AUDIO: Sue Davies OBE Explains How and Why The Photographers Gallery, London Was Founded in 1971

Whilst making the film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay, UNP Founder and Curator Grant Scott spoke at length with Sue Davies OBE the founder of The Photographer’s Gallery not only about her memories of Jay, but also about the founding of her gallery. In this edited audio from that telephone conversation Davies explains exactly how it came about and why she decided to establish her gallery for photography and photographers in 1971.

Above: Sue Davies in 1971 outside The Photographers Gallery. Photographer Unknown.

Susan Elizabeth Davies OBE HonFRPS (née Adey; 14 April 1933 – 18 April 2020) was the founder of The Photographers’ Gallery in 1971, which she directed until 1991.

Davies was born in Abadan, Iran, on 14 April 1933 where her father was working as an engineer at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and the family later moved to New York. They returned to the U.K. when she was 14 and she went to school in Kent and London before training as a secretary. In 1954, at the age of 21, she married jazz musician John R.T. Davies (1927–2004), also a sound restorer of early jazz recordings.

Davies worked on the Municipal Journal and then started a part-time job at the Artists Placement Group in London before taking a job at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 1968 where she was exhibitions secretary to Roland Penrose, the ICA’s co-founder. Her interest in photography was aroused by the presence there of Bill Jay who was using the venue for his Photo Study Centre seminars. At the suggestion of Julie Lawson, Penrose’s personal assistant, Davis installed the ICA’s Spectrum exhibition with Jay (3 April-11 May 1969) a large group exhibition from Stern magazine on the subject ‘Woman’. A parallel show included British artists Dorothy Bohm, Tony Ray-Jones, Don McCullin, and Italian Enzo Ragazzini. It was the British photographers who were among those to suggest Davies open a dedicated photography gallery.

One of five staff at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street London, and one of 36 after it moved to The Mall, Davies experienced its period of anarchic management and overrun budget. She decided to rectify the lack of a permanent gallery space for photography as a serious art form, encouraged by the success of Bill Jay’s ‘Do Not Bend Gallery’ which he opened in 1970. On 14 January 1971, bankrolled by a second mortgage on her house, she launched such a gallery in a derelict J. Lyons tea room which she had been in the habit of visiting after jazz sessions. Deciding against the title ‘Photography Gallery’, in a democratic spirit she named it The Photographers’ Gallery. It was well positioned at 8 Great Newport Street, Covent Garden next to the Arts Theatre and near Leicester Square, but was in a state of disrepair. Her application to the Arts Council for financial support drew the response “Well, why can’t you finance the Gallery by selling prints?” It took the Arts Council two years to grant the Gallery any aid.

Around The Photographers’ Gallery Davies formed a photographic community in London rivalling that already established in New York. 3500sq.ft. of space accommodated exhibitions and room for the public to meet and to listen to speakers. International figures such as Arthur Tress and JH Lartigue, showed in the space, presented talks and workshops, and were offered accommodation in Davies’ small flat at the top of 5 Great Newport Street as a way of encouraging their interaction with the Gallery patrons and attendance at parties that became legendary.

Davies registered the business as a charity and found patrons and supporters in Magnum agency photographers such as David Hurn, and newspaper publishers Tom Hopkinson and David Astor, who with Roy Strong (who in 1968 was encouraged by success in showing Cecil Beaton at the National Portrait Gallery) assisted her in managing the first year expenses of £12,000 paid from the entry fees of 20,000 visitors, and further funding from the Arts Council covering a deficit of around £7,000. 

Exhibitions were wide-ranging in subject matter; the first was The Concerned Photographer curated by Cornell Capa, and the second, a show of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, was followed by exhibitions with themes devoted to industry, fashion and landscape, and young photographers.

During Davies’ period of tenure the Gallery held some 150 major exhibitions, as well as countless smaller shows. In 1991 Davies stepped down from The Photographers’ Gallery when she found her time usurped by fund-raising needed due to changes to London boroughs contributions. On her departure the Gallery occupied two venues, employed 23 staff, showed 21 exhibitions each year in three galleries, housed a profitable bookshop and sold works in from its Print Room stock.

© Grant Scott 2022

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