Barber Association members, Hollie Pimm, Emily Robins, Jess Stallwood and Sarah Theobald, tell us about the New Art Gallery Walsall and some of their favourite works on display…
Earlier this year, the Barber Association organised a trip to the New Art Gallery Walsall for its members. This was certainly a treat as none of us had visited the gallery before. We had a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the collections with curator Julie Brown, which made the trip even more exciting for those of us art historians who see working in galleries as our dream jobs.
The Walsall gallery was built in 2000 and is a very modern and impressive building. Once inside, the gallery space is very intimate with a number of small rooms and big wooden staircases leading between floors. A great feature of the gallery is the fact that it offers artwork to suit all tastes, from panel paintings from the Renaissance to post-Impressionist and Modern works of art.
The main attraction of the gallery is its Garman Ryan collection, which was donated to the borough of Walsall by Kathleen Garman, the wife of well-known English sculptor Jacob Epstein. The collection is on permanent display and has a wealth of interesting artworks by a number of significant artists, such as Gauguin, Monet, Turner and Constable. We found the curating of the gallery very interesting; instead of the usual chronological grouping or the organisation of work according to artist, the artworks are arranged by general themes, such as landscape and townscape, animals and birds, portraits and religion, to name a few.
Here are some of our favourite works of art from the trip:
Lucian Freud, Portrait of Kitty, 1949, Oil on board, 32 cm x 24 cm
This is a portrait by Lucian Freud of his first wife Kitty Garman, daughter of Kathleen Garman (donor of the main collection) and Jacob Epstein. Kitty was married to Freud in 1948 and therefore this portrait is from very early on in their marriage. Although their marriage together didn’t last very long, what strikes me about this portrait is that it is incredibly intimate. The viewer is left with the impression that they are very close to kitty, leaving us to imagine that she is right in front of us. The muted green and brown colours also make her delicate, pale skin glow and her beauty stand out to the viewer. The viewer takes on the role of the artist and we perhaps see her through his loving gaze.
What fascinated me the most was the archive interventions provided by leading contemporary artist – Bob and Roberta Smith, in his ‘Epstein Archive Gallery.’ Smith’s two year residency at Walsall has resulted in an installation which not only illuminates the interesting history of the Epstein Family, but allows viewers to interact and engage with archival items and gain a deeper understanding not just of the family, but of the collection itself. Furthermore, the artistic response to the letters, photographs and diaries which form the archive basis is in keeping with the themes present in the permanent collection at Walsall, whilst remaining committed to the gallery programme which seeks to explore the diversity of contemporary art.
Gauguin, Auti Te Pape, c.1893-1894, woodcut
While wandering round the New Art Gallery Walsall I found myself amongst a great number of artworks by some of the most important artists in history, such as Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Personally, I have always been fascinated by the life and work of the French post-Impressionist and I was excited to discover that Auti Te Pape (c.1893-1894), a woodcut by the artist, was part of the collection.
As a man who chose to abandon his family and ‘civilized’ life in Europe, Gauguin developed a reputation as an artist attempting a return to man-kind’s so-called ‘primitive’ origins and connection with nature. His time living and painting in Tahiti towards the end of the nineteenth century was seen by many as an escape from the artifice of modern and industrialized France. This particular print depicts two Tahitian women, supposedly unaware of the artist’s gaze. The stylized impressions made by woodcut prints were perhaps used to represent the seeming honesty and purity of the Tahitian people. The simplified and inky markings perhaps symbolise the exotic and erotic myth which Gauguin presented to his stifled and constrained Western world.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddall, The Artist’s Wife, pencil on paper, 23cm x 19.5cm
‘This particular drawing depicts Lizzie being interrupted whilst reading, with her head propped on her hands as her famous copper hair cascades down her back.’
Being a fervent admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, spotting this painting was a pure delight. I immediately thought that it was a very intimate portrait of Lizzie Siddall, with her dream-like gaze from her heavily hooded eyes and the soft touch of her hands on her jaw line. Although Rossetti’s speed can be seen in his pencil strokes, he has arguably taken great care to capture his beautiful wife. Another thing to note about this work is its title. It is hoped that ‘Portrait of Elizabeth Siddall, The Artist’s Wife’ was the title that Rossetti himself gave to the drawing because it suggests that he was accepting commitment as they were married the same year in which this drawing was made. By titling the drawing of Elizabeth Siddall in this way, it might suggest a grand loving gesture from him to his new wife who was suffering from depression. It is unlikely that he would have named a sketch, but it was found on the wall of his studio after he died.
Overall, we all thoroughly enjoyed our trip organised by the Barber Association, and we were very lucky to get a sneak peak behind the scenes of the gallery. The gallery is definitely worth a visit – it is only 20 minutes away from Birmingham by train and has lots of hidden treasures in its collection…
Hollie Pimm, Emily Robins, Jess Stallwood, Sarah Theobald