The new issue of the Fourdrinier is out today and focuses on This Land Is Our Land at Paper Gallery in Manchester (open Saturdays 11-5 until 3 August), a new group exhibition inspired by Marion Shoard’s classic book of the same name and the Kinder trespass. I’ve written an essay around some of the themes explored in the show, such as access to the countryside, and the ways in which our experiences of the countryside are mediated physically and culturally, drawing partly on some of the reading around landscapes I did during my PhD.
‘But what if we tried?’ by Harry Meadley at Touchstones in Rochdale is an illuminating experiment to display as much of town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces within its Edwardian galleries, it turns out).
At a time when public ownership and funding of art, and issues around access and storage, are more contentious than ever, this timely exhibition explores the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a municipal gallery which is resource-poor but rich in artworks and heritage.
Piled high in the largest gallery are a selection of artworks acquired since the gallery first started collecting, displayed in accession order and giving an insight into how the collection has evolved and grown over time, and the types of artists and artworks acquired during different eras.
Some of the collection has clearly been acquired due to local interest and connections, from portraits of local dignitaries and paintings and drawings depicting the town and its surroundings, to artworks by locally based printmakers. Other work has been acquired through bequests, meaning it cannot be sold. Other artworks have come into the collection through changes in local government; for example, when the nearby towns of Middleton and Heywood were incorporated into the borough in the early 1970s, their collections were merged with Rochdale’s.
The collection also reflects developments in modern art and contains works by major artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres and Lubaina Himid (though, as elsewhere, woman artists are underrepresented in the collection, comprising around 8 per cent), and the gallery is still collecting today. Works by well-known artists are frequently lent to other galleries – enabling them to both be seen by a wider range of people and providing a source of income for the gallery. This is such an important part of the life of such a collection that one wall of the exhibition is filled with carefully packaged artworks ready to be shipped off to other destinations.
Displayed alongside the artworks are a series of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes films showing in detail how a gallery such as Touchstones actually works, taking us into the stores and through staff meetings, curatorial decision-making, PR planning and installation. Staff, including curators, technicians and the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, Community & Culture, are interviewed with a refreshing candour about their work, including the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care. Rochdale today is a very different place to the cotton-rich manufacturing town it was when the museum and art gallery was established, but the interviews reveal a wealth of knowledge, passion and expertise about the collection and its place in the town.
This exhibition is a must-see for anyone who can make it to Rochdale before it closes on Saturday 1 June. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org/projects/harry-meadley-but-what-if-we-tried/
I recently visited Tullie House to see a small exhibition of work from a collection acquired for the city of Carlisle through the Royal Academician Carel Weight, as part of nationwide events commemorating 250 years of the Royal Academy. Weight was one of the artists who was heavily involved in Pictures for Schools, and sold work through the scheme. As well as showing Weight’s own paintings, the exhibition showed work by members of Weight’s circle, including peers and students, such as Peter Blake, acquired for Tullie House. I reviewed the exhibition for Corridor8: read online here.
Exhibition visit: Picturing Faith: An Exhibition of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, the Beaney, CanterburyPosted: March 5, 2017
Unsurprisingly for a collection of twentieth century artworks developed in the 1960s, there is some overlap in the artists represented in the Methodist Modern Art collection and Pictures for Schools. At a time when much was being down to improve the appearance of both public and corporate spaces, and attempts were being made to introduce art to a wider section of the population, the collection was developed to enhance the visual environments of Methodist churches, and to increase the church’s visual appeal. Today it tours to venues in different towns and cities, from churches to art galleries to libraries, to ensure many people can see and access it.
Much of the work in the collection isn’t exactly to my taste, being slightly intimidating to the casual viewer not overly familiar with the stories, histories and teachings depicted. Much of it is literal and narrative, depicting scenes from the Bible, although it incorporates developments in modern art.
The freer, busy shapes and spliced up watercolour imagery of Norman Adams, whose colourful Stations of the Cross are a modernist intervention into the ornate overdecoration of catholic church St Mary’s the Hidden Gem in Manchester, is interesting, but the work that engaged me most is that which steers away from storytelling to depict emotion and expression. Among the most powerful works in the collection are Elisabeth Frink’s 1956 drawing Pieta, which presents a face full of knowledge in her signature big-nosed style, framed with a subtle crown of thorns, statuesque and suffering yet stoical. In a similar way a sombre and still oil painting by Philip Le Bas, who sold work including a painting of The Last Supper at Pictures for Schools, The Stripping of Our Lord (1962) is cracked as if betraying the experiences behind its creation.
Another highlight is Theyre Lee-Elliott’s Crucified Tree Form – the Agony (1959), in a sickly, ghastly end-of-the-world yellow and black that almost has the quality of surrealist painting or a black and white photographic documentary print. The anthropomorphic tree of the title teems with the barbs created both by humans and by nature.
A more recent highlight is Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday: Walking on Water 2006, which is dominated by the churned tumult of the waves; Christ’s small, ghostly figure floats across the water, barely perceptible in contrast to natural forces.
Some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century are represented in the collection, including the wonky perspective of Patrick Heron’s Crucifix and Candles: Night 1950, Ceri Richards’ caricature-esque The Supper at Emmaus (1958), Graham Sutherland’s skeletal, entombed Christ in the Deposition (1947) and Craigie Aicheson’s starkly floating yet pop figure on a cross, Pink Crucifixion (2004).
One artist who sold artworks at Pictures for Schools is Dennis Hawkins, long-serving art teacher at Repton School, who transforms the lid of a school desk into Pentecost I (1962) with the deceptively simple depiction of a large circle and block lines, suggesting the intervention of Christ into everyday life. Hawkins’ paintings and reliefs, inspired by subjects such as the moon landings and space travel, were among the most modern in form and subject matter sold at Pictures for Schools, making their way into educational collections in Oxford, Carlisle, Southampton and Wales in the mid to late 1960s as well as various schools and teacher training colleges; his print Blue Night Flower still hangs in Manchester Grammar School.
