Museums I'm full of cold today and here is the reason why. A few weeks ago I was sorting through my bookshelves and came across an old book that I'd put to one side to read later and when later came I'd forgotten about reading it anyway. It's Public Art Collections in North-West England: A History and Guide by my old manager Edward Morris in which he's written short histories and reviews of a range of provincial art galleries in the North West. It was intriguing to read about these small museums with what sounded like wonderful little collections. I visited the art gallery in York a couple of weeks ago and there were some interesting works being highlighted that would have been overlooked in a larger, more comprehensive collection.

Some years ago, the Royal Academy decided to prove that point with a major exhibition of paintings from regional galleries and it was amazing. Unfortunately I was trying to fit it into a much larger day, and didn't have enough time to see everything but I took the point. If this had been a permanent collection it would have been one of the world's great museums. Flicking through Edward's book which is a work of utter joy and since international travel seems still out of reach for now, I've decide to take some trips to a few of these local smaller galleries and report back on what I find. Yesterday it was the turn of the Atkinson Gallery in Southport. And I didn't wear enough warm clothing which is probably why I've now got a sore through and the sniffles. Hold on a minute while I sneeze.

I've been visiting Southport since I was an under five and somehow I've managed to ignore the existence of this place. It's half way up Lord Street, now opposite the Starbucks, and part of a late Victorian building that also houses the library and an arts centre. The gallery was initiated and built by William Atkinson, a cotton manufacturer who frequently visited Southport with his sick wife looking for the refreshing sea air, eventually moving there and taking up residence there leading to his philanthropic gift. The gallery was opened in 1878 with an initial exhibition of loans from the town's population (which must have been a nightmare to organize) but would eventually develop its own permanent collection, through bequests from those local people, with work mainly representing British paintings and watercolours from the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. Sculpture also features -- a Henry Moore and a Jacob Epstein amongst others.

The gallery doesn't really have a foyer, up the steps and through the front door and you're met by two tall sets of stairs leading to the first floor (although there is sign stating that lottery funding has been applied for to make this area more welcoming). At the top is an old fashioned turnstile with a reception desk in front. Most of the gallery space yesterday was closed in preparation for their next exhibition. As I passed through one of the spaces toward the permanent collection, I heard shouting from the café, a couple arguing, breaking the mostly silence.
"You never treat me right!" she said.
"I treat you any way I like!" he said.
"Get away from, don't touch me!" she said.
I had to investigate. The café was closed and the couple were in the corner, by a wide door into the art centre next door pushing and shoving each other. They're twentysomethings. He's in a suit, she's wearing a cocktail dress. They stop and begin whispering conspiratorially to one another just as I realise that they're actors rehearsing for a play. No gallantry needed then. They laugh. I laugh. And slip away, back towards the art.

The permanent collection is at the back of the building, filling a stairwell and a room. In most galleries I've visited, the stairs are where the not so lovely paintings are placed, a preparation for the main event. But here, most of the canvases are really remarkable; items such as William Mouet Loudan's The Yellow Jumper and A Rose by H. Schelsinger both sit halfway up the stairs and require some effort to see under the glass and the lighting and really deserve a better place to be seen. The former is quite a melancholy work in which an older woman seems to be lamenting a life led and the latter shows a girl in the first blooms of her life looking forward. Actually it is fairly striking how the collection seems to be mostly either images of women or local landscapes, reflecting the tastes of the collectors who gave their work.

Some, such as Joseph Highmore's Portrait of a Lady are fairly generic middle class fare, but there's a memorable image from Laura Knight called A Dressing Room At Drury Lane in which two ballet dancers prepare for a performance, their dresses produced from a ray of unbroken oily brush strokes emanating from their wastes. See also Dorette's Sister by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst which in its time was tinged with scandal since the artist fell for the model's sixteen year old sister. He was married and Dorette was the name he used for her when painting in a failed attempt to hide his lust.

