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December 21 2009

Mark Glazebrook obituary

Colourful figure of the London art world, he was a gallery owner, curator, dealer and writer

Mark Glazebrook, who has died from cancer aged 73, was a permanent fixture of the London art world for five decades, though permanence was hardly the most distinctive attribute of so peripatetic a character, whose diverse career encompassed teaching, writing, publishing and dealing, as well as the directorship of one of the capital's leading public galleries. To all these roles he brought a keen eye and an innate sympathy for the purpose, if not the business, of art. Indeed, his first and real ambition was to be an artist; and for all his many and varied achievements, he was perhaps as proud as anything of an invitation in 2000 from the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, London, to put on an exhibition of his paintings.

Glazebrook was born in Cheshire and grew up in the Vale of Clywd, in a house once owned by Dr Johnson's friend Hester Thrale. He was educated at Eton college, Berkshire, and, after national service with the Welsh Guards, read history at Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Glazebrooks were prosperous cotton brokers – both Mark's father and grandfather had been president of the Liverpool Cotton Association – and on leaving Cambridge he used his inheritance to buy a splendid Arts and Crafts house, designed by Norman Shaw's protege EJ May, in the west London garden suburb of Bedford Park. He was briefly a student at the Slade school of art; and, after a stint lecturing on art history in Maidstone, learning the subject as he taught it, he obtained a position in the visual arts department of the Arts Council, then under the benevolent leadership of Gabriel White, mentor to a generation of exhibition organisers.

While still working for the Arts Council, Glazebrook began writing art criticism for the London Magazine, proving a perceptive commentator on the art scene of 1960s London, and joined university friends in launching Editions Alecto, the pioneering publishers of contemporary artists' prints. The firm scored an immediate success with David Hockney's first suite of etchings, A Rake's Progress, and went on to produce and sell multiples by many of the leading figures in the pop movement on both sides of Atlantic, including Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield, Jim Dine and Ed Ruscha.

In 1969, to his own amazement, Glazebrook was appointed director of the Whitechapel art gallery, in succession to Bryan Robertson. Over the previous 17 years Robertson had transformed the Whitechapel from an essentially local amenity into the country's most exciting exhibition space; a series of groundbreaking shows by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, among many others, had opened British eyes to American abstract expressionism. Despite the international status it enjoyed at the time of Glazebrook's arrival, the gallery was in a parlous state: it was starved of funds and the director's salary amounted to little more than an honorarium. Glazebrook recalled that on his first day he asked the assistant on the reception desk where the takings from catalogue sales went. "Oh, Mr Robertson used those to buy his lunch," she replied. If, during his short tenure at the Whitechapel, Glazebrook's exhibition programme never scaled the heights reached by his predecessor, it nonetheless contained some memorable highlights, including Donald Judd's first London show and the first major retrospective of Hockney's work.

Glazebrook had spotted Hockney while the latter was still a student at the Royal College of Art and had bought what the artist acknowledged was the best painting in his first exhibition. The two formed a long-lasting friendship and at one point it was mooted that Glazebrook might write Hockney's biography. Hockney's affection for an early patron and loyal supporter was commemorated in the fine portrait drawing he made of Glazebrook, which was shown in the exhibition David Hockney Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006.

Glazebrook resigned from the Whitechapel after three years, in frustration at the gallery's lack of funding, and crossed over into the art trade. From 1972 to 1975 he was head of the Modern British department at the Bond Street dealers Colnaghi, where he played a significant part in the revival of critical scholarship then being directed towards early 20th-century British art, mounting revelatory exhibitions of the Chilean-born portraitist Álvaro Guevara and the Vorticist painter and printmaker Edward Wadsworth. A further change of course occurred in 1975, when he was appointed lecturer in art history at San José state university in California. Returning to London four years later, he rejoined Alecto and continued to collaborate with commercial galleries on exhibitions exploring aspects of modern British art, before eventually opening his own premises, the Albemarle Gallery, off Piccadilly, in 1986.

The Albemarle was a victim of the recession of the early 1990s – and, it has to be said, of Glazebrook's chaotic approach to business and an often turbulent relationship with his partner in the gallery, Rodney Capstick-Dale. With its closure in 1993 Glazebrook was forced to sell the family home to cover its debts.

His first marriage, to Elizabeth Claridge, had ended in divorce in 1969. His second, to Wanda Osinska, who inculcated in him a profound admiration for the culture of her native Poland, survived for more than 25 years, before it, too, eventually broke down. Glazebrook's professional and private lives had always been subject to fluctuations in fortune, but the early years of this century found him at a low ebb, virtually penniless and living in a council flat in south London.

But in the face of these adversities he was as ebullient as ever: he never lost his love of a good story, a good party and, above all, a good lunch. There was more than a touch of Mr Micawber about him in his conviction that something would turn up. And something generally did. He continued to receive requests to curate exhibitions for artists such as Colin Self, whom he had been among the first to champion. Membership of the Chelsea Arts Club introduced him to his third wife, Cherry Moorsom. And, latterly, he relished the opportunity to review exhibitions for the Spectator. His last contribution, a characteristically droll defence of watercolour, his own preferred medium as a painter, was published only a few weeks before his death.

He is survived by his three wives, and by two daughters and a stepson.

• Reginald Mark Glazebrook, art dealer and curator, born 25 June1936; died 3 November © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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