NNF13: The art history of Lynda Morris

Norwich University of Arts curator Lynda Morris, whose life in art is the subject of a new exhibitio

Norwich University of Arts curator Lynda Morris, whose life in art is the subject of a new exhibition running during the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Photo:Steve Adams - Credit: Archant

An intriguing hoard of treasures culled from a life spent in the arts – back home to Norwich. Art curator Lynda Morris' new N&N Festival exhibition displays her life instead of other people's work. KEIRON PIM reports.

At every interesting juncture in her life – a chance encounter with the young Rolling Stones, corresponding with the spy Anthony Blunt, drinking with Gilbert and George, working with other artists from David Hockney to the Pitman Painters – Lynda Morris has retained mementos of her experiences.

Normally they form part of the vast assortment of books, letters, catalogues, paintings and ceramics that fill her home off Norwich's Newmarket Road, but lately they have been on show in New York, London and Dundee, and now they are being installed at Norwich's University of the Arts' gallery, one of the most significant locations in her life.

'Lynda Morris: Dear Lynda…' is the title of the exhibition, which opens today. It is the latest among dozens she has assembled in her long career as a curator but the first compiling items from her life rather than works by the many artists she has helped bring to prominence, among them Gerhard Richter, Robert Mapplethorpe and Joseph Beuys.

In fact while keeping a low profile herself Lynda has spent most of the last half-century moving through significant moments. She was born in Scotland in 1947 but grew up in Dover, a combination that she says gives her an insider's and outsider's perspective on England, and as a teenage schoolgirl hitchhiked from there to Folkestone to see the Rolling Stones, who were due to play at the local Odeon.

She and a friend arrived at the car park to see three boys tumble out of a timbered mini and ask her for directions to the beach. Recognising them as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, she asked for their autographs before they dashed off again. The next day she and her friend headed over to Margate and watched the mods and rockers fighting.

Since that gig she has always been a fan of the Rolling Stones; and since then she has also applied the same attitude to the artists she works with, she explains.

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'I start with the Stones because for the last 50 years I have just been a kind of fan,' she writes in the exhibition's catalogue.

'I remain overwhelmed by getting to know and working with artists on exhibition of their work and their catalogues and helping in any way I can. It has never been a job, just the perfect way of life.'

But if she considers herself a fan, her expertise has seen her attain the title of Professor of Curation and Art History at Norwich University of the Arts.

Despite the institution's various names in the past decade – previously it was Norwich School of Art and Design, then Norwich University College of the Arts – it will always be 'the art school' to Lynda: the whole British art school tradition, not least its fruitful intersection with the realm of rock music, means a great deal to her.

In the late 1960s she studied at Canterbury School of Art. Robert Wyatt was a fellow student and served as her life model while Kevin Ayers stood by performing songs; soon after the two would form the band Soft Machine. Ian Dury arrived the year she left; the preceding decade had seen Britain's art schools produce dozens of similar pop music notables, among them John Lennon and Keith Richards.

But when Lynda came to Norwich in 1980 she found an art school run by three men of an older generation, figures who came to prominence in the 1950s and whose attitudes were formed in wartime.

'When I arrived Edward Middleditch, one of the 'Kitchen Sink Painters', was the head of fine art,' she says. He 'dominated the art school in those days with Derrick Greaves and Nigel Henderson', all of whom she looked up to. Middleditch had been injured during the second world war.

In time she realised that his paintings' low perspectives arose from his experiences of 'lying on his belly with his gun in the hand-to-hand fighting in the Ardennes and Germany', for which he earned a Military Cross; coming from that background, he had little time for academic bureaucracy and had strong feelings about painting's importance that she remembers well today.

'Decisions… were a matter of life and death,' she writes. 'Painting matters. It is the privilege of being able to record how human life feels at a certain moment in time.'

She arrived here after establishing herself in the 1970s. On leaving Canterbury she worked for the Nigel Greenwood Gallery, where the performance artists Gilbert and George made their first British performances as 'singing sculptures'.

Her friendship with them is represented in the show by a half-pint beer glass they gave her, inscribed: 'For our dear Lynda with love from George & Gilbert 9th July 1973 x x.'

