The story of the founding of the British Society of Aesthetics has not been written. “It is quite a story”, wrote the Society’s first Hon. Secretary, Sylvia Schweppe, “and when I have the time I shall try and write it up”. That was in a letter to the Society in 1988. I don’t know if she did. There’s no evidence in the archive that contained the letter. She’d attached to the letter a copy of newspaper clippings from 1960. But, that’s all the archive offers.

The Daily Telegraph thought the Society’s wide interpretation of ‘aesthetics’ to include psychology, sociology, anthropology, cultural history, art criticism, and education, an “alarmingly large umbrella”. It ended suggesting “’Aesthetics’ used to be a frightening word, but now we know that for at least two hundred Britons it has no terrors”. The first membership of 200 included 20 representing the new Society at the 4th International Congress of Aesthetics in Athens.

Sylvia Schweppe had no doubt worked tirelessly to, as she wrote, “get the Society on its feet when previous efforts had failed”. Herbert Read, the Society’s first President, had proposed a British Society of Aesthetics in March 1960. The Guardian reported the proposal and a provisional committee that also included Ruth Saw and Paul Hodin, as well as Sylvia Schweppe. It reports that the committee hoped leading figures in the arts would join. And that in the meantime Read was off on a 6 week lecture tour in America.

I wonder if Read left Schweppe with a list of possible ‘leading figures’ to contact. The archive contains a statement of the Society’s aims that I assume was sent with covering letters to them. Disappointingly, the archive doesn’t contain any of that correspondence. But the results are evident in the first Advisory Committee. The typed list has “Britten, Benjamin” added in ink. Perhaps, I speculate, he was the last to accept the invitation to be on the committee, duly impressed to be in the company of Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir John Gielgud, Henry Moore, and Yehudi Menuhin, among others.

The archive has evidence too of the efforts to get funding for the Society and a publisher for a journal. Again, Sylvia Schweppe is seen in letters to and from organisations like the Nuffield Foundation and the Carnegie Trust using Read’s status to get financial backing. She writes, again in the 1988 letter, that “I was personally responsible for getting a publisher for the Journal when all seemed lost”. Sadly, again, the archive doesn’t contain sufficient material to fill out the story. But, we know the result was successful. The Journal’s first issue was published before 1960 was out.

A series of lectures had been arranged too, including lectures by composer Alan Rawsthorne and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Lectures by philosophically-minded practitioners would be a feature of Society meetings for a few years more and included the potter Bernard Leach and painter John Hoyland. The archive contains a Member’s Card for 1962-63 that gives a flavour of the Society’s interests and operation. By then, Sylvia Schweppe had left. And the Society was changing focus too.

Jeffrey Petts