The Bacon exhibition at the Museo Correr, and the Kossoff exhibition in the British Pavilion in 1995, were both curated by David Sylvester. As a result, he was strongly connected to the promotion of a group of artists widely referred to, however erroneously, as the 'School of London'. To an extent this showed Sylvester continuing to favour one (although not the only) sort of art he had admired since the 1950s: figurative painting, predominantly of the human body, combining close observation and a relish for paint as substance. However, within amongst British artists falling into this category, Sylvester's own preferences had changed over the years.
Princess Diana and Andrea Rose at the 1995 Kossoff exhibition in Venice (photo by William Feaver)
In his essay for the 1995 Kossoff catalogue, Sylvester makes (perhaps too) clear that he considered Kossoff to be directly descended from Constable, as he did another English artist who he sometimes claimed to be the greatest of his generation, Malcolm Morley. The excellent series of responses to the proposition 'There's No Such Thing as British Art' in volume one of the Paul Mellon Centre's British Art Studies reminded me of Sylvester, not least because Martin Hammer, in his statement, quotes him on Sickert: "The tragic flaw in English painting is compromise, unwillingness to be committed to a point of view, a desire to have the best of two or more worlds (especially, in our time, a present and a past world)." Sylvester's sense of British art, or at least the best British art, seems to have involved the attributes found in the artists mentioned above, and I think this is why he was so keen on making this connection between Constable and Kossoff.
This is all pretty well known and I'm always keen to draw attention to the less familiar aspects of Sylvester's work, but it's striking how neatly the group of essays about British artists he chose to reprint in his selected essays, About Modern Art, fit together. In the final edition 22 out of 77 essays are about British artists, of which only five are about abstract art, and only one on a British abstract painter (Bridget Riley). Given how wonderfully Sylvester wrote about artists such as (abstract) Pasmore, it's hard not to see this presentation as a streamlining of the British tradition. One of my favourite unpublished Sylvester statements, in fact, is a wonderful defence of Marcus Harvey's Myra at the time of the Sensation exhibition, which demonstrates his conviction in its power and importance not only as an image but as a painting.
What I mean to say, simply, is that in reflecting on Sylvester and British figurative art in the 1990s, it's important to remember there was a lot more going on than the succession of Bacon exhibitions he curated. He paid close attention to the work of younger artists, sometimes in texts which haven't been reprinted and sometimes in personal correspondence and other unpublished writings, but it all adds up to a strong sense of an ongoing tradition.