Authored By: Chloe Rendall
‘There are a few individuals in every age and country, whose vision and vitality, applied in a particular sphere have immense influence. I could mention eight or nine such individuals (apart from artists themselves) whose efforts during my lifetime have helped to change the whole climate of the English art world [...] one of them is Anton Zwemmer [...]’ - Henry Moore on Anton Zwemmer (Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, p. 95)
Anton Zwemmer was a Dutch art bookseller, art dealer and publisher of notable prominence. As indicated by Moore’s tribute, Zwemmer played an integral role in shaping and promoting modern art. Zwemmer spent his teenage years learning the booktrade in Holland, but came to London in 1914, having been granted exemption from national service by the Dutch Army. This fortuitous event enabled Zwemmer to pursue his passion for bookselling. He began working for Simpkin Marshall, the leading book wholesaler in Britain, before going on to manage the bookshop at Harrods. When he subsequently began to work for Richard Jaschke, a German bookseller on Charing Cross Road, Zwemmer was able to utilise both his booktrade knowledge and language skills. As the escalation of the war made Jaschke’s German background problematic, Zwemmer’s duties increased; eventually he was made a partner, before acquiring the shop fully in 1924. Zwemmer’s shop specialised in art and modern literature, becoming a trusted name in the industry. In particular, it was known for the geographical range of its stock, providing readers in England with material from Europe. T. S. Eliot’s letters show that he ordered Thierry Maulnier’s La crise est dans l'homme (1932) from Zwemmer (p. 235). Indeed, it seems that Zwemmer recognised the desire or perhaps need for new art in post-war Britain. In the wake of the First World War, at a time when national galleries were closed and the accessibility of art and culture was significantly reduced, Zwemmer’s filled a gap in the market. As one of only a handful of London locations to provide access to art publications and reproductions, particularly from overseas, Zwemmer’s was a success. It was not just the geographical variety of its stock that ensured the shop’s popularity, but its championing of the modern and innovative.
In 1925 Zwemmer began publishing works on art and architecture. Collaboration and exchange between Europe and Britain was firmly at the heart of Zwemmer’s enterprise, in all aspects of his trade, from publishing to art dealing. Art books on Matisse and Picasso which Zwemmer co-published with Gualtiero di San Lazzaro, a French publisher, ‘created a sensation when they appeared in the windows of Zwemmer’s shop.' (Jane Carlin, p. 39) The Picasso book was the first monograph on the artist to be produced in the English language. Notably, Zwemmer found another important international alliance in Swiss publisher Albert Skira. Skira knew both Matisse and Picasso and asked them to illustrate books for him, the latter resulting in Les Metamorphoses D'Ovide. Though the experimental nature of this book made it an unsuccessful seller, Zwemmer placed an advanced order. Skira’s surprise at this request led him to London itself and henceforth the pair were friends and business collaborators, with Zwemmer continuing to stock Skira’s books.
When Zwemmer opened his own art gallery in 1929, just round the corner from his bookshop, it was one of a small group of galleries in the capital city that promoted avant-garde art from overseas. At 26 Litchfield Street, Zwemmer Gallery (1929-1968) quickly gained a strong and passionate following among artists, collectors and academics. The gallery’s original purpose had been as an extension of the bookshop, a further space that would house the unique colour art reproductions in which Zwemmer specialised. Yet, Zwemmer quickly began to move beyond that and started showing original works by artists from Britain and abroad. Zwemmer’s connection to Picasso and Matisse (established through his publications with Skira) continued when his gallery showed works by both modernist artists. Hosting some of the most recognisable and revered artists of the twentieth century, Zwemmer gallery established itself as a venue of influential contemporary art exhibitions. The gallery was never tied to one particular art movement, instead showing work from several areas including Surrealism and Cubism. As Moore notes in his Writings and Conversations, Zwemmer was an advocate of his work and in 1936 exhibited his drawings (the first exhibition dedicated to Moore’s drawings). As well as Moore, Zwemmer supported other British artists including Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein. Joan Miró exhibited at Zwemmer gallery, and Dalí’s first solo exhibition in London took place there in 1934. In 1935 the first British exhibition containing only abstract art was held at Zwemmer gallery. The Seven and Five Society, originally comprised of traditional artists, had by this time been forced towards a departure from tradition by new members Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and John Piper. These artists ousted non-modernist members, renaming the society the ‘Seven and Five Abstract Group’ for their exhibition at Zwemmer gallery.
Zwemmer Gallery remained open until 1968, and the bookshop remained in the family, via Zwemmer’s sons Desmond and John, until 1985 when it was sold to Philip Wilson. The bookshop has since closed.