“Don’t stop now” was Marie Rambert’s plea to Robin Howard after he had financed the visit of Martha Graham Company to the Edinburgh Festival in 1963.
It was advice that he took to heart. For the rest of his life he devoted his time, energies and personal fortune to the promotion of contemporary dance and the creation of The Place. Even more than the philanthropy which continues to support our work, it was Robin Howard’s extraordinary vision which shaped The Place.
Robin Howard was the grandson of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the eldest child of Sir Arthur Howard and Lady Lorna Howard. He studied at Eton College and served in World War II as a lieutenant in the Scots Guards (1942–45), until he sustained injuries that resulted in the loss of both his legs. In 1945 he resumed his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, and passed the bar examination to become a lawyer, but he never practiced; instead he entered the hotel and restaurant business. In 1956 he formed the Hungarian Department of the United Nations Association in England to assist refugees, and he served as its director of international service (1956–63).
It was in 1954 that Robin Howard first saw Martha Graham Company performing in London. He immediately fell in love with the work, and became convinced that it was something missing from the British arts scene. After financing the company’s return to the UK, he persuaded Lord Harewood, Sir John Gielgud, Henry Moore, Ninette de Valois, Marie Rambert and Martha Graham to become the inaugural patrons of “Contemporary Ballet Trust Ltd”, which would be The Place’s parent company.
His offer to Graham Company dancer Bob Cohan to join The Place as its first Artistic Director invited him to “form a dance company based on love”. He drew up a list of objectives for The Place, including “to use the universal language of dance to break down social, political, linguistic and other barriers” and that “its standards should never, for any reason, be allowed to decline.”
In 1976, after over a decade at the service of The Place, Robin declared that he no longer wished to be seen as a “rich man who pottered with the arts and gave of his surplus.” Resolving “really to do something” he sold his land, his book collection and his shares to raise the funds for The Place to purchase the freehold of its buildings, the single act of generosity that has done the most to guarantee the organisation’s future. For the rest if his life he continued to work for The Place, sticking steadfastly to his principles.
“We have, in a sense, already attained the status of an establishment organisation, but we exist to bridge a gap between the establishment and a public which does not fit into that category. We are risk-takers. If we play safe we are untrue to ourselves. We now do not have sufficient funds to venture into the unknown, which is what we should do and have done so well in the past. A short-term solution to our problem is to play safe. If we do so, we shall die. And deserve to die, because people will eventually become bored.”
Robin Howard, letter to the Financial Times, 1985
Since his death in 1989, dance and dancers in this country have continued to be encouraged to take risks through the charity of the Robin Howard Foundation. Over 20 years, the Foundation invested £400,000 supporting the work of young dance artists, and the work of The Place. Following the Foundation's contribution to The Place's redevelopment in 2001, The Place's theatre was re-named the Robin Howard Dance Theatre in honour of our founder, dedicated in perpetuity as a home for new contemporary dance artists.
Scores of choreographers have benefited from gifts from the Robin Howard Foundation, among them Jeremy James, Henri Oguike, Darshan Singh Bhuller, Charles Linehan, Fin Walker, Hofesh Shechter, Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Aletta Collins. The Foundation closes in 2011 with a final gift enabling Richard Alston Dance Company to work with Robin's colleague and The Place's founding Artistic Director, Robert Cohan, reviving his 1989 work for London Contemporary Dance Theatre, appropriately entitled In Memory.
Those who knew Robin Howard still speak of the awe and affection he inspired, and everyone who comes to work here still shares in his vision. His legacy is both the magnificent buildings of The Place, and the passion for dance, the arts and our shared humanity that continues to spread beyond its walls and into our culture.
"It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Robin Howard's work in securing and fostering the growth and development of contemporary dance in Britain... Robin Howard was single-minded in his dedication, and he worked without sparing himself. His simplicity and generosity of manner, his idealism and enthusiasm, touched everyone who knew or worked with him. His best memorial is surely the grand flowering of dance in this country that he inspired and guided."
Clement Crisp, Financial Times
Robin Howard CBE
Founder of The Place
17 May 1924 - 12 June 1989