs as his partner it expressed their personal relationship as much as their professional interests. The art gallery closed in 1939, and Coombs was dead by 1941, but during the four years to the war both men had established their expertise, knowledge and influence that was noticed by a wider critical art establishment.
Focus on these men and their radiated connections in part comes from a touring exhibition throughout England during 2011-2013: the ‘Radev Collection’ comprises around eight hundred works of art, the majority of which have not before been on public display. On his death in 1991 Knollys bequeathed this remarkable collection to his friend Mattei Radev (who died in 2008). Few works in the collection originate from the days of the Storran Gallery, as it comprises art bequeathed from both Knollys’s and Radev’s friends, assembled over five decades. The post-war inter- connections and friendships between the various men briefly outlined on the ‘Radev Collection’ website are remarkable in their own right. These friendships were dominated by a wide range of gay relationships, initially fleetingly sexual, that settled to become enduring and supportive friendships.
It is the pre-war relationship of Knollys and Coombs that is especially interesting: their relationship formed a potent, invisible influence. ‘The Storran Gallery is often referred to by those who knew about it with veneration,’ James Lees-Milne wrote in the early 1990s to Frank’s family. Their story should now be told.
Eardley Knollys had a somewhat conventional upbringing for his sex andclass. Born in Hampshire in 1902, the son of a land agent, he was educated at Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in English. Visits to the Garsington house parties of Philip and Ottoline Morrell connected him to members of the Bloomsbury group, and to important and enduring friendships and influences. The blurry black- and-white images from Ottoline’s photograph album (now housed in the National Portrait Gallery) give an inadequate impression of Knollys’s blue eyes, amber curls and fine manners that charmed many, including Harold Nicolson. His travels in the 1920s to the US (in an attempt to become a screenwriter, with letters of introduction to film studios from his Oxford friend, ‘Puffin’ Asquith) and in Europe developed his experience and further broadened his outlook. They also connected him to various artistic worlds, including those of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Somerset Maugham. From 1929 to 1940 he managed the London home and Berkshire country estate (that employed fourteen gardeners) of Billy Smith, Lord Hambledon, another Oxford friend and heir to the W. H. Smith business empire.
Frank Mundy Coombs’s social range was much less extensive and exclusive. He was born in Radstock near Bath in 1906, educated to secondary level, and – qualifying as an architect – worked for four years as an architectural draughtsman for Hampshire County Council. He also painted – largely architectural subjects in oils and watercolours. Glynn Philpot’s oil portrait of c.1930 (in Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery) shows Frank’s pink complexion and red hair. For two years he lived on Sark in the Channel Islands where he met the wealthy Austrian, Mrs Ala Story. In 1933 Story had joined a Mrs Cocherne – who had opened a Wednesday-Thursday Gallery in central London a year earlier – and together they formed the Storran Gallery. Coombs joined in mid-1935, and from the spring of 1936, when Knollys purchased the business for about three hundred pounds, the Storran was exclusively the concern of the two men.
The Storran comprised two basement rooms at 106 Brompton Road, opposite Harrods, moving in October 1937 to larger rooms at 5 Albany Court Yard in Piccadilly, opposite Fortnum and Mason, and here it was well-situated for trade, close to Burlington House and the Royal Academy. The pre-war art galleries in central London were numerous – at least
seventy, judging from advertisements in The Times between 1935 and 1939, many centred on the area of St. James’s in the West End. The larger ones, Agnew’s, the Leicester Galleries, the Lefèvre, Wildenstein’s, the Leger and the Redfern for instance, were well-known and established concerns. In competing with these, the Storran was handicapped by having little capital and occasionally relying on art loaned from other galleries, as was customary amongst some galleries at the time. But the Storran’s success stemmed from several significant factors, particularly from Knollys’s connections with Bloomsbury and beyond, and Coombs’s friendships with members of what would become known as the ‘Euston Road School’ group of painters.
The Storran contrasted with many other contemporary galleries in its skill of spotting a range of artistic talent and its inventiveness in assembling exhibitions. The sixty exhibitions, each lasting for a maximum of a month, between October 1934 and July 1939, displayed the men’s increasingly refined artistic judgment and skill. From January 1936, with Coombs’s exhibition of ‘Contemporary Painters’ (Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore, Frances Hodgkins, John Banting and the recently deceased Christopher Wood), the range of work became more varied and distinctive. It was a departure from the greetings cards and woodblock prints previously chosen by Cocherne.
Thereafter a series of well-regarded exhibitions followed – a mixture of one-man/woman shows interspersed with mixed-media works, with usually two exhibitions concurrent, one in a basement gallery, another on a ground floor. A variety of artistic forms (watercolours, oils, drawings, gouaches, pastels, miniatures, sculptures, wood engravings and lithographs, pencil drawings, paintings on glass) were used to ‘theme’ exhibitions, formed tellingly to contrast one exhibition with the other – sculpture with paintings, or watercolours and gouaches. Largely English and French works were featured, but the subjects and their treatment were wide: children, animals, still-life, abstract, illustrative and decorative, stencil and costume designs (for Glyndebourne), Spain, Salzburg, and architectural designs. Women artists working in a range of media continued to be championed, as were connections with Parisian galleries: the men’s efficient and personable manner established networks, over time gaining the confidence of dealers and individuals, to acquire work on a sale-or-return basis. As the business grew in range and self-confidence, by the end of the thirties it began to reach outside London, collaborating with Galerie Bing in Paris in June/July 1939 to supply works by Sickert, Smith and Wood and loaning two paintings in summer 1939 to the arrestingly entitled ‘Degenerates and Perverts’ touring exhibition of British and French contemporary art in Australia.
