This is the Introduction written by ANTHONY BLUNT in the catalogue for the Tomas Harris Art Exhibition held in 1975 at the Courtauld Institute in London in memory of Tomas Harris
The first thing that struck one about Tomas Harris was the total enthusiasm with which he threw himself into any enterprise on which he embarked. Whether it was discovering an unknown painting by El Greco in an obscure Spanish collection, mastering a new painting technique, scrutinizing Goya’s etchings or exploiting the possibilities of an intelligence scheme against the Nazis. At that particular moment all his energies and all his imaginative force went into that one objective, which did not prevent him, a day – or an hour – later, when that particular problem had been solved, from turning with equal enthusiasm to one of his other interests, or simply to an activity in which he was an expert, entertaining his friends.
Tomas was one of the most complete human beings I have ever known. He will be mainly remembered as someone who was an expert on Spanish art, particularly on the art of El Greco and Goya, but his range of interests was much wider than that. In the arts his natural gifts were almost frightening. In 1923 he was awarded the Trevelyn-Goodall scholarship at the Slade School in London, only to find that, as he was only 15, he was theoretically too young to be eligible. In later life he had only to take up some technique – in painting, engraving, sculpture, or ceramics, to find that in a very short time he had mastered the problems involved and could use the technique with as much skill as the accepted experts. Indeed it may have been this virtuosity which prevented him from attaining in his art that concentration which was essential if his ideas were to receive complete expression. Variety of invention, range and brilliance of technique, vigour of expression – these are the qualities which stand out from the works here listed, whether in painting, engravings, sculpture, glass or ceramics.
But his art was only a part of his life. His activities as a picture-dealer were brilliantly successful and were combined with a reputation for absolute probity which sometimes aroused jealousy among his competitors. His warmth and generosity brought him a wide circle of friends in varied fields – the art world, business, and government departments. He was not in the strict sense of the word an intellectual, but his intuition was uncanny and having made a discovery by instinct he knew how to follow it up and consolidate it by reasoning and accumulation of evidence. It is characteristic that one of his most important acquisitions during his life as an art-dealer – a series of fifteenth-century German panels, which had incidentally once been in the National Gallery – was bought among the contents of an out-house at a country sale. Another instance was in the magnificent pair of ???????, now in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, which he saw, totally repainted, in a sale, and bought because when he opened them they smelled old.
Tomas was born in 1908, the son of an English father and a Spanish mother. His father, Lionel Harris, founded the Spanish Art Gallery, and it is no exaggeration to say that for half a century all the most important works of art which were brought to the UK from Spain came through him or, after his retirement, through Tomas. He was among the first English dealers to realise the importance of El Greco, and he also owned masterpieces by artists such as Velazquez and Goya. His interests, however, were not limited to the painting, and in his gallery one would be certain of seeing magnificent medieval tapestries, Oriental carpets and Renaissance gold and silver work.
Tomas was, therefore, brought up in an atmosphere which made him appreciate beautiful things, but his own inclination was to become a practising artist rather than a dealer. His early acceptance into the Slade School in London looked like the beginning of a brilliant career and was followed by a year studying painting and sculpture at the British Academy in Rome, where he learnt nothing from the teaching but had the opportunity to absorb all that Rome had to offer to a young art student. In 1930, however, he decided to go into art-dealing, first running a firm on his own and later joining his father as a director of the Spanish Art Gallery.
At the outbreak of war Tomas joined the War office, where his intimate knowledge of Spain was of great value. His greatest achievement, however, was as one of the principle organisers of what has been described as the greatest double-cross operation of the war – ‘Operation Garbo’ – which seriously misled the Germans about the Allied plans for the invasion of France. The story has been told, in the semi-official account of the double-cross network, but in fact the success of the operation was mainly due to the extraordinary imaginative power with which Tomas directed it. In fact, he ‘lived’ the deception, to the extent that, when he was talking in the small circle of people concerned, it was difficult to tell whether he was talking about real events or one of the fantastic stories which he had just put across to the Nazi-Intelligence Service. After the invasion of France one of the highest commanders said that the Garbo operation was worth an armoured division. Tomas’s imagination could be turned to practical as well as artistic ends.
