Advocates for the Arts #3: Ana M. Berry

Ahead of my talk at Pallant House Gallery on 8 February, the third Advocates for the Arts post explores the life & work of Ana M. Berry, the South American modern art enthusiast, writer & educator. The author of Art for Children (1929), Animals in Art (1929) and Understanding Art (1952), Berry was the Secretary of the Arts Division of the Arts League of Service (ALS). For more on Berry’s colleague Eleanor Elder, Secretary of the ALS’s Drama Division, see the first entry in my Advocates for the Arts series.

Born in South America to English and Chilean parentage, Ana. M Berry (Anita to her friends) dedicated her life to supporting modern art and artists. An early adopter of modernist art, she met the Scottish Colourist J. D. Fergusson while studying art in Paris before the First World War. Through her friendship with Fergusson and his wife the artist and dancer Margaret Morris, Berry became the Honorary Secretary of the newly-founded Arts League of Service (ALS) in 1919.

Margaret Morris, Anita and Myself. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s. Richard Emerson identifies Berry (left) in this picture in ‘The Architect and the Dancer’, Journal of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, 98 (Spring 2014), 22.

Under Berry’s stewardship, the ALS Arts Division embarked upon an ambitious programme of exhibitions, talks and events. As her fellow Honorary Secretary Eleanor Elder later remarked, the ALS’s ‘programme was so large that looking back it seems that only a Ministry of Fine Arts could have carried it out.’[i] The programme included:

  • public lectures by T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Margaret Morris and Eugene Goosens  
  • adult education lectures on the understanding of art by the historian Margaret Bulley at schools, colleges, hospitals and societies
  • exhibitions of painting, pottery, sculpture, posters and ‘practical arts’ in London, Oxford, Reading, Edinburgh and Bangor, including solo or joint shows for Cedric Morris, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Marion Dorn, and W. S. Murray
  • a Travelling Portfolio of Pictures that members could borrow to exhibit or purchase
  • and a series of talks on the BBC illustrated by a pamphlet, ‘Looking at Pictures’, in 1928.

Amazingly, Berry managed all of this on an almost non-existent budget: just imagine what she could have achieved if she had had sufficient financial and administrative support. ‘Miss Berry had a dynamic quality,’ Elder wrote in 1939. ‘She refused to believe in the word impossible.’[ii]

Journal of Loïs Hutton from Margaret Morris Summer School at Pourville, France July- Sept 1921, Margaret Morris Collection, The Fergusson Gallery. Berry is in the third row, in black, with a patterned scarf and large hat. Photograph courtesy Culture Perth and Kinross; see also Richard Emerson, Rhythm & Colour (2019), 102.

Despite the financial difficulties, Berry supported many young artists when they were starting out, including Frank Dobson, Frances Hodgkins, Henry Moore, Cedric Morris, John Skeaping and Edward Wadsworth. Writing after her death in 1947, John Skeaping described Berry as his ‘artistic Nanny’:

Anita Berry had a genuis for finding young artists with talent. Her whole life was spent in helping them and she felt amply rewarded if they were achieving success and recognition. Unlike so many who set themselves up as great Art Patrons and connoisseurs and patronize art and artists for self glorification.[iii]

Berry’s lack of desire for fame or ‘self glorification’ is perhaps one of the reasons why she is not better known today. In 1952 J. D. Fergusson observed that ‘People like Anita make a far greater contribution than most people imagine.’[iv]

By the early 1930s, Berry appeared to be single-handedly holding the ALS’s Arts Division together. When she was called back to Argentina in 1931, it ceased its activities. But Berry continued to write about art until her death in 1947. Her book Understanding Art was published posthumously in 1952, edited by her ALS colleagues Judith Wogan, Bride Scratton and Eleanor Elder.

In it, she displays a real enthusiasm for and affinity with art from all periods. She writes beautifully about pictures such as Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-6):

Dignity and repose are expressed in this portrait by the consistent use of slow curves and simple planes, as in the curve of the body which is balanced by the curve of the background. The sense of space is such that one can, so to speak, walk round the figure.[v]

She was committed to explaining modern art clearly and simply to the widest possible audience: for that, and her many other achievements, she deserves to be celebrated.

Thank you to Culture Perth and Kinross and Sotheby’s for providing the photographs used in this blog. Special thanks to Amy Fairley at Culture Perth and Kinross for leads on Ana M. Berry.

[i] Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players (London: Frederick Muller, 1939), 5.

[ii] Elder, Travelling Players, 4.

[iii] John Skeaping, quoted in Ana M. Berry, Understanding Art, edited by Judith Wogan and Bride Scratton in collaboration with Eleanor M. Elder (London: The Studio, 1952), 14.

[iv] Fergusson, quoted in Berry, Understanding Art, 12.

[v] Berry, Understanding Art, 28.

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