We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Harrison, Charles Townsend (1942–2009), art historian, was born on 11 February 1942 at Great Hundridge Manor, Chartridge, near Chesham, Buckinghamshire, the fifth child and third son of Godfrey Percival Harrison (1903–1965), then serving as a major in the Royal Artillery, and his wife, Patricia Jane Elizabeth, née Stephens (1905–1998). His father was a successful commercial writer and author of company histories. His mother taught the piano and was one of the founders of the Little Missenden Festival of Art and Music. The family lived at Dering Cottage, Little Missenden, and Harrison went to a small preparatory school in a somewhat dilapidated country house near Amersham of which he had fond memories; he referred to it as akin to the house in Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall. After Clifton College, Bristol (1955–9), he had a year out working for a travel agent in London before he went up to King's College, Cambridge (1960–63), where he studied English literature for part one and fine arts for part two. On 18 December 1961 he married a fellow student, Sandra Madeleine Arkell Pearson (b. 1941), daughter of Henry Ferguson Pearson, ship broker. They had two sons and one daughter. Meanwhile, between 1963 and 1967 Harrison was a graduate student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where his thesis was on English art between the wars. Much later his research resulted in the publication of English Art and Modernism, 1900–1939 (1981). His London PhD was awarded by publication in 1982.

At the Courtauld, Harrison's supervisor Alan Bowness introduced him to Peter Townsend, the recently appointed editor of Studio International magazine. After an informal interview at the Museum Tavern, London, in December 1965, Townsend commissioned Harrison to write reviews and in May 1966 gave him his first editorial responsibility, for a commemorative issue on Mondrian's time in London, for which he commissioned recollections from artists. Townsend offered him the post of assistant editor, though Harrison was unable to take it officially until October 1967, as he was in receipt of a grant. They shared an interest in acquiring what Harrison later described in jest as ‘knick-knacks’ (personal knowledge, interview, 27 March 2007). Despite budget limitations, Harrison had a lifelong passion for collecting antiques.

It was while working at Studio International that Harrison found his critical platform. He edited the feature on British artists at the Biennale des Jeunes, Paris, in 1967, immediately becoming friends with the painter Jeremy Moon and the sculptor Barry Flanagan. Harrison said that until that point ‘I was too close to making work out of other people's work’, but that his new friendships gave him ‘the possibility not so much of doing that, but of actually collaborating. I really like collaboration’ (Looking Back, 122–3). Of conversation with Moon, Harrison reported that he ‘had the feeling he was putting his painting at stake when he talked, however outlandish the context I or another interlocutor might have established’, and that ‘this seemed like a mark of respect for both the painting and the conversation’ (Studio International, 187/962, January 1974, 35).

Harrison convinced Townsend to allow him to review exhibitions by American artists, when they exhibited at the Kasmin or Waddington galleries in London. He sought a critical rigour he considered unattainable in what he described as ‘the parochialism of the English art scene’ (Harrison to Kosuth, nd [1969], TGA 200826). He later described himself as ‘one of those critics who educate themselves in public’ (‘Why Art & Language’, 14 Nov 1986). At first he immersed himself in a reconfigured version of Clement Greenberg's formalist analysis. His articles in Studio International attracted the attention of Artforum's editor, Phillip Leider. On his first visit to New York in April 1969, for discussions at Artforum, to lecture at the School of Visual Arts, and to meet Greenberg, he also met Joseph Kosuth, who introduced him to Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, and Robert Morris, as well as the innovative curator-dealer Seth Siegelaub and the writer and curator Lucy Lippard.

These introductions were instrumental in forming Harrison's critical position. On this occasion Harrison told Greenberg that seeing Andre's exhibition at the Dwan Gallery had revolutionized his conception of art. Greenberg's response was to ask how anti-formal practices, which were neither painting nor sculpture, could be considered critically alongside the formalist works of artists such as Morris Louis, on whose work Harrison had, in Greenberg's view, written perceptively. But in Harrison's view, Greenberg's critical authority was undermined by his failure to accommodate the new art practices of minimalism, land art, conceptual art, and performance. During his career Harrison sought to re-situate Greenbergian values to determine aesthetic quality in a culture hesitant to assert distinction. His views were grounded in close visual scrutiny of individual artworks and his writing invited the reader to participate in the process of looking and critical reflection. Walking through art museums with him was, in the words of one colleague, ‘to feel that the whole point of art was on the verge of becoming, if not clear, at least palpable’ (The Guardian, 29 Sept 2009).

