Frank Constantine was very canny when it came to buying pictures. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to go about getting it.
When a London dealer showed him David Hepher’s No 21, an almost life-sized 1971 canvas of a bay-windowed semi, he decided it would be a good acquisition for Sheffield, where he was director of the City Art Galleries. With its neat fence, privet hedge and stained glass front door panel, the picture was, as Hepher said, “something very ordinary that everyone could relate to”.
Constantine, being celebrated in an unusual exhibition opening at Sheffield’s Graves Art Gallery next Saturday, shared that inclusive outlook, but couldn’t afford the gallery’s asking price.
He noticed, however, that the picture was in two halves, so he offered to buy just the right-hand half at a suitably reduced price. Hung in Sheffield, it proved a popular choice, much photographed by gallery visitors.
A couple of years later, on another visit to the dealer’s showroom, Constantine spotted the unsold left-hand half of the work, a lonely-looking fragment of bay window. “You’ll never sell that,” he told the dealer and duly made her an offer for it. Advantageous deal done, the two halves were reunited in Sheffield.
Frank Constantine died last year at the age of 95. He retired from the Galleries more than 30 years ago but is still fondly remembered both professionally and personally. He won Sheffield, his home city, a national reputation in the art world; an obituary in The Guardian described him as “visionary”.
He did it without fuss or self-importance. “He gained the love and respect of everyone who knew him,” says Liz Waring, the exhibition’s curator. “People often describe him as ‘a proper gentleman’.”
Waring has brought together 60 or so of the 500 works of art which Constantine bought for Sheffield as Galleries director from 1964 to 1982. The exhibition puts him centre stage, revealing a man with an instinct for both quality work and bargains.
“He built it up by a combination of canniness, a wonderful eye and tremendous ability with people,” says Anne Goodchild, former curator of the Graves gallery. “He didn’t make the mistake of either patronising or flattering them.”
Networking before the term was invented, he forged relationships with both established and up-and-coming artists, including David Hockney and the Kitchen Sink painters. The exhibition includes Hockney photographs and drawings and Peter Coker’s powerful Butcher’s Shop No 1, which replaces the kitchen sink with a butcher’s slab.
Constantine’s friendship with dealers meant he was often the first to get wind of potential bargains – which is how Christopher Wood’s 1930 La Plage, one of the Graves’s most popular pictures, found its way into the collection after the death of its previous owner, a partner in a London commercial gallery.
A dapper man with a neat beard, a kind smile, and twinkly eyes, Constantine had a personal warmth that seems to have charmed everyone. Anne Goodchild first met him in the 1970s when he interviewed her for her first job after she left the prestigious Courtauld Institute.
“He had great personal presence,” she says. “And he was one of the most wonderful bosses anyone could have. He was so supportive and the freedom he gave his staff was incredible; it was based on trust. ”
The coffee bar was one of Constantine’s innovations, He aimed for accessibility and launched an education programme to take art out into Sheffield’s working class communities, along with a scheme that gave ratepayers a chance to borrow art to display at home.
Constantine joined the Galleries shortly after the Second World War and it helped that he was working during an era when enlightened local councils recognised the value of the arts and were prepared to fund them. Nowhere was this truer than in Sheffield, where he had the backing of the influential councillor Enid Hattersley, mother of Roy and a formidable advocate of the benefits of education and “culture”.
Constantine was almost destined to do the job he did. His father, George Hamilton Constantine, was galleries director before him and both men were artists. The exhibition features examples of their work – Frank’s 1953 A Winter Garden distils the quiet melancholy of an overcast late-afternoon in Sheffield.
“We’d been thinking of doing an exhibition celebrating Frank’s collecting for a long time and he knew it was going to happen,” she explains. “But sadly he passed away before it came to fruition.”
He had, though, been interviewed and recalled stories behind the exhibits. Retold on captions, they give the exhibition a personal dimension. He remembers, for instance, meeting the flamboyant Augustus John during an exhibition of the artist’s work staged at the Graves in 1956, a few years before his death: “He came up himself, a grand old man, bearded and very learned looking. There’s a photograph of me and him... looking at some of the pictures and I’m pointing at one. And I chuckled about it because I thought ‘I wonder what he thinks about this upstart telling me something about my pictures’.”
In the words of Anne Goodchild, Constantine “epitomised the best of the city, the best of the profession, and the best of men”.
• A Cultural Legacy – Remembering Frank Constantine, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffiled, to August 29. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday 11am to 4pm; Wednesday 1pm to 6pm. Free admission.