The next three years saw her stage the first British exhibitions of several now well-recognised artists including Agnes Martin and Gerhard Richter.

Early in her time in Norfolk Lynda began to suffer nightmares about nuclear apocalypse, ever aware of being surrounded by British and American air bases and knowing that Winston Churchill once called East Anglia 'the bullseye of any future atomic war'.

The anxieties present in Colin Self's work resonated with her, for instance in the Norwich born-and-bred pop artist Leopardskin Nuclear Bombers, now held in the Tate. From an artist's point of view he appreciated Lynda's origins as an art student.

'It sure makes a difference if someone knows where you are coming from if they have been there and tried to do it themselves,' he says. 'In my 50 years of being a professional artist and never knowing where the next hundred quid is coming from, I can only think of two curators, Lynda and Robert Hopper at the Whitworth Gallery, who actually trained as artists and knew where you were coming from.'

But while Norfolk might have felt at the centre of the cold war, its fringe geographical position within England formed part of its appeal. Lynda was always 'anti-metropolitan', concerned with promoting art from 'the regions' rather than reinforcing the London art world's self-regard.

In collaboration with eminent invited selectors, she placed international artists' work alongside her discoveries from artists' studios the length and breadth of Britain when curating the EAST International shows, which ran from 1991 to 2009 and helped cement Norwich as a significant location in the art world.

'People weren't using this term 'East', they were talking about East Anglia, which I felt was too local. It was two years after the Berlin Wall came down,' she adds, and the moment felt right to connect the east of England with eastern Europe.

The city had shown itself to be a home to pioneer painters back in Georgian times when the 'Norwich School' of Crome and Cotman et al formed Britain's first regional art movement; now the EAST shows came to serve as a reminder that much of the country's most interesting work takes place outside the M25.

'London is the great imperial city of the Victorian British empire,' she says, 'and we have lost that empire. Now Scotland and Wales want to go their own way, so all that London has got left to rule is the English regions. There was a moment in the early Blair years when there was a vision of Europe being a set of city states but nothing ever came of that.'

Indeed it was Norwich's history of close links to continental Europe that she and her colleagues sought to reinforce through the shows.

'I was always quite interested in Norwich's relation to Europe,' she says, citing a bag created by Simon Davenport for the 2009 EAST International show, which bore a map of Europe spanning from Norwich at the far left to all the way over to Moscow.

'That matched my feelings about Norwich, that it was a city looking towards Europe rather than into England,' she says. 'The only English people Rembrandt painted were a vicar and his wife from Norwich.

'From R B Kitaj and the School of London from the 1970s that I was associated with, the really British culture if you look at it since the end of the 19th century has been very much inspired by immigration. That inspired me to think of Britain as being like a great ingrowing toenail, an insular island community.

'And Norwich with this tradition of successive waves of migration – Protestant Dutch, Huguenot – actually had this migrant tradition within it.'

Norwich's European tradition of accepting refugees was something that chimed with Lynda's abiding interest in Jewish artists such as R B Kitaj and Gustav Metzger. The latter is best known for his self-destructing artworks, which influenced the guitar-smashing performances of The Who's Pete Townshend, another art student turned rock star. Metzger helped select the EAST show in 2005, and has a connection with Norfolk dating from a spell working in King's Lynn in the 1950s.

Among the show's affecting exhibits is a picture showing a sculpture of a soldier cast in lead from spent bullets, which was situated by the Norwich School playing fields in 1999. The soldier's upright bayonet echoes the cathedral spire in the distance.

But there is humour on display too, for instance in the form of a framed cheque for £12 from the wealthy and influential collector Charles Saatchi, sent after she insisted he pay the full cost and £2 postage for a catalogue from the 2003 EAST exhibition.

While this show frames a long career, it certainly does not mark its conclusion. She is busy writing lectures and planning new exhibitions, but after her many years working 'on the side of the artists', the show reveals the hidden pleasures of a life spent behind the scenes – and in the process it might just awaken future curators to the pleasure of unearthing promise and helping artists find an audience.

? Lynda Morris: Dear Lynda… is at the NUC Gallery, St George's Street, Norwich, until May 25, Tues-Sat 12pm-5pm, admission free, 01603 886385, nua.ac.uk