While working part-time at Studio International Harrison taught at art schools and universities and curated several exhibitions. The first was Ben Nicholson's retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1969. Later that year he organized the London showing of the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’; with over fifty artists, this was the first international survey of the new art practices in the UK. Harrison's characteristically modest rationale for his role was that he was the only person in London at the time who was able to differentiate the artwork from its packaging. The following year he curated ‘Idea Structures’ at the Camden Arts Centre, London, and began planning ‘The British Avant Garde’ for the New York Cultural Center and ‘Art as Idea from England’ for the Centro de Arte y Comunicación, Buenos Aires (both 1971). Meanwhile he declined an offer to become assistant director of Pasadena's newly opened art museum, later saying that ‘I'd found that community of artists and intellects with whom I felt I could have a part to play, as a sort of mixture between companion and spokesman’ (Lecture, ‘Reflections on the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA, 1969’, Academie de Kunst, Vienna, 2008). He took slides when he visited exhibitions and artists' studios, using this ever-growing resource to illustrate his lectures. These slides were later increasingly important for scholars, artists, and curators.

Harrison's major engagement with collaborative art practice was with the collective Art & Language, formed in 1967–8; his association began in 1970 with what he described as ‘conversations in the studio’ (Conceptual Art and Painting, xiii). In 1971 he resigned from Studio International and took on the editorship of the journal Art-Language; he also participated with Art & Language in Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972, alongside Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, Mel Ramsden, Harold Hurrell, Sandra Harrison, David Bainbridge, and Joseph Kosuth. He continued to collaborate with Baldwin and Ramsden until his death. His Essays on Art & Language (1991) and Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language (2001) arose from their discussions. His position as an art historian was strongly informed by his engagement in art practice.

Needing a regular income to support his family, in 1974 Harrison took the post of lecturer in art history at Watford College of Technology. In 1977 he was appointed staff tutor at the Open University, becoming reader in art history (1985–94), then professor of the history and theory of art (1994–2008). He held visiting posts at the University of Chicago (1991 and 1996), the University of Texas at Austin (1997), and the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2001–02 and 2004). During his second stay at the latter he worked on Painting the Difference: Sex and Spectator in Modern Art (2005), which explored gender representation in the modernist canon.

At the Open University, Harrison and his colleagues devised the groundbreaking course ‘Modern Art and Modernism’; their book of the same title, published in 1982, shaped the perceptions of a generation of art historians and teachers. His three volumes entitled Art in Theory, covering 1900–1990 (1992), 1815–1900 (1998), and 1648–1815 (2000), the first in collaboration with Paul Wood, and the second and third in collaboration with Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger, demonstrated the spirit in which he approached his teaching as well as his writing. He was finishing the captions on his last books, Since 1950: Art and its Criticism (2009) and Introduction to Art (2009), at the time of his death.

Harrison's acuity of mind was inspiring. He set a high standard of written and spoken analysis but his consideration and kindness to anyone who showed intellectual curiosity was exemplary. He was a good amateur musician and had a lifelong interest in poetry. Although a private person, he was a generous host. His first marriage having ended in 1982, on 22 August 1985 he married a fellow art historian, Patricia Anne (Trish) Evans, née Firth (b. 1949), daughter of Hugh Firth, local government officer, and former wife of Timothy Evans. He died of cancer of the colon at his home in Upper Brailes, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, on 6 August 2009, and was survived by Trish, the three children from his first marriage, and two-step children from his second.

Jo Melvin


C. Harrison, ‘Why art and language’, lecture, Tate Gallery, 14 Nov 1986, Tate collection, TAV 457A · C. Harrison, Conceptual art and painting: further essays on art and language (2001) · The Times (25 Aug 2009) · The Independent (7 Sept 2009); (9 Sept 2009) · The Guardian (29 Sept 2009) · Artforum International (1 Nov 2009) · C. Harrison, ‘The earth moves’, in C. Harrison, Since 1950: art and its criticism (2009), xxx · C. Harrison, Looking back (2011) · Charles Harrison papers, Tate collection, Tate Gallery Archive, TGA 839 and TGA 200826 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


Tate collection, Tate Gallery Archive

Wealth at death  

under £183,000: probate, 24 Sept 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales