Life & Culture

My grandma the legend: Life with art collector Peggy Guggenheim, the fabulously wealthy bohemian

The Hampshire town is hosting an exhibition celebrating the famous art collector


Picture of sophistication: Peggy Guggenheim on the roof terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, in the early 1950s

In New York she was a restless socialite, in Paris a sex-mad bohemian who boasted of her 1,000 lovers. But before cementing her legacy as a collector of world-class modern art in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim spent an unlikely few years channelling her inner balabooste near the Hampshire town of Petersfield.

“She was trying to find herself after travelling, marriage, having children, divorcing and losing the first of her lovers,” says her granddaughter Karole Vail of the period when her father, Sindbad, was reunited with his mother after they were separated by Peggy’s divorce from her first husband and his own father, Laurence Vail.

“And they were an important few years when her interest in being domestic dovetailed with her desire to become a player in the art world,” she adds. This explains why a new show of Guggenheim’s art, supported with loans from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, of which Karole is now director, is opening in Petersfield this week.

is currently unfurling her childhood memories while supervising the packing up of important works including a painting by Max Ernst, the surrealist who became Peggy’s second husband, a Henry Moore sculpture and a drawing by Yves Tanguy, one of her early lovers. They are headed for the show in Petersfield, which for five years was the centre of Peggy’s life. Both her children went to school close to the family home nearby, Yew Tree Cottage, and the town’s museum is now celebrating its most famous resident with pieces Peggy bought from artists whose careers she fought hard to promote.

Visiting her eccentric Jewish grandmother at the 18th-century palazzo in Venice where she spent the last 30 years of her life was sometimes difficult, but came with some pretty amazing perks, remembers Vail. “It was not designed for children – there were very few toys around – but there were some beautiful sculptures in the garden, which was more like a jungle, including a wonderful Jean Arp we rode like a rocking-horse,” says Vail.

Being sent to stay with Peggy alone as a teenager was more of an ordeal, she admits. “I found it unsettling to sleep in a room with a Surrealist painting, but amazing to dine surrounded by amazing Cubist and Futurist paintings in a home that was open to the public several afternoons a week.” Peggy, who had learned to cook for her family for the first time in the 1930s, was still cooking occasionally decades later. “Although I don’t think she particularly enjoyed it,” says Vail. But the nightly post-prandial experience was extraordinary. “It was magical to glide through the canals in my grandmother’s gondola, one of the last private ones in Venice.”

Her museum on Venice’s Grand Canal dedicated mainly to Surrealists may be her enduring legacy, but Peggy’s passion for modern art was actually fostered during her years in England, and she envisaged London as the permanent home for her collection. The plans were hatched at Yew Tree Cottage, picked for its proximity to the school Peggy’s daughter Pegeen wished to attend with Debbie, the daughter of her lover, Douglas Garman. Debbie became a de facto second daughter. This domestic period was a complete antidote to the 15 exhausting years she had spent rushing round Europe with a violent husband.

“It had been a traumatic period in her life,” says Vail. Even more traumatic, it seems, than her childhood in the heart of New York Jewish society of which she wrote in her autobiography Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict: “I have no pleasant memories of any kind.” She might have been close to her father, Benjamin, had he not perished as a passenger aboard the Titanic. This left Peggy’s family as the poor relations among those of Benjamin’s six wealthier brothers.

Her grandmother’s decision to marry out as her first rebellious act. Peggy, an heiress brought up in one of Manhattan’s most affluent neighbourhoods, was sent to a Jewish school and her mother, Florette Seligman, kept her within a tight social circle of potential suitors. But she managed to shake off Florette’s supervision during one of many trips to Europe. She married Vail, the first of many abusive men she seemed to seek out. She spoke of briefly regretting the marriage while visiting Jerusalem as a newlywed, a trip that had a huge emotional impact on her, lamenting: “For the first time in my life I felt ashamed to have married outside my faith.” But this ruefulness evaporated after her trip to the Western Wall, when she wrote: “The nauseating sight of my compatriots publicly groaning and moaning and going into physical contortions was more than I could bear, and I was glad to leave the Jews again.”

Leave, but not forsake – Peggy financially supported her friend Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist celebrated as much by her patron for being “a Jewish cordon bleu….her gefilte fish was a piece de resistance”. And before she fled home to the safety of New York in 1941, Peggy spent her final years in France helping Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee fund several Jewish artists’ escape to neutral territory. An isolated cottage outside Petersfield seems an unlikely home for a woman who led such a wild life in Paris, where she had a passionate affair with the playwright Samuel Beckett, among others. “We soon found ourselves in bed, where we remained till next evening,” she remarked of the night she went home with the playwright after a dinner party given by James Joyce. While in the French capital she was among the first to champion the painter Yves Tanguy.

On the Sussex-Hampshire border, in a cottage visited by Beckett, Tanguy and other lovers, she relished being a hands-on mother to Sindbad, who attended the nearby Bedales School. Her two girls went to another school in a village near Petersfield. “My life in Yew Tree Cottage was so domestic I seemed to do nothing but look after Pegeen and Debbie,” she remembered. Arp visited and made himself useful by washing up and cooking breakfast. A work of his, once owned by Peggy, has been lent to the Petersfield show.

When her relationship with Garman fizzled out, Peggy turned her attention to her career. In 1938, with the help of the father of Surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, she opened Gallery Jeune in London. “At that time I couldn’t distinguish one thing in art from another,” she recalled. “Marcel tried to educate me… he taught me the difference between abstract and surrealist Art, then he introduced me to all the artists,” she said of the artist, who hung her first exhibition.

Although at the time she admitted preferring Old Masters, Peggy introduced her clientele to not only the avant-garde Tanguy but also Kandinsky, whom she gave his first London show, and the then unknown Lucian Freud, whose earliest work she exhibited in a show of children’s paintings. With lavish parties at Café Royal following each opening, Peggy became the toast of London art-lovers as war clouds brewed. In  1939 she negotiated a deal with Sir Kenneth Clark to use his mansion in Portland Place as the home for her personal collection. When war broke out she left the UK for Paris. Having divorced Laurence Vail, in 1941 she married Ernst, who, like Vail, was not Jewish but had been incarcerated by the Nazis. In Paris she bought up a many modern masterpieces, before fleeing to the south of France as Hitler’s forces approached. After taking flight to New York – she helped Ernst to safety in the US – she opened a gallery there, supporting the then unknown Jewish artists Mark Rothko and Janet Sobel among others. She returned to Venice, buying the Palazzo Venier de Leoni, in 1949.

Her art patronage was not always appreciated by the most famous Guggenheim collector of all, her uncle Solomon, who felt she cheapened the family reputation by running a commercial gallery. He also did not share his niece’s appreciation of Kandinsky.

Nevertheless, he came to appreciate the value of her collection, and it stayed in the family. She bequeathed it, along with the palazzo, to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation shortly before her death at the age of 81 in 1979.

*From Petersfield to Palazzo opens June 14 at the Petersfield Museum & Art Gallery, Hampshire.

* Peggy Guggenheim’s autobiography, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, is published by Headline

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