New Art Gallery Walsall

The New Art gallery WalsallIt’s sad when one only really hears about somewhere when it might be lost; I’ve never read so much in the press about the New Art Gallery Walsall since it was threatened with closure. Given the money and enthusiasm behind it, not to mention its significant collection, the Garman Ryan bequest from the widow of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Embarrassingly, I’d never been there, but the articles I read indicated I ought to (while I can), so I made a trip to see it. I wasn’t impressed that it’s not even signposted from the station, but was pointed in the right direction, and while the building itself doesn’t do much for me, the collections appealed.

Tpicassohe gallery clearly engages thoroughly with the community, including family events, children’s holiday activities, an art library and a range of exhibitions. I spent most of the time there looking at the permanent collection, which is arranged thematically, including ‘Trees’, ‘Landscape and Townscape’, ‘Animals and Birds’ and ‘Models and Muses’. Given the diversity of the collection – though most of it falls within a relatively narrow timeframe, from around the turn of the century to the present – this is a clear and appealing approach which creates some inspired juxtapositions. The range of artists is impressive; I was struck by several Pissarros, and particularly taken with a Picasso drawing which, oddly, reminded me of Elizabeth Siddall’s work (left – excuse the crooked photo!)

Other highlights included, well, most of the trees (see slideshow), which were a feature of the Epsteins’ collection and display; there were some especially appealing pencil drawings here.

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Obviously I was delighted to see one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s drawings of Elizabeth Siddal; this is one of my favourite images of her, in fact, day-dreaming as she looks up from her book.20161129_132001

The range here is excellent and I’m not able to do justice to it, but there is a great mix of contemporary artists and older works, from Impressionists to Modernists, sculpture, paintings and drawings. You can find Sickert, Augustus John, Corot, Braque, Samuel Palmer, even a Constable. Paul Nash appears, with one of my favourites from the collection, A Suffolk Landscape:

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The thematic approach to the collection is intriguing and although at first I thought it might seem to simplistic, in fact it highlights some interesting concepts about shifting continental approaches to nature, or landscapes, or portraiture, which is illuminating and appealing as well (I imagine) as proving useful for talks and events.

Do try to visit the gallery, to see its collection, to support it, and you can also vote in the ‘People’s Choice’ ahead of an exhibition of the most popular paintings in 2017.

 

Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
The_Empire_of_Light_MOMA

Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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Port Sunlight: Art and open spaces

20160506_131726_resizedLast weekend I went for the first time to Port Sunlight, a garden village on the Wirral which is perhaps best known now for the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I hadn’t realised how much the whole village was shaped around a specific ethos, though, and was amazed by the whole place. The village was built (or begun, anyway) in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever, for the factory workers at his ‘soapery’; Lever was one of several enlightened Victorian entrepreneurs who understood that business and industry are best served by happy, healthy workers, with a high standard of living and education, access to culture and entertainment, and good food and hygiene. The village represents these ideals in practice, and indicate the best in Victorian idealism; this is not what one thinks of when considering the working conditions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century factory workers.

The museum, which we visited first, outlines the story of the village, from its origins as swampy land which was considered useless, through the vision of the remarkably foresighted Lever as he built the factories, houses and public buildings, using 30 architects 20160506_125310_resizedso that there is a wide variety of building styles. Everything was designed to ensure that his workers would be happy as well as productive: the houses had their own bathrooms, running water and light and air; there was a school, a shop, a church, hospital and a village hall as well as gardens and communal green spaces (still beautifully cared for). As the community grew, events were organised – concerts, clubs and activities, and though life in the factory was probably quite dull, remuneration was good and the life that the workers could have there made up for it. I was interested, though, that the museum did indicate some dissenting voices – a few who found the approach of Lever and his village too paternalistic, with rules about what they could and couldn’t do, for examples. Yet, with 13.5 houses per acre, compared with up to 100 per acre in the slums of nearby Liverpool, the benefits must have been great, and apparently the children were so much healthier that they were considered much more a handful by the teachers than those growing up in less healthy conditions.

20160506_111529_resizedAfter the death of Lady Lever, the art gallery was built as a memorial to her, housing the Lever collection of over 20,000 objects. Many of these were Pre-Raphaelite paintings (some of which were on loan to Liverpool when we visited), and the distinctive though wide-ranging taste of the collector is apparent in this large gallery. This interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting seems appropriate, given its emphasis on the careful depiction of nature, its idealism and emphasis on narrative, as well as the parallels between Lever’s approach to providing access to culture for his workers and Ruskin and Morris’s ‘Art for All’ ideals. Like the Cadbury village at Bournville – though on a larger scale – Port Sunlight may be founded on industry, but it rejected the worse impulses of the industrial world and married a romantic, sometimes even medieval, arts and crafts approach with the practicalities of industry and business.

Beauty and Rebellion: Pre-Raphaelites in Liverpool

The Reading Art Project

IsabellaIsabella by John Everett Millais, 1849 (National Museums Liverpool)

I spend a lot of time looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in galleries, in exhibitions, online and in books. And every exhibition, like every book, has its own individual approach and shows me something new. It goes without saying, then, that the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, curated by Christopher Newall, with its own take on the subject and its own juxtaposition of works, got me thinking. The premise of the exhibition is to situate Liverpool as a centre of Pre-Raphaelite patronage, and as a city which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was receptive to such ‘rebellious’ art. Much is made of the wealthy Liverpool patrons who bought Pre-Raphaelite paintings, developed collections, and encouraged new painters to be open to the influences of this new school of thought in art. This led to…

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‘All possible devotion to poetry and beauty’

The Reading Art Project

Inspired by the exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how different art forms might reflect poetry in different ways. Cameron wrote that:

My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.

Of course, I think Cameron is referring to ‘poetry’ as a general term; after all, it’s a term often used loosely, suggesting a lyrical beauty which is perhaps a fit subject for poetry. But Cameron’s ambitions were to produce this effect often through reference to specific poems, too. The exhibition indicates the range of her social circle; her sitters included Tennyson, Darwin, Browning and a number of Victorian luminaries from the scientific to the poetic. It is with…

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‘Reading Art’: Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

The Reading Art Project

‘Reading Art’ is a three-month Cultural Engagement project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), organised by Dr Serena Trowbridge, Lecturer in English at BirmiBeata Beatrix (BMAG)ngham City University. The project is based at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), and will explore the literary aspects of their Pre-Raphaelite collection.
For the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and those associated with them, painting and poetry were sister arts. Many Pre-Raphaelite paintings were inspired by literature, and many poems were written to accompany paintings. The interest in and practice of these intertwining strands is one which was widespread in Pre-Raphaelitism, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William
Morris to less well-known figures such as Edward Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman.

The works in the Birmingham collection indicate this breadth of literary engagement, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1877), inspired by Dante’s Vita Nuova, to Edward Hughes’ Night with her Train of…

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