Exhibition visit: ‘But what if we tried?’, Touchstones, Rochdale

‘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/

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Artemisia Gentileschi portrait touring to schools and other venues

I was interested/encouraged to read this week about a seventeenth-century self-portrait by Italian woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi, which has been on display in a girls’ school in Newcastle as part of a tour from the National Gallery also encompassing other venues such as doctors’ surgeries.

 


Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.

The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.

Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.

Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/

 


Exhibition visit: Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World, Pallant House, Chichester

One of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools who interested me most was the painter and printmaker Julian Trevelyan, whose paintings and prints were extremely popular with schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities around the country. Trevelyan also helped organise and select work for the exhibitions.

The Christmas holidays recently provided an opportunity to visit an exhibition dedicated to Trevelyan’s work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World gives an overview of his career. It begins with his early days as a Surrealist, exhibiting 2- and 3-D work inspired by the mechanisms of the inner mind and the subconscious, and making connections with peers such as Alexander Calder.

In the 1930s, Trevelyan spent time in Bolton and in the Potteries as part of the Mass-Observation project. Highlights of the exhibition include paintings and collages from this time, which actively incorporate elements of mass culture into the urban streetscape; Trevelyan didn’t just paint the lettering of advertising hoardings, but collaged pieces of newspaper and music hall bills. Displayed alongside the pictures is a large suitcase, bursting with scraps, which Trevelyan took out into the northern streets with him as he drew and painted. A series of photographs of fellow Mass-Observation artist William Coldstream contrast the two painters’ attitudes towards observing and understanding place; whereas Coldstream perched on rooftops, taking an aerial perspective and keeping his distance from the town below, Trevelyan preferred to go out and about among his subjects and paint from a position in which he was surrounded by them.The exhibition then discusses his contributions to the war effort, where he served as a camoufleur, helping disguise buildings to confuse the enemy. Watercolours from this time, depicting life in African countries, are uncharacteristically lively and colourful compared to other pictures produced by British artists during the war.

The exhibition gives a sense of the different media in which Trevelyan worked, from oil paintings influenced by the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, to print-making experimenting with different techniques and textures, such as incorporating fabric into the backgrounds of his plates.
Above all, what comes across strongly is Trevelyan’s sense of place. With his second wife, the painter Mary Fedden (who was also involved in Pictures for Schools), he showed a zest for travel and foreign landscapes and ways of life. However, he never turned his attention away from those places closest to home; a constant in his work, and visible in the exhibition, is the Thames at Hammersmith, and its ever-constant, ever-changing vistas and traffic, which provided the backdrop for Trevelyan and Fedden’s work, life and social circle.

Shown close to Trevelyan’s work is a smaller selection of paintings by Fedden, including her characteristic still lifes which experimented with perspective. Also on show are early 1950s plans for Fedden and Trevelyan’s mural for Swallow Dell Primary School in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, one of several undertaken together in the post-war period. Depicting in detail the various activities of a bustling harbour life, this emphasises that their relationship was not just a romantic partnership, but one of artistic collaboration and mutual inspiration.

Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until Sunday 10 February 2019. 


Warpaint by Alicia Foster

I was recently recommended Warpaint by Alicia Foster, a historical novel inspired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the work of a propaganda unit putting artists to work finding creative ways to demoralise the enemy.

The WAAC was established by Kenneth Clark, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, during the Second World War in order to provide employment for some of the country’s leading artists away from direct action. Whilst big male names were involved in documenting the war, Warpaint takes its inspiration from a small number of women artists – who, unlike the men employed, were not salaried but instead received commissions for artworks. Several of the artists at Pictures for Schools had been employed as war artists, either abroad or on the home front, including the women artists Evelyn Gibbs and Evelyn Dunbar.

Although some characters in Warpaint correspond to real-life personalities – including Kenneth Clark, who appears as a larger-than-life, womanising caricature, and the painter Dame Laura Knight, the oldest and most established of the artists featured in Warpaint – the plot develops through interconnected and fictional stories imagining the lives and love lives of lesser-known painters living in London and the home counties, based very loosely on Isabel Delmer, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar (here reimagined as Vivienne Thayer, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne).

Warpaint is an engrossing and page-turning read, with elements of romance, thriller, tragedy and espionage, and period detail. However, it’s not merely an easy read. Underlying Warpaint are questions about attitudes towards women at the time, their role in society and the art world, and the type of work that was considered suitable for women.

