As part of my ongoing interest in educational (and specifically higher education) art collections, I recently went to visit the Hull University Art Collection at the Brynmor Jones Library. Founded in 1963, the collection was housed for many years in the university’s drama facility and concert venue Middleton Hall, designed in 1962 by Festival of Britain architect Leslie Martin, which incorporated a purpose-built exhibition space for the collection when it opened in 1967. The collection has since been returned to the library, which now has a dedicated gallery space.
Unlike other collections I have visited which set out to collect contemporary art, from the outset the collection focused on British art in the period 1890-1940. Due to the relatively minor sum allocated to purchases for the collection – £300 per year was given by philanthropist Thomas Ferens (who also gives his name to the city’s main art gallery) – the collection’s remit was by its own admission the ‘unfashionable and inexpensive’.
In spite of this, the collection gives a good sense of late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century British art, the groupings in which painters were involved (such as the Camden Town Group and Bloomsbury Group), the types of places they travelled to (from the landscapes of Cornwall to more exotic destinations), and the educational system of which they were a part – for example, through the inclusion of paintings by Slade Professor Henry Tonks. The collection is particularly strong on portraiture, further giving a sense of networks and connections between artists (and other artistic figures at the time such as writers). The collection also includes examples of the Contemporary Lithographs, an important interwar patronage scheme: a particular highlight is the floral ‘Still Life’ by Ivon Hitchens.
Mid-twentieth century sculpture is also well-represented, including the work of Bernard Meadows and Henry Moore.
Although the collection has its own exhibition space, a small number of artworks are dispersed around the library and for me the highlights were those I saw outside the gallery: one was a relief by the émigré sculptor Willi Soukop, on one outside wall of the building, which cleverly drew on the brick in which the building is built to depict an owl (the art collection has since acquired a maquette for the piece and other work by Soukop depicting owls). The other was a large hanging tapestry by Harold Cohen, woven by Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. Although I hadn’t come across Cohen before, he created a number of artworks for corporate clients – this one was commissioned for the new London headquarters of BP in 1966 – and was an innovator in the use of computers in his work.The collection no longer restricts itself to its time period of 1890-1940, and has continued to be added to, whether with the support of the Contemporary Arts Society, through the gifting or loan of artworks by members of staff, or through supporters and bequests.