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/

 


Sale of Hertfordshire County Council’s collection

Sad news from Hertfordshire, where the county council is following in the steps of Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire and selling the bulk of its impressive educational art collection. The collection was founded in 1949 by pioneering Director of Education John Newsom for loan to the county’s schools, as part of an extensive programme of school building and educational reform, and purchased artworks by leading British artists from Pictures for Schools among other sources. This is no particular surprise given that the loan service was suspended in 2012, staff who had previously been involved in its operations were made redundant and it was extremely difficult (impossible?) to get anyone from the council to answer any of my enquiries about it during my PhD.

This follows a ‘consultation’ on the future of the collection at the start of 2018, which was couched in terms which made the sale sound like it was a foregone conclusion, and a petition by local woman Armaiti Bedford against the sale of the works, which was signed by thousands of people.

The sale is being handled by Cheffins in Cambridge, who handled the (highly lucrative) sale of the Cambridgeshire art collection in 2017, and the first auction, of paintings, takes place on 21 March.

The sale has received a few passing mentions in the regional and national press; for more information see www.artlyst.com/news/hertfordshire-county-council-sells-off-art-assets.

 


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. 


Exhibition visit: Carel Weight at Tullie House

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.


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.