Peter Townsend

Peter Townsend is dead. Raised in Canterbury, UK, he led an early, adventurous career in Asia.

He was in China in 1940, reporting on and joining the revolution led by Mao Zedong as he battled both Chiang Kai-shek and the invading Japanese. Peter cleaned toilets, interviewed Chairman Mao, and became a 'labour hero'. The war severely challenged his Quaker-derived, pacifist beliefs.

Not done with conflict, Peter became editor of Studio International in 1965, the venerable journal which under Peter's inspired editorship became one of the world's most influential art magazines. A rich, misguided individual acquired and sank the journal from under him in the 1975. Undaunted, Townsend founded Art Monthly (UK) a year later, editing it for ten years. Not least among its accomplishments, it was the first magazine to identify the YBA phenomenon – paradoxically, while also providing a platform to the young Peter Fuller.

So how and why Australia? I believe it to be a matter of pure serendipity. Bert Flugelman met Peter in London and commended his attention to Stephanie Britton, editor of the fledgling Artlink, c. 1982. Stephanie set up an Australian lecture tour. I snaffled Peter for a conference I helped organise for the Art Museums Association of Australia, 'Art Museums and Big Business', at the National Gallery, Canberra, in 1983 (Peter's paper appeared in the subsequent, eponymous publication).
Townsend met Jacqueline Macnaughtan, to become a significant other in his life, at a conference function. Jacqueline was a conservator at the National Gallery. Her support and connections were pivotal to Peter's Australian ventures. All of this led to his starting Art Monthly Australia in 1987a success story looking forward to its 200th issue.

Peter continued as AMA's editor until 1993, when he returned to live in London. His philosophy for the magazine, as with its UK counterpart, was for lively, topical and accessible writing, with an emphasis on the contemporary but also on thoughtful reexamination of the past. He had an instinctive feel for what was important, initiating, for example, regular coverage of Indigenous and Asian art. He was also distinctly mischievous in his editorial ethos, lending the magazine a certain piquancy.

I first met Peter in London in the mid 1970s. He was still the chair of the body which ran the AIR Gallery and SPACE Studios – initiated at St Katherine's Dock by Peter Sedgley and Bridget Riley in 1968 – an indicator of his closeness to the contemporary art scene. We visited London galleries together, me young and green, Peter looking every inch of the vigorous drinker he used to be & tall and leonine, he evinced a sort of ruined majesty, with his mane of silver hair. He was treated with enormous respect, even though his clothes were dishevelled and he used a plastic bag as a briefcase.

Peter Townsend was famously sociable, presiding with observant reticence over regular salons in London pubs like The Three Greyhounds in Greek St or Mulligan's in Cork St. He was also, I believe, a person with a deep, existential need to be alone, not to be tied down. It was as if he had looked into humanity's dark heart and decided, all obligations and necessary courtesies aside, that it was better to be a moving target than a sitting duck. But he was also charismatic. If he fixed you with his hooded eyes and asked you to write for him, you were done for. You could see how he conjured magazines out of thin air.

I did not know him well, yet regarded him, in a distant way, as a mentor, even a father figure. I feel quite sure I am not alone in this, a fact which might have surprised this elusive, exceptional man.