After the war he decided to give up art-dealing and devote himself to his two real passions: painting and collecting. Even during the war he had not entirely abandoned painting and in 1943, in spite of his other activities, he held a one-man show. This exhibition, in the constricted galleries of Reid and Lefevre, then in King Street, St James’s, was impressive and even somewhat frightening through the sheer nervous intensity of the paintings, which reflected the strain under which Tomas was living and working.
Once he had freed himself from his commitments as a dealer he spent more and more time in Spain, first in Malaga and Madrid and later in Mallorca where he built himself a house at Camp de Mar. He drew a great deal of inspiration from the landscape of Mallorca and many of the landscapes in the present exhibition are of scenes near Camp de Mar. To most observers the technique of these paintings – and of much of his earlier work – is strongly reminiscent of Van Gogh, but, if one suggested this to him, he absolutely denied ever having intended to imitate this artist.
In the years before the war Tomas’s interests had been mainly directed towards painting, but he now began to experiment in a much wider range of media, including etching, ceramics, stained glass, and tapestry. In the field he had the extraordinary privalege of being the first independent artist since Goya to have his cartoons woven at the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. It is in these weeks that his astonishing versatility is most brilliantly displayed.
While devoting a great deal of his time to his activities as a creative artist, Tomas was also able to develop his interest in collecting. During his years of art-dealing he had brought together certain groups of works of art, particularly drawings, textiles and jewellery, and he now began to study these in a much more systematic way. The textiles consisted of pieces – large or small – of embroideries, brocades, figured silk dresses and waistcoats, or panels from ecclesiastical vestments, dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, mainly Spanish, Italian, or French in origin. Tomas framed these fragments in cardboard mounts, like huge drawings, and organised them into a series which illustrated some of the most important aspects of silk-weaving and embroidery over three centuries. A selection of these was shown at the Courtauld Institute Galleries in 1968, and later, his family presented the whole of this magnificent collection to the Courtauld Institute in his memory.
His first collection made from scratch, so to speak, was of drawings and etchings by Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, and the discriminating taste with which he selected these came out very clearly when the collection was shown at the Arts Council Gallery in St James’s Square in 1955. Next he turned his attention to Durer and rapidly formed an outstanding collection of his woodcuts and engravings. He also began to interest himself in Rembrandt etchings, but his death prevented him from carrying this collection very far.
By far his greatest achievement as a collector and as a scholar was however connected with Goya. He began with a plan to make as complete a collection as possible of the artists etchings and lithographs, but gradually he became involved in a project of quite a different kind. Looking for information to the accepted authority on the subject, he discovered that the more he read the more mistakes he detected: and so he found himself gradually forced into the position of having to do Delteil’swork over again and prepare his own catalogue. The result was the two-volume work which appeared a year after his death. In this book he showed that Delteil’s account was not merely inaccurate, but basically wrong, and that in addition to confusing different impressions and issues he had invented a number which in fact never existed. Tomas’s practical knowledge of etching, in which he had taken a course at the Slade School after the war, was of the greatest value to him, and he was helped by the lynx-eye of his collaborator, Juliet Wilson, who could spot a touch of dry-point so small that no one else could detect it without a glass. In many ways this book was his greatest achievement: it contained an analysis of the various states of the etchings, of a kind that could only be made by someone who knew the techniques involved and who could study the originals at leisure in his own collection: and this analysis led to a completely new estimate of Goya’s method of working. The brilliant photographs of details from the etchings, which Tomas made himself, illustrate in the most cogent manner points which he made in the text.
In 1954 part of Tomas’s collection of Goya etchings was shown at the Arts Council Gallery, but far more important was the great exhibition held at the British Museum in 1963-1964 which was almost entirely drawn from Tomas’s collection. This collection, which was described by Mr Edward Croft-Murray, then Keeper of Prints and Drawings, as ‘the richest and most complete of its kind ever to be assembled’ was placed on indefinite loan at the British Museum Print Room, and recently Tomas’s family have offered it to the museum as a permanent memorial to him. To celebrate this magnificent gift a selection of the etchings will be shown in the Courtauld Institute Galleries immediately after the closing of the present exhibition.
Tomas Harris was killed in a motor accident in Mallorca on the 27th January 1964. To say that his death was a shock to his friends is a feeble statement of what they felt; and the loss to the art world was equally great. At 56 he seemed to be just starting on a new career as a scholar and art-historian. Might he have done for others – Durer and Rembrandt – what he did for Goya? Alas! we shall never know.