British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

Obituary: Sue Davies OBE HonFRPS (14 April 1933-18 April 2020) - UPDATED 2

Sue Davies who has died, after a short illness, aged 87 years, was the founder director of London’s The Photographers’ Gallery, the first public space dedicated solely to photography and photographers in the United Kingdom. During her twenty years as gallery director she established it as the go-to place for photography, particularly in its early years when photography was largely ignored by the UK’s arts establishment and there were no other galleries of photography. The Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions were diverse, ranging from historical photography, the work of contemporary photographers, and themed shows, often with an international perspective.  They were supported by an eclectic talks programme and a bookshop that was the best for photography anywhere in the country.

Susan Elizabeth Davies (née Adey) was born in 1933 and had a childhood that ranged from London, Iran and New York. She attended secondary school in London. She married John R T Davies (1927-2004) the jazz musician, recording artist, producer  and sound restorer in 1954 and they had three children, Joanna, Stephanie  and Jessica. Davies worked at various magazines including the Municipal Journal  and then had a part-time job at the Artists Placement Group in London before taking a job at the ICA.

Davies joined the ICA in 1968 as exhibitions secretary. It was at the ICA where she met Bill Jay who was using it as a venue for his Photo Study Centre which held regular photography talks. The Spectrum exhibition which ran at the ICA from 3 April-11 May 1969 was a landmark event for photography in Britain examining the role of photography, 500 women photographers and showcasing individual photographers including Tony Ray-Jones, Enzo Ragazzini, Dorothy Bohm and Don McCullin.

This activity awakened her passion for photography, and a determination that the absence of a proper place for photography in Britain needed addressing. By 1970 she was planning a gallery dedicated to photography. With the agreement of her family she re-mortgaged her home and gained the backing  of people such as Tom Hopkinson and Magnum agency photographers such as David Hurn. Jay’s Do Not Bend Gallery opened in 1970 and Davies was generous to acknowledge his influence and gallery as a first, although its brief extended beyond photography to the wider arts.

The Photographers’ Gallery opened on 14 January 1971. It aimed to provide a central London showcase for exhibitions of the best photography, to create a centre for the sale of photographic prints, and to offer a selection of photographic books, catalogues and magazines. It was also to act as an exchange house for exhibitions touring the continent and to initiate touring collections. The first exhibition was The Concerned Photographer curated by Cornell Capa. Following this was a show of Edward Weston’s photography, and thematic shows around industry, fashion and landscape, as well as young photographers.  As Martin Parr HonFRPS has recently commented: ‘to find a place that loved photography, it was absolutely exhilarating to go in there’.

The Gallery was set up as a charity, relaying on grant-aid and private benefactors. Hopkinson was the first chair of trustees and it was supported by an impressive roster of individuals, photographers, companies, and volunteers who made it all happen.  The premises at 8 Great Newport Street provided 3500sq.ft. of space to exhibit photography and for photographers and the public to meet and to listen to speakers. In 1980 the gallery expanded into No. 5 Great Newport Street and the freehold was purchased.

In 1972 the New York Times writing about London’s photography scene said: ‘In London's Photographer's Gallery, however, almost everything photographic is welcomed, including the kind of reportage whose only claim to attention is the interest of its subject matter...The Photographers' Gallery remains the only place in London that shows new photography regularly, and consequently, it has become a kind of catch‐all. ..And where else was it to go?

Davies’ work for photography was recognised with the Royal Photographic Society’s Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 1982 and she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in 1988.

Davies was encouraged to step down as director in 1991. The British Journal of Photography suggested that the decision was, in part, based on the continual need to find funding to keep the gallery afloat. Even in 1972 Davies had said ‘we suffer from a chronic lack of money’ and this was always a challenge.  Her replacement’s first job was to deal with a dire financial situation, due, in part, to changes in how London boroughs funded the Gallery.  The BJP’s assessment of her time at the Gallery was fulsome: ‘Davies deserves the highest praise for what she has achieved in raising the profile of photography in Britain, not just via the walls of Great Newport Street, but by 20 years of example set to the many similarly successful funded galleries around the country’.  Its programming may have been mixed but at its best, as the BJP noted, ‘it was brilliant’.  