I bought two postcards but the images on them don't do the original works justice, since both have been conserved since the pictures were taken. In their cleaned up state they make the gallery worth visiting. The first is John Collier's Lilith, an imaginary portrait of the Adam's first wife, who according to the poem Eden Bower by pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was cast out for seeking equality and later sought revenge on his next intended, Eve. She was a devil woman with evil on her mind and according to the information that accompanies the painting 'as a vampire she resolved to prey on children, pregnant women and mothers in childbirth' and comes across as just the kind person that Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote about in her feminist tract Bitch.

This scourge of men and some women is pictured totally nude, except for a serpent covering her unmentionables, a tall bell shaped figure with long blonde hair, sensuous and disarmingly realistic. Frankly, it's ages since I've stood before a painting and simply gaped but there I was transfixed like a naughty school boy sneaking a peek through the girl next door's window. The serpent's head is resting on her shoulder and she look down upon it amorously (sorry, forgot to mention - this serpent is her lover and just like the devil in Milton's Paradise Lost she want to adopt it's form so that she can re-enter Eden). It's certainly, as the solitary visitor to the gallery, also the first time I've stood in a room with a painting and actually felt uncomfortable.

I've wondered about my reaction, whether it's because of the primal setting of the figure, standing in a forest glade, or because she's so well proportioned and it's simply a man thing, the high art equivalent of a men's magazine. To the right is another Collier work, In The Venusberg which features two nudes in a classical setting but that doesn't have the same effect. I think it's because in that picture, which illustrates the moment in legend of Venus and the medieval knight Tannhauser in which he kneels worshiping her, there is a clearer narrative that draws the viewer out of what they're seeing - and although we can't see the knight's face, because his hands are clasped in prayer and the presence of doves it makes the scene too spiritual to be titillating.

With Lilith, the male viewer becomes part of the narrative, part of the painting. It's suture probably, the psychoanalytical process often used in relation to film in which the person looking becomes involved in the thing they're looking at, in film cases because of editing or narrative drive and on this occasion like that naughty schoolboy, it's as if we're looking at something we're not supposed to see. A private moment between intimates, one of which on this occasion happens to be snake.

There's also an aspect of the gaze, which film critic Laura Mulvey expounded upon; in most films when a good looking woman is involved there will almost always be a male character and their attitude tells us what to feel about her - think of the look Emilio Estevez gives Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club. In Venusberg, because the man is kneeling chaste before the figure, we see Venus from his perspective - if he'd been looking at her lecherously, the theory goes we would too. In Lilith I suspect that because there isn't another man in the picture to tell show us how to interpret her and because that snake is wrapped around her, we're left to construe the image in our own way and inevitably, because all men are dogs, we'll go with our more primitive instincts. I know I did.

The other main highlight is Southport: For A Holiday In Wintertime by Fortunino Matania. The clunky title is explained by the fact that this was painted as part of a series of images for a poster campaign for the resort. A group of high class lords and dames shuffle out of a theatre on Lord Street to awaiting cars and the sea air. It's an extraordinarily atmospheric image, with its warm sepia lighting, the old Hollywood film star glamour of the people and the reflections of the cars and figures in the rain swept road and pavement. What I think makes the imagine transcend its purpose is the figure to the far right, the woman in the long light blue dress, holding together the velvet coat in the middle.

She looks other from the crowd, dashing as quickly as her heels will allow, like Cinderalla trying to disappear before the rest of the royal crowd discover she's an imposter. I mentioned her to the guard as I was buying the postcard and he said that Matania was reputed to paint an image of his mistress into all of his paintings and he thought was who this woman is - you could almost imagine that one of the women at the front of the painting is supposed to represent his wife, looking down or at something far off as the other love of his life slips away.

I know this might be beginner's luck but if half the galleries in Edward's book are half as interesting as the Atkinson I'm in with a treat. It's not often that I actually visit a gallery and it's a totally pleasurable experience, but I did love this and I hope they're able to bring more of their permanent collection out soon. If you are in the area it's well worth a visit and certainly made a change from the amusement arcades and bingo.

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