Avant-garde, modernism, Anton Zwemmer (1892-1979)

Haarlem-born bookseller and publisher Anton Zwemmer (1892-1979) started his career working in the Dutch book trade. He settled in London in 1914 and continued the same job there. Two years later he was appointed manager of German-born Richard Jäschke’s foreign-language bookshop at no.78, Charing Cross Road. In 1922, he bought a partnership and developed the business into a specialized art bookshop which would play a crucial role in spreading awareness of modern art in Britain and drawing attention to artistic developments on the Continent. Zwemmer introduced modernism to London.

In Britain, modern art was controversial, the avant-garde a foreign concept. Hostility to contemporary ‘continental’ art was reflected in the art establishment’s policy making. As late as 1928 the Tate Gallery’s catalogue did not include works by either Picasso or Matisse. It mentioned a single work by George Braque which, in 1926, had been donated by the dealer Paul Rosenberg. The first course on modern art at the Courtauld Institute did not start until October 1932.

There was no other major art bookshop in London at the time. Zwemmer concentrated on European publications. He was the sole British distributor of such magazines as Cahiers d’art, XXe siècle, Minotaure, Labyrinthe, Verve and, later, L’Oeil. In 1928, Albert Skira had established himself as an art publisher in Geneva. His reputation grew quickly. Skira granted Zwemmer the exclusive distribution rights for his publications in Britain. Zwemmer himself acted as a patron of such artists as Henry Moore, Wyndham Lewis, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland. He was widely respected for his knowledge and generosity. Zwemmer was more than just a shop. It became an institution, an education. He combined the role of patron, stimulating and encouraging young artists, with that of an astute businessman handling their works and interests.

Zwemmer was a tall, energetic and somewhat austere figure who was driven by a keen enthusiasm for contemporary art. Through his regular visits to Paris, he came into personal contact with Picasso, Miró, Dalí, and Paul Éluard. In 1929, he undertook a new venture and opened an art gallery at no.26, Litchfield Street, round the corner from his bookshop. This gallery rapidly became famous for its exhibitions of contemporary art, including Dalí’s first one-man exhibition in London (1934), Britain’s first completely non-representational exhibition (1935), the first show devoted entirely to Henry Moore’s drawings (1935), major exhibitions of Picasso and De Chirico (1936/7) and the second British Surrealist exhibition (1940).

From 1925 onwards, Zwemmer was involved in the publishing of both original books, such as Herbert Read’s Henry Moore, Sculptor: An Appreciation (1934), the first study Moore’s work, and British co-editions of European books, including Pablo Picasso (1930) by Eugenio d’Ors, the first book in English on Picasso.