However my favourite work on display is The Cross Over the City (1962), a tactile relief by the architect and artist Michael Edmunds, who worked for the Greater London Council. Reminiscent of an aerial view, the piece incorporates mosaic, repetition and pattern, suggesting rooftops in its materials and dusty colours yet remaining abstract and inviting contemplation close-up and from afar. Apparently Edmunds did an exterior relief for a church in Stockport; there are several Methodist churches in Stockport so it’s going to be a challenge to track it down!
Picturing Faith is at the Beaney, Canterbury, until Sunday 23 April.
To find out more about the collection visit www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac.
The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
I was delighted to stumble across an exhibition of sculptures by Elisabeth Frink during a daytrip to Nottingham at the weekend, at the university’s Lakeside gallery. Frink was one of the best-known British artists to be involved in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and served on selection committees to select sculptures for the exhibitions for a number of years. She also submitted sculptures to Pictures for Schools, and sold works on paper through the scheme, including drawings from her Spinning Man series.
Entitled ‘The Presence of Sculpture’, the Nottingham show focused largely on Frink’s post-war commissions and drew attention to themes and subject matter, from heads (many displaying a smooth serenity), horses and birds to movement, change, uncertainty and the lightness and heaviness of flight. Works and studies on display included large-scale sculptures for corporate companies such as WH Smith, and work in the Battersea outdoor sculpture exhibition, as well as religious and public commissions, including her angular, roughly textured eagle lectern for Coventry cathedral and her controversial tribute at Manchester airport to Alcock and Brown’s non-stop Atlantic flight, which somehow manages to retain a sense of grace despite the flailing, tapering descent of the legs and the contrast between the smoothness of the man-made wings and the awkwardness of the human body. Much was made of the ways in which her artworks were encountered in people’s everyday lives.
However, my favourite works were those depicting boars, including a spindly-tailed bronze in which the bulk of the animal has been arrested in movement, seemingly coming to a sudden stop. I also loved the washed-out colour and hairy detail of the 1967 lithograph ‘Wild Boar’.
‘The Presence of Sculpture’ finishes on Sunday February 28.
I recently made a trip over to Leeds to see a new exhibition of works by Maurice de Sausmarez at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, held to mark the centenary of his birth and continuing until 20 February 2016.
De Sausmarez was closely involved in Pictures for Schools, serving on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in 1969.
De Sausmarez also moved in the same kinds of social circles as Nan Youngman and other Pictures for Schools artists, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA), of which he was chairman in the 1940s, although his widow, the artist and colour specialist Jane de Sausmarez, told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with politics after the war. I visited Jane in London earlier this year and she told me that he was good friends with Herbert Read and Betty Rea, and admired her as an artist. He also lived in a caravan at Peggy Angus’ home in Firle, Sussex, and made melon and ginger jam in return for paying rent. He was one of the many artistic and intellectual visitors to Firle to be painted by Angus. Jane met Maurice in 1960. She taught in the textiles department one day a week, under Constance Howard, who had malachite green hair. Howard’s work, along with other artists in the department, was very popular at Pictures for Schools and Jane recalls that people went to the Goldsmiths degree show especially for the textiles.
Like several of the other Pictures for Schools artists, de Sausmarez was involved in the Recording Britain project. He was also an influential figure in art education. His book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form, published in 1964, influenced the way art is taught in universities, and he taught in Leeds for many years. Jane pointed out several of his former students in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I showed her, including at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, where he was Principal in the 1950s.
Among the work on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery are works shown with the AIA. These include ‘A Garden – God Wot!’, from 1939, which was shown at Picture Hire Gallery as part of the Everyman Prints series, a small, black and white zinc lithograph depicting an air raid shelter in a back garden. Another, ‘Red Cross Nurses, Long Liston Practices’, is a study for a painting in the AIA exhibition For Liberty.
There were also some pictures exhibited at Pictures for Schools in 1967, including ‘Faceted Still Life’ (1961/1962), a linear and fragmented still life. Most of the works in the exhibition are either still lifes or landscapes, depicting places in France and Italy as well as the coast of the North East, together with a few portraits. There is a noticeable contrast between those which are representational in a relatively straightforward way, and those which use colour, form, patterns, light and movement in a distinctive palette of purples, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues to create varying degrees of abstraction. On display alongside the paintings were a number of studies, suggesting a process before which works became abstracted. Interestingly, some of the more the abstract works made their way into schools, including ‘Head Form’ and ‘Abstract’, both of which can still be borrowed today via the Artemis scheme.
Also on display were materials relating to de Sausmarez’s involvement in education. This included a pamphlet detailing ‘Talks for 6th Forms’, broadcast by the BBC to schools in Spring 1960. De Sausmarez was among the speakers, introducing the series with a lecture on ‘art and public’, with Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Reg Butler and Denys Lasdun following, prior to a series introducing children to trade unions.
I was struck by De Sausmarez’s skill as both a draughtsman and a painter, and his distinctive style, and wondered why he is not a more widely known figure today. I hope that both this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, will help raise his profile and find him a new audience.
Whilst in Leeds I also stumbled upon a selection day for the Leeds picture hire scheme, which is open to the public. A selection of paintings and prints were propped up on chairs for perusal in a small room at Leeds Art Gallery, and could be taken home in special carry bags. It is amazing what you can get for £4 a month, including prints by Pictures for Schools artists Julian Trevelyan, John Addyman and Edwin la Dell, and it made me wish there were such schemes were more common.