dashing through the narrow streets of the city

Harris Museum, Preston, originally uploaded by Tony Worrall Foto.

Museums Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in the North of England has this to say on the subject of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston:

“The huge classical Harris Library, Museum and Art Gallery, with its inscription over its great portico: ‘TO LITERATURE ARTS AND SCIENCES’ and above it, Roscoe Mullins’s sculptural group, The Age of Pericles, dominate the centre of Preston like a medieval cathedral. Cultural and intellectual spiritual nourishment for the citizens of Preston now seemed to be the responsibility of the municipal museum and art gallery, of the church.”

Certainly, dashing through the narrow streets of the city in a downpour searching for the entrance was exactly how I’d imagine it would be if I was a character in an Ingmar Bergman film desperate to tell some god about my sins. Luckily, I didn’t have any sins worth sharing, which saved the security guard and lady working in the shop a bit of bother.

Harris, the name above the door, was a local solicitor, a very rich man, who at his death bequeathed £300,000 to the city for the building of new municipal buildings, and the council used a third of that towards this resplendent palace to house a collection which had developed during the previous few decades. The usual mix of gifts and bequests, this has built primarily from the industrialist John Sheepshanks and another local solicitor, name of Newsham. The fads of the time passed Newsham and his fellow donators by; you’ll not find the Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites or Classical Revival on these walls. His conservative tastes stretched to Etty, Herbert and E.M. Ward. Collectively, and baldy, a central theme emerges – women -– and they’re generally hung in thematic clusters, similar ages, contrasting ideas, from a range of periods, like the controversial initial layout of Tate Modern.

Unlike the controversial initial layout of Tate Modern, this works very well. Grimshaw’s melancholic In The Golden Time, an autumnal scene which depicts a maiden and child dwarfed by a stately home and wealth they’ll never know is placed next a variety of portraits of ladies in corsets of precisely the kind they’re cross the cobbled street to avoid. On one side of the main atrium is a full-sized portrait of Mary Logsdail by her father William, a chaste figure in her late teens, wear silver gown and violet scarf, perfectly designed but strangely artificial perhaps waiting for the viewer to provide their own emotional narrative, question whether her expression suggests that she cross, pensive, stroppy or simply waiting for something (perhaps her Dad to finish painting). Opposite, and produced a century later in the 60s is John Ward’s Linda, whose impressionistic style creates movement and whose dark background draws us towards the girl’s eyes and their certain emotion, sadness.

There are landscapes, true, but these are the most striking images and to an extent I wonder if the Harris could draw even greater attention to what is their main asset in their literature; this is a feminist destination and depending upon the route you take, you end up witnessing the slow development of the depiction of women in painting. I have pages and pages of notes describing this girl, that lady, at work, at play. John Rogers’ Cordelia with her Bette Davis eyes, Romney’s Serena Reading showing the tranquillity of reading by candlelight, Dickee’s Hespania whose beautifully detailed costume picked out in reds and golds distract us from her inert face. Then the rather wonderful In For Repairs by Laura Knight offering an antidote to the testosterone hued war paintings of the 1940s featuring a team of female factory works repairing a barrage balloon, the folds in the fabric of which so similar those in the dress in the Logsdail and closing At The Courtierer showing a beautiful model with deep red lips, as decorative as any of the Victorians, but more relaxed in her own skin.

None of which is to say that an element of social conscience doesn’t run through the collection. In Arthur Hughes’s Bed Time, a family is revealed to us, a mother putting her children to bed. Except from the father’s palpable anguish we can tell that all is not well, they’re a family in trouble. He grasps his leg and has his forehead in his hand which layers poignancy on the other elements of the scene, his wife teaching their daughter to pray and the smallest child laughing, blissfully unaware of whatever catastrophe has befallen them. Sherwood’s The Preston By-Election offers the city in disarray as supporters of the various parties clash, the eventual winner looking down upon the scene from a safe balcony demonstrating that politicians have always, to some extent, been out of touch. Charles Spence asks “Why War?” in his painting of a veteran of the (not so) Great War in his drawing room at the dawn of World War II, surrounded by symbols of conflicts passed, a bust of Wellington, a painting of Trafalgar and a copy of the Daily Sketch whose headline reads “Premier flying to Hitler”.

Then there’s the surprise. If by some remote chance you are planning on visiting the Harris soon, I’d look away now because it’s best discovered on your own. Gone? Right. In the main gallery space, one of the paintings has been replaced and next to the replacement is a small black and white photograph of the missing piece, Pauline in the Yellow Dress, by Sir James Gunn. She’s a regal figure with come hither eyes, like a young Princess Anne eyeing Mark Philips, draped across a chaise lounge cuddling a small dog. We’re told that its been moved to the costume exhibition, showing the breadth of fashion garments in the general collection. And it is. Along with the actual yellow dress that is in the painting! Next to each other. I actually gasped, the kind of audible gasp that tends to only appear in comic books, in a speech bubble with gasp written in the middle. The painting was bequeathed and the artist’s family recently gave the dress as well. It’s a very rare privilege to see just how accurate a painter has been with the costumer, to see how carefully they’ve copied the dots, matched the pigmentation. We can also see now that the dress was meant to be buttoned up but Pauline has unbuttoned herself, completing her seduction and making the visit worthwhile all by, um, itself…

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