Suburban art

Museums After the success of my visit to the Atkinson in Southport last week, I looked through Edward Morris's Public Art Collections in North West England again and keeping things local decided to visit the Wiliamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead. I had been before; in the late nineties I was involved in a public sculpture research project and spent many days in the Birkenhead local history library and eventually took a trip to the gallery one lunchtime. Funnily enough though, I don't remember ever going inside - it was some years ago but I have a feeling I visited on a day when it was close and somehow never managed to return.

The gallery sits in the suburban area of Oxton with houses all around which, like the Lady Lever in Port Sunlight is a really civilized idea. Imagine being able to cross the road if you're at a loose end and being able to look at paintings. According to the book, the original gallery opened in a converted old library on Hamilton Street in 1912 after four years of negotiations between the local Art Club and the local council over funding (which eventually came through extra taxes).

Like the Atkinson, that original gallery opened with loans from local art collectors but over the next forty years the collection was built through purchases made for small amounts. The particularly clever policy decision was to concentrate on local artists, leaving the international and historic works to the Walker, but through bequests the gallery has built quite an impressive collection that includes Turner and Holman Hunt and Henry Moore.

That gallery proved popular enough that a decade and a half later, the current Williamson Art Gallery and Museum opened with funding from shipowner John Williamson and his son, which is the building I visited yesterday. The book describes it as being in a Neo-Georgian style, but I would call it gratifyingly municipal, the kind of large brick and column structure you'd expect a Town Hall to look like in Hollywood films set in small town America. Like the one in Back To The Future. Only smaller.

The entrance hall with its stone floor and high ceiling leads straight into gallery spaces which and oh yes, I'm going to use the cliché, makes it look like a Tardis. It's large and light and airy but also cozy. I like that you can see many of the display spaces straight away, see some of the geography without looking at the guide map. It's fun to have glimpses of the work before you can really see it, like trailers for a movie.

What's brilliant about the museum is its pleasingly bonkers approach to displays. There are seven permanent display rooms and it's clear that rather than even attempting to compete with other museums and trying to create a exhibit which covers everything, they've taken the decision to go with the strengths of the collection.

Stepping around the museum, you walk from a room filled with Victorian oil paintings to a selection of Della Robbia pottery to a display of ship models to an exhibition of bird pictures to a history of the local Lee tapestry works to a recreation of a room from a stately home completely with some (as the leaflet says) magnificent furniture including an elaborate suit of armour on loan from the V&A, and then after doubling back a room dedicated to a single painter, Philip Wilson Steer.

What this means is that you're never bored - there's always something new to see, but unlike most museums and art galleries which always seem to look the same because they're pretty much all telling the same story of human kind, this is simply throwing open tiny windows on sections of that history; it's almost as though someone has come along and chosen sections of a few different museums and randomly brought them together under one roof.

I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to decorative arts so although I understand some of the processes I can't really get excited about pottery. The boat models too were wasted on me, although it seems fitting that they be there given who originally funded the enterprise. The tapestry display was interesting from a commercial perspective as they demonstrate how a small business developed to become a leader in its field and inventing many new processes before larger companies and newer, cheaper technologies gained prominence and this factory couldn't cope. As I think one of the news reports on display says, in the end they were too small to compete with the larger companies, but too industrial to work as a cottage producer.

Inevitably I'm going to talk about the paintings because that's really what I took the trip to see. Enter the Victorian Panorama room and to left on the same wall as the doorway is Medea by Evelyn De Morgan. This is a tallish painting of a young lady in an ornate marble corridor in a long violet gown carrying a vial. She's a scorned woman -- Jason, he of the golden fleece and her lover has left her to marry Glauce, daughter of a king. But, typical man, he suggests at least in the Euripides version of events that she could become his mistress in the future. So in that vial is a poison that will be used to murder the bride to be and well, her own children, because she wants to hurt Jason as much as possible (poor kids).

Of course it's influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite school and that would automatically draw me in but I loved the execution, the shading on the marble, the detailing on the birds. And even without knowing the story (for reasons described later) I could still see the look of a decision made, a 'job' to do. There is also an accompanying verse printed on the frame:
"Day by day she saw the happy time fade fast away
And as she fell from out that happiness
Again she grew to be the sorceress
Work of fearful things as once she was."
Which is from William's Morris's Life and Death of Jason and absolutely captures the moment. Chilling.

Just as a completely unrelated side issue, you can actually see the painting on this Wikipedia entry for Medea. On the image origin page it states that they're reproducing the painting because "This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. [...] This applies to the United States, Canada, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years." What I don't understand is that although, yes, Evelyn De Morgan died in 1919 which would put this out of copyright for authoring purposes, on the back of the postcard I bought of the work it clearly says © Williamson Art Gallery and Museum which suggests a contradiction to me.