There was a remarkable series of exhibitions. Knollys later acknowledged that works by Modigliani in April 1937 and Utrillo in June 1938 (requiring many trips to Paris to organise) were distinctive exhibitions, alterting Britons to these painters for the first time. There were other exhibitions of distinction, mixing the old with the new – another important feature of the gallery. The show simply titled ‘Flowers’ in October 1936 comprised skilfully assembled French and English oils and watercolours by Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin and Derain, with works by Matthew Smith, Augustus John, Duncan Grant and Wood. In ‘Paraphrases of the Old Masters by contemporary painters’ in February 1939 a younger generation, Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler, Lynton Lamb, Claude Rogers and James Thurber, reinterpreted works by Titian, Giotto, Metsu, Corot and Poussin. James Thurber’s drawings were exhibited for the first time in England in May 1937, facilitated by Knollys’s life-long friend, Monroe Wheeler (who pursued his long career from the mid-1930s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City); and in November 1937, attracting public attention, a display of the dancer Nijinsky’s drawings (to support his continued place in a Swiss sanatorium) was aided through the Group Theatre’s director, Rupert Doone. Doone’s boyfriend, the artist Robert Medley, also exhibited at the Storran.
The gallery particularly helped to establish awareness and importance of young artists. In January 1936 there were drawings and sculpture from ‘The Grosvenor Group’, featuring past and present students of Iain Macnab at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. ‘Young Painters’ exhibitions in January 1937 and July 1939 comprised rich displays of varying subject, treatment and form. The intelligently assembled ‘Fifteen paintings of London’ in November 1938 led Clive Bell in his New Statesman review to call the young artists ‘the Euston Road Group’. Innovation created press attention, and regular press coverage in a variety of national daily and weekend newspapers in turn elevated the public presence of the Storran. A steady stream of complimentary reviews in The Times, Sunday Times, Observer and The Listener – on average a review every two months in these national newspapers – maintained the ‘visibility’ of the gallery throughout the second half of the thirties.
Knollys’s and Coombs’s artistic intelligence, business interests and personal lives had fused to form something of an ‘invisible influence’. The Storran drew together several interesting influences and groups by supporting younger artists finding their artistic way, assembling and thereby helping to create their individual and collective identity. The gallery reached in to Bloomsbury and it was in turn regularly championed by Clive Bell and Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman; and Coombs and Knollys supported a small range of gay men as they made their way in the art world: Glyn Philpot, Vivian Forbes, Medley and Grant. The arts philanthropist and ‘talent-spotter’, Edward Marsh, bought works from the Storran for the Contemporary Art Society, and Knollys and Mortimer championed British art as committee members of the Society for many years after the Second World War.
The war closed the gallery, and Coombs became a volunteer naval rating in autumn 1939. He was killed in the first air raid on Belfast in April 1941. Clive Bell’s warm appreciation in the New Statesman paid tribute to Coombs as an artist, a ‘painter of promise … his talent unmistakable’. In The Times obituary, ‘R. M.’, probably Raymond Mortimer, paid tribute to Coombs’s ‘remarkable painterly gifts’ for ‘architectural subjects’, and his ‘discerning taste’ in the Storran Gallery, ‘where he did much to introduce to the public young artists of promise’. Behind these warm public tributes lay private emotional loss. Frances Partridge in her diary noted in May 1941 that Eardley was ‘terribly crushed by the death of Frank … and this was apparent in his face’. Lees-Milne in the 1990s believed that ‘Frankie meant more to [Eardley] than anyone else in his long life’. Frank’s sense of fun, thought Mortimer, gave him ‘an uncommon talent for happiness’.
In many ways, Knollys’s pre-war years created the framework for his war- time and post-war life – a life that is now slowly being recognised and celebrated. He was the South-West England representative for the National Trust for fifteen years to the late 1950s, when his friend James Lees-Milne was Secretary of the Trust’s historic houses committee. Their knowledge and passions guided their decisions about what to save – properties and artefacts – through their pioneering conservation work with Britain’s county house heritage. Their industry – and fits of giggles – cemented an enduring friendship, as Lees-Milne’s diaries testify. And Knollys, as well as a discerning collector which the touring exhibition in part celebrates, from his fifties became an increasingly proficient artist in his own right, encouraged by his friends Duncan Grant and Edward Le Bas. Painting became his passion. His art collection dominated his country home, shared for twenty years from 1945 with the music critics, Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, and joined by 1948 by Raymond Mortimer. Together they formed the ‘Long Crichel boys’ – to borrow Elizabeth Bowen’s phrase – and it was here that Knollys’s qualities of nurturing and maintaining friendships came to the fore: entertaining an artistic elite, similar to an earlier age at Garsington.