After leaving the Gallery Davies continued to be involved in photography as a visiting lecturer and curator.

The roll call of those who worked at the Gallery or took part in its activities is a long one and there are just a few personal recollections below. There are many others with their own memories of Davies and the Gallery.

Zelda Cheatle, who worked at the Gallery’s Print Room in the 1980s said : ‘it’s hard to remember that there was no photography anywhere before Sue....  she really defined British photography; but her Eastern European exhibitions by Kertesz and Brassai, etc, and Giacomelli and Fontana, and O Winston Link and so many more were brought to a British audience’.

Chris Steele-Perkins, the Magnum photographer commented: ‘Sue was responsible for encouraging young photographers as well as bringing the work of greats, like Winston Link, André Kertész, and William Klein to a British audience. For my generation TPG was like a clubhouse and I owe lasting friendships and important contacts to Sue and the atmosphere she created around the gallery. Without TPG's notice board I would never have worked on Survival Programmes.

The curator India Dhargalkar who started her career at the Photographers Gallery under Davies said: ‘she was one of the most influential people in the early days of the photography art scene in the UK.  Under her direction it was a time of exciting and innovative exhibitions, opening the door to new photographers who have since become well established thanks to her support’.

Brett Rogers OBE, the current director of The Photographers Gallery, said: ‘Sue’s vision for the Gallery was rooted in a spirit of collaboration. From the outset, she gathered a group of like-minded people to work with her to ensure that TPG was first and foremost a place for photographers to exhibit, share, meet and sell their work. Equally she wanted to offer an environment to inspire, educate and inform audiences about the pivotal - and unique - role photography plays in our lives and communities.’

It can be hard, with a 2020 perspective, when photography exhibitions attract record crowds, receive massive media coverage and photography permeates our real and virtual worlds, to imagine how poorly it was seen in the late 1960s. That Davies was able to achieve so much for the public benefit, and for British photography, supported by others, is a testimony to her vision and perseverance.

It is poignant and sad that next year’s celebrations of The Photographers’ Gallery’s half century will now be held without her presence.  Her legacy is the Photographers’ Gallery and, even more importantly, the vibrant gallery scene and respect for photography that she helped to establish and define.

© Michael Pritchard

 

With thanks to Roxanne Maguire,  Zelda Cheatle, Chris Steele-Perkins, and India Dhargalkar.

Images: Chris Steele-Perkins HonFRPS, Sue Davies, 1982 (centre), Mayotte Magnus-Lewinska FRPS (top left); montage courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.

UPDATE - 2

Read more here: 

The Guardian obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/30/sue-davies-obi...

Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_Davies

BBC Radio 4's Last Word: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08c0h6g 

Views: 1915

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of British photographic history to add comments!

Join British photographic history

Comment by Paul Hill on May 4, 2020 at 13:31

Comment by William Messer on May 4, 2020 at 12:44

My time of knowing Sue was mostly through the '70s, arriving in London the same year The Photographers' Gallery opened and working with Bill Jay at the ICA. Even though it had been open for only a few months, it already felt established as an integral part of what was happening. Sue had a kind of breezy energy that felt appropriate to keeping it going (even though I know it was difficult). Want to mention some others I remember working with her, pre-Zelda, amoung them Dorothy Bohm, Helena Srakocic and Claire deRouen (were there men? I can't recall). TPG really got the whole thing rolling in Britain, with dedicated photography galleries then springing up all over the country (beginning in '72 with Impressions in York). It was a heady time. Sue seemed like the figurehead on the prow of photography's maiden voyage, at the head of a great fleet that followed. Rest in Photographs.

