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Unlucky Jim’

In response to:

Unlucky Jim from the February 10, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

May I add a footnote to Martin Filler’s fine essay on James Stirling [“Unlucky Jim,” NYR, February 10]? When I was serving as an artist trustee at the Tate Gallery I was seconded to sit in on meetings concerning the final stages of the completion of Stirling and Wilford’s Clore Galleries, built to house the great collection of Turner’s art that he had bequeathed to the British nation. These meetings were not always harmonious but I was fascinated in observing James’s methods of handling the Tate staff. He enjoyed riling them, either by being rude to them or by his equally insulting heavy silences. When the curators occasionally lost their tempers, or came close to doing so, Jim would move in, so to speak, and mop them up.

He mostly got his own way, but not always. Since his beautiful galleries were in place, discussions were often about the use of wall colors. The nineteenth-century Tate specialists, not unreasonably, tended to favor the colors Turner himself used to display his own work: dignified Victorian reds and greens. Jim was totally opposed to this, despite the sense of history his own work often evinces, and instead was proposing colors of his own invention. These, as Filler remarks, were totally inappropriate; garish and livid…. They would have wiped the paintings off the walls. Eventually a neutral color was substituted, allowing Turner’s supreme coloristic inventiveness to shine forth.

When work had been completed and most of the canvases installed, Jim led the trustees around on a private preview. I told him that I was bothered by the concentric bands of intense colors that arched over the entrance into the opening gallery, because I saw afterimages of them imprinted onto the surfaces of the first paintings I looked at. Jim said, “You must have very sensitive eyes,” to which I replied in the affirmative. Jim thought for a moment, put his head on one side, and rather engagingly remarked, “Do you think I might be color-blind?” When I replied, “Almost certainly,” he seemed amused and declared, “I must think about that.”

John Golding
London, England

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