As well as institutional and individual sexism, Warpaint conveys an atmosphere of state and establishment paternalism: if the role of male painters in the WAAC was to document action on the front line, and women’s place was to portray life on the home front, there was also a ‘right’ kind of observation, and a ‘wrong’ kind of subject. Some of the artists in Warpaint are naturally drawn towards destitute: the ragged, hungry families eating in municipal canteens for those left without kitchen facilities due to bombing raids. This is discouraged, in favour of pictures of scenes such as upper-class ladies knitting army socks, that will ‘make people feel better’, and give an impression of togetherness across the class divide. In another episode in the book, an artist finds herself practising self-censorship, in order to produce the kind of picture that will go down well with the Ministry: a lace slip, silk sockings and a clandestine pregnancy are edited out of a scene depicting landgirls in a dormitory, in order to make it appear more wholesome.

For this reason, the most interesting story artistically is that of Laura Knight, who manages to get prolonged access to an airfield in order to paint a longed-for ‘serious subject’. Rather than the abstracted shapes of planes in the sky, observed from afar, she develops an intimacy with the pilots, getting to know how they work and how they experience the cramped cockpit of the plane, working as individuals and a unit alongside the machinery of war.

 


Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.


Exhibition visit: ‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Yesterday I went to visit an exhibition at Derby Art Gallery of a selection of artworks by the artist Marion Adnams, and an accompanying talk by the independent researcher Val Wood, who co-curated the exhibition. Spending most of her life in Derby, Adnams has been billed as something of a ‘forgotten’ artist. Like many women of her generation, Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman included, Adnams went into teaching; she taught art for many years at a girls’ school in Derby, where she borrowed artworks to hold an exhibition in school, and later became head of art at a teacher training college in Derby.

The work shown in Derby, primarily paintings, fits into a surrealist lineage. Demonstrating great technical skill, Adnams created fantastical imagery and imagined landscapes from found objects such as rocks and branches (a selection of these objects were on display alongside the paintings), and museum objects from Derby Museum, as well as everyday buildings such as a gas tower, and aspects of country life such as wagons, showing how the mysterious could be found in the everyday. One series incorporates model-like figures based on paper dolls she made as a child. Several of these paintings are on loan from public collections, including Salford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery – where they were purchased as part of the Rutherston Collection for loan to schools (two of these paintings were displayed in Manchester Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition of women surrealists, ‘Angels of Anarchy’) – and the Derbyshire School Museum Service, where one of the paintings was purchased by Evelyn Gibbs, who acted as art adviser to several local education authorities.

Although Adnams’ life was grounded in Derby, Woods focused on the wider artistic milieu of which she was part, which included friendships with other artists as well as with writers and poets such as John Betjeman – whom she advised on church buildings in Derbyshire, the subject of several early woodcuts – and the socialist and feminist poet Audrey Beecham. She exhibited in London, with the support of the gallerist Jack Bilbo. From 1939, she was supported by the friendship and encouragement of the director and curator at Manchester Art Gallery. She exhibited with the Artists’ International Association in 1945. She forged connections more locally, too; in 1946-47, she joined the Midland Group, which was set up by the artist-educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, and which aimed to educate and develop the public’s appreciation of art – this included running a picture hire scheme for businesses, schools and universities, as well as holding a Nottingham edition of Pictures for Schools. Adnams exhibited alongside artists such as Dorothie Field, who had been a student of Nan Youngman’s at Highbury Hill High School for Girls. Field was highly politically engaged and painted social realist scenes inspired by mining communities and incidents such as the Aberfan disaster. Later, Adnams developed a friendship with the writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, who wrote a catalogue essay for a 1971 retrospective.

Adnams studied modern foreign languages at university as a young woman and embraced foreign travel; objects found in Mediterranean destinations such as Provence were also the inspiration for her work.

Adnams’ work was sold to a number of educational collections, in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Manchester. I will be exploring the history and ethos of some of these collections in a talk at a symposium to be held about Adnams in Derby on Wednesday 7 March. For more information visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/marion-adnams-symposium-tickets-42085404578.

‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’ is at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 4 March. For more information visit www.derbymuseums.org/whats-on/marion-adnams-a-singular-woman.