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Sue Davies obituary | Art and design


Sue Davies, who has died aged 87, was the founder and for two decades (1971-91) the director of the Photographers’ Gallery in London. A charismatic champion of the medium, she broke a tradition that kept photographs in books, albums and newspapers. Instead she put them on walls (or, in one overcrowded exhibition, hung from the ceiling by lavatory chains) in a central London venue that would become much more than just a gallery.

In 1968 Sue was working at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as secretary to Roland Penrose, the ICA’s co-founder, when “someone fell ill and I was left to curate an exhibition”. It came via the German news magazine Stern, and its subject was Woman, although the images were almost exclusively photographed by men. She also worked on a smaller show, Spectrum, which presented work by Don McCullin, Enzo Ragazzini, Dorothy Bohm and Tony Ray-Jones. The two exhibitions packed out the ICA in spring 1969 and attracted queues that stretched down the Mall.

Sue began to receive a steady stream of photographers arriving with portfolios, hopeful the ICA might be receptive to promoting their work. But, she said: “The ICA was very snooty. They’d only mounted a photography show because it was free and they were broke. When people arrived with their paintings, there were dozens of galleries to recommend. But there was nowhere to send the photographers.”

According to an interview Sue gave me in 1981 for the British Journal of Photography, her decision to create a dedicated space for photography followed “by mistake … when I lost my temper”. By the time of a subsequent interview in 2012, filmed to celebrate the gallery’s move from its original home in Great Newport Street to Ramillies Street under the directorship of Brett Rogers, she revised her view to “well, why not?” If something obviously necessary didn’t exist, why not invent it?

Accompanied by her husband, the jazz musician John Davies (whom she had married in 1954), she haunted the jazz venues and second-hand bookshops around Charing Cross Road looking for a suitable property. She chose a former Lyon’s tearoom at No 8 Great Newport Street while she focused on fundraising, eyeing the derelict former home of Joshua Reynolds next door at No 5 for a possible future extension. While her family agreed to sub her for 18 months and their own house was remortgaged, Sue reckoned she still needed another £12,000 to purchase and convert No 8.





Sue Davies’s decision to create a dedicated space for photography was made ‘by mistake … when I lost my temper’, she said.



Sue Davies’s decision to create a dedicated space for photography was made ‘by mistake … when I lost my temper’, she said. Photograph: Jo Metson Scott

So, borrowing the ICA Gestetner duplicating machine, she copied “millions of letters to anyone and everyone. I didn’t know them, but I found their office addresses in the phone directory and went and pzazzed a bit – you know, with that mixture of enthusiasm and naivety.” It helped that Lord Goodman, then chairman of the Arts Council, wrote to photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones. Bill Brandt supplied an extravagant £50, sidling up to Davies and slipping it into her hand. She also “pestered” Tom Hopkinson, former Picture Post editor and the founder of the Centre for Journalism Studies in Cardiff, until he agreed to come on board as chairman, later president, of a project he initially thought “quite crazy” . Then he conceded to Sue: “If anyone can achieve it, you can.”

With insufficient funds to launch with a planned exhibition on The Revolutions of 1968, instead she imported The Concerned Photographer from Zurich, provided by its curator Cornell Capa for the cost of transport. Images by Robert Capa (Cornell’s brother), David Goldblatt, Leonard Freed, David Seymour, Dan Weiner and Werner Bischof chimed well with Sue’s passion for reportage, and brought over key players of Magnum Photos, who soon came to regard the Photographers’ Gallery as their London base.

Sue’s choices for exhibitions extended from the early atmospheric favourites André Kertesz and Jacques Henri Lartigue to cutting-edge modernism by Jan Svoboda, Andreas Gursky and Jem Southam; hard-hitters of international photojournalism such as Peter Magubane, Sebastião Salgado, Danny Lyon and Chris Steele-Perkins and game-changing female photographers including Mari Mahr, Jo Spence, Melanie Manchot, Shirana Shahbazi, Helen Chadwick and Fay Godwin. The quality of work was the basis for selection, no matter who created it. In among the more than 150 major shows in 20 years, there was always space for one such as Tafos, photographs taken by Peruvian miners.





Sue Davies in 1978, during the European Colour Photography exhibition.



Sue Davies in 1978, during the European Colour Photography exhibition. Photograph: The Photographers’ Gallery Archive

The gallery was intended to be similarly democratic in its audiences: school parties were encouraged, as were discussion groups, which extended to monthly meetings of the Unemployed Photographers’ Club, formed following layoffs at Times Newspapers in 1991. Sue had rejected her first choice of name – The Photography Gallery – for a reason: she wanted to create a space where photographers felt at home, surrounded by photographs. As the gallery expanded Sue introduced a cafe and bookstall; exhibited work by emerging photographers in the Portfolio Gallery; and opened a library and print-room to sell modern prints at accessible prices.

The daughter of British parents, Joan (nee Charlesworth) and Stanworth Adey, Sue was born in Abadan, Iran, while her father was working as an engineer at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. She went to school in New York and Kent, and the family finally returned to Britain when she was 14. She trained at secretarial college and worked for several companies before joining the ICA in the mid-60s.

She was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and received its Progress medal in 1982; she was made an OBE in 1988. Her career record is the more outstanding for having been combined with demanding parental responsibilities. Sue and John had three daughters all still attending primary school when the Photographers’ Gallery opened. A long week at the gallery was inevitably followed by a busy weekend at the family home in Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire.

It was after the death of her youngest child, Stephanie, from cancer in 1988 that Sue decided to leave the gallery. By then, she said: “I was doing more fundraising than anything else, always the least interesting part, and I was delighted it could go on without me … It’s absolutely fantastic that it’s still here and I meet people who think it’s been here as long as the Tate, that there’s always been the Photographers’ Gallery. Long may it remain, for ever and ever!”

In 2004 John died and Sue moved to Fulham, south-west London, not too far from the Chelsea Arts Club, where she could meet friends, hear jazz and play mah-jong.

She is survived by her daughters Joanna and Jessica.

Susan Elizabeth Davies, curator, born 14 April 1933; died 19 April 2020

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