Survey by Qualaroo

Jeremy Rees

Born: 1937
Died: 2003

Jeremy Martin Rees, arts administrator, was born on 8 May 1937 at Mary Stanley Nursing Home, Bridgwater, Somerset, the only son and eldest child of Glyndwr Rees (1905–2001), woodwork and music teacher, and his wife, (Ella) Jean, née Lamb (1914–2004), artist. At the time of his birth his parents were living at Damory, Wembdon Hill, Bridgwater. He was sent away to Taunton School in 1946, aged nine. It was his own decision to leave at sixteen and become apprenticed at Allen Davies, printers, of Bristol, in 1954. He had been very influenced by an art master at school but believed that staying on would be money wasted. He had never been allowed to 'do nothing' during school holidays and was often sent to find spares for his father's mechanical hobbies. His parents had also interested him in all manner of culture, becoming members of the Bridgwater Art Centre and its film club. Rees's firm paid for him to train for a management post at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts from 1955 to 1958. He kept up his interest in films, saw plays at the Royal Court Theatre, and was particularly inspired by the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Dover Street. He later regretted that he had not gone on to higher education but said that those early years in London had been his university. The influence of his art teacher had led Rees to acquire a huge printing press which was initially housed with friends in Bridgwater. Although he was leaning towards a commercial career, as soon as he moved to London he founded a private printing press. His first publication was The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey, followed, in 1958, by Dawn Noon Night by Marek Zulawski. The press needed a name and, on a visit to the National Gallery, he had an instant response to Jan van Eyck's famous portrait The Arnolfini Marriage, and created the Jan Arnolfini Press. While in London, Rees lived in a flat in Notting Hill, where he hung a textile bought from the Edinburgh Weavers' Company. This was noticed by (Margaret) Annabel Lawson (b. 1938), to whom he was introduced at a party in 1957. She was the daughter of Neil Lawson, barrister, and was, like Rees's mother, a textile artist, and had studied at the Central School of Art. In 1958 Rees was one of the last to be called up for national service and, determined not to serve in Germany, chose instead to go to Sierra Leone as a second lieutenant, developing a lifelong concern for third world poverty. He wrote at length to Annabel and, after he had returned to Bristol in 1960, they married on 16 September 1961. They had two daughters, Natasha (b. 1965) and Justine (b. 1966). Rees had long dreamed of running an art gallery, and in March 1961 he and Annabel, in partnership with the painter John Orsborn, created a gallery called Arnolfini above a bookshop in Triangle West, Clifton, with funds from Annabel's father. The press disappeared but the name lived on. For the first few years the gallery was staffed by Annabel Rees and Jenny Orsborn, without pay, while Rees became the unpaid, part-time director. He was meanwhile employed by Allen Davies until 1963, then worked for Ron Ford, a typographic designer, until 1965. From then until 1968 he taught typographic design at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, meeting artists whose work he would show at the Arnolfini. He was particularly encouraged by two London art dealers, Annely Juda and Leslie Waddington, who suggested that he contact a client, Peter Barker-Mill. He and his wife Caroline agreed to invest money in the Arnolfini Trust and, with Arts Council grants too, Rees was in 1968 able to give up teaching and devote himself to developing the Arnolfini. Having moved from Triangle West to Queen Square, Bristol, and then to Canon's Road (where the facilities included a cinema, restaurant, and bar), the Arnolfini moved in 1975 to the Bush warehouse in the Bristol docks, where it soon established itself as one of Britain's major centres for contemporary art, dance, music, film, and jewellery. Rees was a pioneer in developing business sponsorship, gallery sales, educational activities, and outreach schemes, and a generation of significant curators trained under him. One of his staff later said, 'He asked his staff to give 200 per cent, but was always very much a hands-on leader who gave 210 per cent himself, so you were carried along on the wave of his enthusiasm' (Western Daily Press, 13 Dec 2003). By 1989 (by which time the Arnolfini was attracting 285,000 visitors a year) Rees felt he had stayed at the Arnolfini too long and moved to 24 Lots Road, Chelsea, where he worked as a consultant in multimedia and copyright. In 1986 he had become a founder trustee for a sculpture park in the Forest of Dean, and developed its website using computer expertise refined since the early 1980s. Other projects included an interactive multimedia resource on the life and work of Brancusi and, with characteristic ambition but sadly unfulfilled, a European centre for the visual arts in Ipswich and an artists' commissioning project for the millennium. His last years were largely spent writing and speaking all over the world as an expert on information technology in the services of culture. He was director of the International Visual Arts Information Network and editor of the Image Technologies in Museums and Art Galleries international database. He was also a trustee of the Contemporary Art Society from 1982 to 1995 and vice-chairman in 1990–95. Rees was a modest, melancholic, and romantic man, somewhat disillusioned towards the end of his life because his ideas continued to be ahead of their time or out of step with public funding. He had an explosive laugh and a stylish penchant for orange shirts, colourful socks, and distinctive ties. He said he wanted a sign above the Arnolfini entrance: 'Enjoy Yourself'. He died as the result of a traffic accident in London on 11 December 2003, and was survived by his wife, Annabel, and their two daughters.

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