Peter Watson (arts benefactor)
Life and work
Watson was the son of William George Watson, later Sir George Watson, and was the youngest of three children—his brother Norman was born in 1897 and sister Florence in 1894. He was educated at Lockers Park School[disputed ], Eton College and St John's College, Oxford University.
Watson was an avid art collector acquiring works by such artists as Miró, Klee, and Pablo Picasso, which were displayed in his Paris apartment in the 1930s. He was the principal benefactor of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and also provided financial assistance to English and Irish painters including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Craxton. In 1930, society photographer, artist and set designer Sir Cecil Beaton began a lifelong obsession with Watson, though the two never became lovers. One chapter from Hugo Vickers' authorized biography of Cecil Beaton is titled "I Love You, Mr. Watson".
In 1940 Watson provided funding for Cyril Connolly's Horizon and became its arts editor. Stephen Spender was also involved with the magazine initially. Watson was art editor for the magazine between 1940 and 1949. He rarely contributed articles, but gave many opportunities for his friends to have their pictures reproduced in the magazine, and also encouraged Horizon to look beyond British Art, particularly to Paris. Watson commissioned articles on artists barely known at the time in England, such as Balthus, Morandi and Klee. He persuaded Picasso's dealer, Daniel Kahnweiler, to comment on the contemporary art market; and he also got Michel Leiris to write about Giacometti. Spender recalled to Connolly's biographer, Clive Fisher, that Watson hated "priggishness, pomposity and almost everything to do with public life," and he suspected that he had educated himself "through a love of beautiful works and of people in whom he saw beauty ...". He added "When I think of him then, I think of his clothes, which were beautiful, his general neatness and cleanness, which seemed almost those of a handsome young Bostonian."
Fisher writes that Peter Watson "was a figure of striking attractiveness; women in particular seem to have found his manners irresistible... almost everyone appears to have liked him." One of Watson's lovers was the American male prostitute and socialite Denham Fouts, whom he continued to support even after they separated as a result of Fouts's drug addiction
Watson was found mysteriously drowned in his bath on 3 May 1956. Some have suggested that he was murdered by his young American lover, Norman Fowler (from whom Bacon stole £300 to go gambling). Fowler inherited the bulk of Watson's estate and died 14 years later in the West Indies; he was also found drowned in his bathtub. For several years before Peter died I (Alex Leslie), had a relationship with him, when I left London to live in Plymouth he used to drive down and we would stay at Hotels In Plymouth and Torquay, the last car licience number was a Sunbeam Talbot PGF5, before that I think it was a Riley saloon car, he sold for £600 when he bought PGF5. I remember he had an Omega watch, I used to stay at Palace Gate he had a small bronze by Henry Moore and a Barbra Hepworh sculpture also a repaired sculptured plate by Picasso, amongst his mixture of antique and modern furniture, I used to make breakfast in his tiny kitchen at Palace Gate, the lift from the basement car park was glass paneled because people wrote on the walls. Peter had no consideration for manual workers, he thought them inefficient and lazy, he never spoke to his cleaning lady, a slight women who always wore her hat when cleaning. He was delighted when he had made some money selling a painting, crowing over the profit, to me he was just another Fagin as in in Oliver Twist, when one got to know him really well. He frequently moaned when he paid hotel bills. He enjoyed private jokes about butter when it was still rationed in this country, he had butter sent from France, links to his father and margarine. He was selfish and a snob, he and Alan Pryce Jones made a good pair, I went to Albany a few times with Alan, his vast drawing room was like a museum. When Peter Watson asked me to move in with him, I said No, he had jaundice and the move he made later to Rutland Gate exhausted him, he was all gloss and glamour, underneath he was a miserable, shifty, specimen, and I had a lucky escape, the money wasn't worth the flesh demanded.
Watson's sister, Florence Nagle, fought a prolonged battle against Britain's Jockey Club, the controlling body for horse racing. His brother Norman provided funding for the early development of Lake Louise, a ski resort in Alberta, Canada.
Notes and references
- Michael Bloch, James Lees-Milne: The Life (John Murray, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7195-6034-7), p. 17
- "20th Century British and Irish Art; Writings by Art Commentator and Historian Adrian Clark".
- Clark, Adrian (2010). British and Irish Art 1945-1951. From War to Festival. Hogarth Arts. ISBN 978-0-9554063-4-8.
- Clive Fisher, Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life.
- Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton, London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1985.
- Obituary in The Times, Saturday, 5 May 1956; p. 10; Issue 53523; column A. ("Mr. Peter Watson Modern Patron Of Art").