Staying in the legendary realm, and the same room, is Pelleas and Melisande by Edmund Blair Leighton, based on a story that appears in a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and an opera by Debussy. You can read the play here and Here is the synopsis of the opera. The painting catches the couple in the moment when he falls in love with her just as she finds the enchanted ring. She's sitting on the edge of the well, cupping her hands as the rings floats into them. He's on his knees leaning forward, hands clasped.

I love the lush greenness of the glade, the light hitting the ripples in the water, the rapture of the look in his eyes and enchantment of hers. It's particularly disconcerting though that she looks very much like someone I once knew and was quietly in love with - Melisande has long blonde hair and the secret object of my desire was a brunette, but other than it's entirely disturbing. Perhaps every man who looks at the picture sees a different figure or the same figure in different ways, the face suggestive of some long lost love, a source of regret.

Opposite this and dominating the room is the epic and lengthily titled: Defeat of Kellerman's Cuirassiers and Carabineers by Somerset's Cavalry Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo, a massive canvas that reminds me of similar paintings at the Louvres, giant screens filled with action. The guidebook describes it as 'dashing and vigorous, if rather disorganised' and that's a really accurate description with an almost impressionistic collage of men on horses crashing into one another. This was a significant skirmish in the Battle of Quatre Bras in which the British 69th, 30th and 33rd Regiments of Foot managed to repel a ground assault by one of Napoleon's marshals despite heavy causalities, which makes this a commemoration. And far from glorifying war it shows the brutality of it with all the precision of the best modern journalism.

I could write about this collection all day but you don't have the time to read it and I don't want to spoil the adventure too much should you ever want to visit. The Williamson is filled with surprises that need to stay that way. But I can't skip to my tiny criticism without mentioning the other core part of the collection on display, dedicated to Philip Wilson Steer, the Birkenhead artist. Painting at the turn of the century, Steer had a fairly flexible style, shifting from very English countrysides to the impressionistic portraits of women that make up the majority of the work on display. The accompanying information indicates that they're collection concentrates on his earlier work - his later achievements can be found in the big nationals such as the Tate.

Commanding the Williamson's room fourteen is The Muslin Dress, a very pretty painting of a young woman in a white dress resting on a sofa fidgeting with a hat. It's imbued with a stillness and calm, but for all of its summery colours, a tragedy hangs over it; she doesn't just look tired but exhausted, on the edge of emotion. She looks both comfortable and uncomfortable both at the same time, a mess of limbs unable to find a place with what should be one of the simplest spaces in the world.

It's actually very different to most of the works in the room because of its very fine brushwork creating an illusion of reality. Elsewhere, broad strokes are in evidence, blotches of blended colour favouring movement over pure reality. I bought both of the Steer postcards on sale, Schoolgirl standing by a door and Girl reading a book and although the general shapes are all there the features have been tuned away leaving instead a play of light and shade. It's extremely influenced by the French impressionists but both are also resolutely British, in the fashions and settings. Its confusing but in an intoxicating way.

The tiny criticism, then. The labeling. Most of anything I know now about these paintings I read when I got home because hardly any of the paintings have information and labels next to them. Now I know that frequently this is how they would have appeared on debut, but they were more enlightened times and my understanding is that more people would have known who Pelleas and Melisande would have been then in much the same way that we can look at the cover of Heat magazine and know who the latest reality tv star is.

It's just nice to have more context, it informs our understanding of the painting; I wish I'd known then the significance of that ring especially since they seem like a very comfortable couple. It's funny, back in the mists of time I thought about offering my services freelance to galleries that don't have a huge staff to research and write this sort of thing, but I could never work out how to broach the subject. "Dear Sir ... you don't seem to have labels next to your paintings. Would you like me to write them for you?" "No. Sorry, who are you, and what are your art history qualifications?"

That said, once again I really enjoyed my gallery visit, and once again I saw works that were just as impressive as those found in larger institutions. My comments from last week still stand. When you're able to see these works in small doses in a quieter atmosphere, you're able to see them for the small acts of brilliance that they are. It's not about whether the artist's name is familiar or famous it's about what is in front of you and at the Williamson once again that's radiant.


Anonymous said...

Ha ha! You went to the Williamson! You were a 10-minutes walk from my flat!

valerie3812 said...

Just came across this blog while googling for Pelleas and Melisande after a visit to the Williamson today. Wish you would write them some labels - the whole thing is run by a man and his dog and neither of them has time to do the labelling thing.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Well, the review is up here. If some day someone from the Williamson is idly googling they might see my offer.