Dorothy Morland: the first female director of the ICA, yet invisible in the history of art

Dorothy Morland (1906-1999) was the first and only female Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. As a female arts administrator, Dorothy Morland’s work has been largely overlooked but Anne Massey’s recent book Dorothy Morland: Making ICA History aims to highlight her significant contribution to the public understanding of modernism. Below is an excerpt from the introduction of Dorothy Morland: Making ICA History where Anne Massey discusses Morland’s impact in the art world, yet the lack of acknowledgment of her contribution in its history.

“This book is the first full-length account of the career and contribution of Dorothy Morland to the history of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the post-war British cultural scene. As the first and only female director of the ICA from 1952 until 1968, Dorothy is situated at the centre of a significant network which comprised wealthy philanthropists at its core, surrounded by colleagues and co-workers, and then a multitude of modern artists, curators and writers beyond who benefited significantly from this support. And yet Dorothy remains invisible in the history of art. As Elizabeth Darling argued in relation to the work of Elizabeth Denby: ‘even today we need to keep bothering away at remembering those who have disappeared from history’.[1]

Dorothy Morland, c.1943. Collection of Susie Davidson.

I have been bothered by the absence of Dorothy from histories of the ICA since I first met her in 1982 and discovered more of her story and her contribution. I cited her part in the formation of the Independent Group in my 1995 book, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945–59[2] and I contributed an article, ‘The Mother of Pop? Dorothy Morland and the Independent Group’, to a special issue of the Journal of Visual Culture which I edited in 2013, but this did not have the impact I had hoped.[3] In ICA 1946–1968 in 2014 I again described her immense contribution to the  organisation. Therefore, having authored an article and an insertion into the published history of the ICA, I took the decision to research and write a full-length account of this woman’s extraordinary life and contribution to post-war British culture.

The title Dorothy Morland: Making ICA History relates to her enormous contribution to the smooth running of the ICA between 1952 and 1968, and its international success. Based on the vision of a handful of wealthy philanthropists, notably E. C. (Peter) Gregory, Roland Penrose and Peter Watson, the ICA was founded without a physical location and without a museum collection to further the cause of modernism in Britain in 1946. By 1950 the ICA founders had located premises, and the first London showings of work by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, the Situationists, Yves Tinguely and a host of others took place at the humble Dover Street venue under the directorship of Dorothy. A whole generation of artists and critics owed a great deal of their success to her and to the ICA, including Archigram, the Boyle Family, Lawrence Alloway, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. This book makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the history of the ICA and its importance. It also relates the mammoth effort that Dorothy undertook to ensure that the history of the ICA was preserved and accounted for.

1950: Aspects of British Art, installation shot, ICA, 17–18 Dover Street. Collection of Anne Massey.

After Dorothy was ousted from the ICA in 1968, she rescued its archives from the rubbish bin and ensured their safekeeping. For Dorothy this was a ‘labour of love’, and it reveals her lasting attachment to the institution that gave her so much personal satisfaction during her working life. Her generous philanthropy is exemplified by the way in which she offered part of her family home for Eduardo Paolozzi to live and work in, her thoughtful gifts and offers of help to struggling artists, and her doggedness in ensuring that the ICA’s history was not lost. This ensured her immortality, as the portion of the ICA archives that she saved are now lodged in the Tate as the Dorothy Morland Collection, and this archive has laid the foundation for subsequent work on this significant part of British art history. Dorothy Morland’s impetus was never personal glory, but the desire to generously help others in the cause of modern art.”

[1] Elizabeth Darling, ‘The significance of errors’, the modernist, 32 (October 2019), p. 63.

[2] Anne Massey, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945–59 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 28, 46, 49, 54–5, 57, 66, 68, 77, 80, 96, 109, 117.

[3] Anne Massey, ‘The mother of Pop? Dorothy Morland and the Independent Group’, Journal of Visual Culture, 12.2 (2013), pp. 262–78, special issue, ‘The Independent Group’, ed. Anne Massey.

Anne Massey is a Professorial Fellow at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury.

Find out more about Anne Massey’s book Dorothy Morland: Making ICA History on the LUP website. Discover more in our Value: Art: Politics series.


Follow us for more updates
Sign up to our mailing list
Twitter | Instagram