Sir Norman Reid

Keeper of the Tate Gallery, London, and painter

Born: 27 December, 1915, in London. Died: 17 December, 2007, in Kent, aged 91.

NORMAN Reid was a quiet and urbane man considered by some art historians to have been the best director London's Tate Gallery ever had. Many before and after have blazed a trail with high-profile purchases and head-line grabbing exhibitions. But with his comprehensive knowledge of contemporary art – he was the only practising artist the gallery has ever had at its head – Reid set a standard of cultural authority that laid the foundations for the burgeoning of the Tate in later years. He was a distinguished and imaginative leader of the Tate in those financially stricken post-war years: years in which he revealed an eye for a really "good thing". Of the real treasures that came to the Tate during his time were Picasso's The Three Dancers, sculptures by Giacometti and outstanding works by Henri Laurens, Mondrian, Matisse and Dali.

Reid's own painting skills were considerable but his time was limited. He had exhibitions in London and one of his paintings was purchased by the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (SGMA). Their director (now former director), Richard Calvocoressi, visited Reid in 1992 and returned to Edinburgh with photographs of various works. The committee at the SGMA selected St John's Wood, Behind Alma Square (1947) and paid 1,500 for a work of much charm and elegance. Reid explained that it was the first painting he had completed after serving in the army during the war.

Norman Robert Reid was the son of a shoemaker and educated at Wilson's Grammar School in Camberwell, London. He won a scholarship to the Edinburgh College of Art where he displayed a lively talent, and then took a degree in English at Edinburgh University. He also met Jean Bertram at the Royal College of Art and they married in 1941. Reid served in the war with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Italian campaign and was demobbed with the rank of major.

He applied for various arts jobs but was told that the then director of the Tate Gallery – the redoubtable Sir John Rothenstein – was "understaffed". That proved an understatement as, on his appointment in 1946, apart from Rothenstein and himself there were two secretaries and a clerk. Rothenstein promptly went off on a goodwill tour of Europe with a Turner exhibition and Reid, who had been there for under a month, was left in charge of the entire gallery. It allowed Reid to familiarise himself totally with the collection, much of which had remained unseen in the vaults for seven years.

Reid became deputy director in 1954 and keeper when Rothenstein retired in 1964. Reid immediately improved the gallery's 20th-century paintings by acquiring many artists whose work was often little known. Reid had a genuine understanding of contemporary art and bought significant works by Dali, Mondrian and Brancusi from his visits to Europe. He had also built up a wide collection of friends in the art world and with his charm he negotiated spectacular bequests from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Ground breaking exhibitions were organised by such avant-garde artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Moore.

But the classical masters were not ignored. Reid had the foresight to ensure the Tate owned two magnificent works by George Stubbs when he launched a fundraising drive to purchase The Haymakers and The Reapers in 1977.

Before that, Reid spotted an opportunity to acquire works by Mark Rothko. The notoriously difficult artist had been commissioned to paint nine huge paintings for the foyer of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Reid heard that Rothko was about to withdraw his permission to hang the paintings. Reid flew to New York and suggested that the paintings would be wonderful at the Tate. In fact, Rothko rather liked the idea of having his work hung in the same gallery as Turner. The negotiations were lengthy and far from easy. Reid had to use all his skills (let alone patience) to ensure that the Seagram Murals eventually came to London. Indeed, the day they arrived at the Tate in 1970 the artist committed suicide.

They were housed in the first extension the Tate ever built, the Quadrant, which was opened in 1979. The other great extension – which Reid initiated and pioneered through – was the Clore Gallery that houses the Turner collection.

The Tate became acknowledged as a front-runner in showing emerging British artists early in their career. Reid bravely showed Gilbert and George's Living Statues, for example, many years before the artists were mainstream. Some exhibits made headlines for all the wrong reasons. In 1975, the American sculptor Carl Andre's Bricks were acquired. They were lampooned widely and Reid was much criticised for spending money on a load of old bricks. Another project dear to his heart, the acquisition of the Peggy Guggenheim collection, never came to completion.

His achievements at the Tate were considerable and set it up for three decades of growth and expansion. The vastness (and enormous success) of Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames is as much a tribute to Reid as it is to his successors.

Reid was knighted in 1970 and received various honorary degrees. His wife died earlier this year and he is survived by their son and daughter.

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