Comment by Michael Pritchard on April 30, 2020 at 19:34

The Guardian obituary is now out which adds some further detail: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/30/sue-davies-obi...

Comment by Jonathan Ross on April 27, 2020 at 16:02

In 1980, The Photographer's Gallery presented Light Years Ahead, one of the first international exhibitions of holography, in which Sue Davies  bravely collaborated with Eve Ritscher to bring new aspects of this developing medium to a London audience in what turned out to be a taster for the larger, more high profile exhibitions at the RPS in Bath and subsequently at the Science Museum.

Comment by James McArdle on April 27, 2020 at 13:11

Michael, Paul, Bobbie, Scott and Pamela, I do hope you and others who knew Sue are going to record her story which is so interwoven with the history of the medium at that time...which even had influence here in Australia...you were at the epicentre.

Comment by Paul Hill on April 27, 2020 at 13:01

We all owed her a debt for getting this adventure off the ground. I was working with Bill Jay in 1970 and he told me about Sue's plans. We met up at the Lyons Tea Room in Great Newport Street, which had been empty for a long time with dust and detritus over the counters and kitchen equipment. It had marble tiles on the wall that we both thought would be challenging to hang photographs on. At that time Sue was in the process of raising money to realise her ambition to open the first significant photography gallery in the UK in this dingy former cafe, so I gave her a small cheque and took a few pictures using the light from the front door. I don't think there was any electricity.

Brett Rogers tells me she uses those images in her lectures on the history of the gallery, and they illustrate how dark and decrepit the space was before refurbishment. I was having a one-person show in Wolverhampton Museum & Gallery that year and she asked me to send her the details. Hence my solo exhibition in January 1972 alongside a big, glossy, supercharged colour Cibachrome sponsored group show with Sarah Moon and Clive Arrowsmith, amongst others. Although we were in touch many times in the interim, it was not until 20 years almost to the day that my work appeared in TPG again following an invite from Peter Ride and Frances Hodgson in its Print Room, not the main gallery. They really did a good number and even one or two prints were sold. Even in 1992 buying photographs in the UK was something of a novelty.

Sometime ago I attended a brain storming session in London organised by TPG and Paul Mellon Foundation to discuss ideas for the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2021. I have not heard anything since from TPG - has anyone else who attended that session heard anything? - but what was interesting was TPG mission statement in 1971. The first two aims focussed completely on the promotion of British photographers and photography from the UK, in particular. The gallery's 1971-2017 list of exhibitions here might be useful for historians .1971-2017_TPGExhList.pdf

Comment by Bobbie Carnegie on April 27, 2020 at 12:11

I knew of The Photographers Gallery in its early days when frequently mooching around the Charing Cross Road and St. Martins Lane as a young man with nothing much to do and with little in the pocket to be able to buy. Whenever in the area that gallery as of some strange involuntary cerebral nudging or pricking invariably caused one to respond and amble by to take a peek through the frontage's plate glass to see what's on. One didn't always detour to take a look even though said cerebral jolt might turn one's head to the direction where the gallery was located as one crossed the road near St. Martins in the Field aiming for bookshops. Thank you Michael for an informative obituary about Sue Davies. 

(Michael - it's just a detail where you say Sue died after a short illness - whereas, James's Wiki page says 'long' illness.)       

Comment by Grant Scott on April 27, 2020 at 10:55

Hi James

I think you may find this film interesting www.donotbendfilm.com 

In my research I spoke with many people mentioned in your blog post. Also to be pedantic Bill actually became editor of Camera Owner in November 1964.

Best wishes

Grant

Comment by James McArdle on April 27, 2020 at 9:52

Wonderful portrait of Sue at David Hurn's flat. A few observations of Sue and Photographers Gallery (from the distance of Australia) at https://onthisdateinphotography.com/2020/04/14/april-14-photographers/

Comment by Grant Scott on April 27, 2020 at 7:50

Sue by Bill at David Hurn's flat

© 2021   Created by Michael Pritchard.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service