Angela Flowers obituary | Art and design

In 1936, Geoffrey and Olive Holland moved to a house they had had built for themselves near Reigate in Surrey. It was, as their daughter, Angela, would recall, mentioned in Pevsner’s county guide. “Much less gauche than most 1930s houses” was the gazetteer’s backhanded verdict.

The first British commission of Frederick Curtis, a refugee from Nazi Germany, the house, which they called Peverel, was rather braver than that. So, too, was the collection of art that it housed: among others, works by such risky stars of the avant garde as John Piper and John Minton. When the Hollands’ daughter opened a gallery in London four decades later, it was with the knowledge that collecting called for courage.

Angela Flowers, who has died aged 90, never lacked for that. In 1970, when she took over a small space above the Artists International Association gallery at 15 Lisle Street, Soho, central London, she had been working as a bookkeeper at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Founded in the 30s, the AIA was a leftwing co-op; Flowers, virtuously poor, was given the attic room rent-free. The rapid commercial success of her gallery came as a shock.

“We’d have these dreadful meetings in which people would cry,” Flowers later cheerily recalled. “The AIA hated me.” When the association disbanded the following year, she moved the Angela Flowers Gallery to Portland Mews and then, in 1979, to Tottenham Mews. It quickly became a fixture on the London art scene.

Her childhood home apart, there had been little in Flowers’s past to suggest a career as a gallerist. She was born in Croydon, where her family had lived for generations; a few years after her birth her father inherited a legacy that enabled him to build the house in Surrey. While Angela was still a child, the second world war began. Geoffrey served in Italy as an intelligence officer; Olive (nee Stiby) volunteered for munitions factory work; and Angela was sent to boarding school – at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, and Wychwood in Oxford. This was followed by a diploma at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

In 1952, after a shaky start as an actor – she played a Dagenham Girl Piper in the first Benny Hill film – she met the photographer Adrian Flowers. It was a leap year: on 29 February, Angela proposed marriage to him, and was turned down. A few weeks later, Adrian relented. Shortly afterwards, his new wife found she was pregnant. By 1970, the couple had three sons, Adam, Matthew and Daniel, and a daughter, Francesca.

The ICA’s receptionist, now a friend, had been married to the painter Patrick Hughes; Flowers invited him to become her first artist. Hughes accepted, and was to stay with the various iterations of the Flowers gallery for more than half a century. This set a pattern that would last. Asked, in an interview in 2016, for the criteria she used in selecting her stable, Flowers put loyalty at the top of her list. This was both demanded and returned.

Unlike those of most London gallerists, Flowers’s artists stuck by her: painters such as Tom Phillips, Derek Hirst and Bernard Cohen were all with the gallery for more than 30 years, as was the sculptor Nicola Hicks. (Hicks, additionally, married Flowers’s youngest son, Daniel.)

The gallery dealt only in the work of living British artists, and nothing made before 1952. For all that, most of its stable had been born rather earlier. Although there was no such thing as a Flowers style, the work she showed tended towards the established. As a result, it was ignored by such arbiters of avant-garde taste as Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi. This was a source of some annoyance to Flowers, although it did her gallery no obvious harm.

Her taste in art was broadly expected, but her business sense was not. The annual Artist of the Day programme, set up in 1983, quickly caught the eye of critics. Giving young unknowns 24-hour exhibitions in an established gallery, Artist of the Day was a typical Flowers mix of generosity and hard-headedness. When, in 1988, she reopened her gallery in Hackney as Flowers East, the move anticipated by a decade the discovery of the area as home to the London contemporary art scene.

By then, Flowers’s marriage to Adrian had ended. Opening her first gallery in 1970, she had met the management writer Robert Heller. To the anguish of her children, the two began an affair. Their relationship was to last until Heller’s death in 2012, although they married only in 2003. Flowers’s divorce from her first husband came through on her 40th birthday, in December 1972. Nine months later, in September 1973, a daughter, Rachel, was born.

If the partnership with a management guru seemed unlikely, it turned out to be entirely suitable. Converting a large East End fur warehouse into an art space called for more money than Flowers had. Heller, wise in the ways of corporate funding, suggested a business expansion scheme.

While this provided the necessary capital – in 2016, Flowers East would have a staff of 24 and a turnover of more than £6m – it also required the gallery to become a public company. Flowers’s second son, Matthew, took over the running of the business, which in 2020 reached Hong Kong, although Flowers herself remained firmly in charge of its artists.

She kept this role despite many calls on her time. Rachel had been born with Down’s syndrome. Shortly after the birth, Flowers recalled, a “very haughty sister” strode into her room and demanded to know when she was going to have the baby institutionalised. Another had whispered, “They don’t live long you, know”. Unusually for the time, Rachel stayed at home with her parents. “Having the first four didn’t stop my career,” her mother said, briskly, “and having Rachel wouldn’t, either.”

To her pleasure, her younger daughter would be a successful artist, although Rachel did not show with the family firm. “I don’t mind a bit of nepotism,” noted Flowers, “but I’d like to see her with another gallery.”

At the turn of the century, Robert developed Parkinson’s disease. In 2009, the couple moved from Highgate in north London to a more manageable house near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. There, Flowers continued the Easter and New Year’s parties for which the pair were noted, wearing kaftans and large necklaces to dispense champagne and warmth. Typically, she also converted the garden shed into an art gallery.

Flowers is survived by her children.

Angela Mary Flowers, gallery owner, born 19 December 1932; died 11 August 2023

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