a sight we’re not privy to

Museums Regular readers of this column will know that I’m generally fairly circumspect when it comes to commenting the display policies of most of the museums I’ve visited. There's little point criticising a gallery with only a limited amount of space and varying regimes and ideas and I know how difficult it must be to hang a fine art collection to the best advantage and often hard to justify if there’s nothing by a verified a-lister that will have the crowd flocking. Better to give the space over to something that will have a definite attraction for visitors or can be linked to the educational syllabus. But too often they’re stuck in a stairwell and you frequently find yourself standing between two steps looking nearly vertically upwards at something which has been put near the ceiling, a health and safety concern as other visitors try and dodge past you on the way to the Egyptian gallery or some such.

Lancaster City Museum presents another challenge. A conversion of the Old Town Hall, it clearly wasn’t designed to display this kind of work so there it is mostly in the stairwell again. Except on one of the walls are two large windows and nearly all of the paintings are glazed. Which means that it’s impossible to view any of the work without some kind of light source getting in the way. The one painting Edward Morris reproduces in his Public Art Collections in North-West England is a Portrait of Mrs Fuller Maitland by W. Blake Richmond. She lounges in a couch with a book and fan wearing some top rank cuture. I would have liked to have waxed lyrical about the work, but you can’t even see it, as the sunlight beats in from the windows at either side of it, bouncing onto the paintings opposite, the edges of frames reflecting all over the front.

I have a better notion of what the painting looks like from the black and white image in the book than from being in the presence of the thing. But that was true of the whole visit; only a few of the paintings, prints or drawings are unaffected by some kind of light source, usually artificial in other places. I spent most of my time looking sideways at work because to try and view it from the front was to do so with a circular flash of light obscuring some part of it, usually the centre. Again, this is something which happens in most galleries, even Tate Liverpool. But it just seems much more acute at Lancaster and pretty much spoilt the visit. It’s difficult to enjoy a picture, and analyse what the artist was trying to achieve, if much of the effort is spent trying to see it in sections. Too often I had to look at one side then step across to the other, taking in visual information like the panning and scanning machine that used to be used on films in the VHS days.

So here's the best of what I could see: The museum moved into the town hall in 1923 having previously been housed in the Storey Institute which had been refurbished by local oilcloth and baize manufacturers of the same name. The collection was the usual selections of gifts – from the Storeys who purchased the work of local artists and from artists themselves who were enamoured with seeing their work on this site. In 1951, for example, Philip T. Gilchrist gave the museum his Xerces burning Athens a wonderfully cinematic injection in which the Greecian fleet is valiantly trying to stave off an invasion of overwhelming odds, a classical story played out in a pastel impressionism of Monet. W T Jackson’s All Quiet shows the British front line at Ypres during WW1, abstract flairs of light streaking into a monotone blue sky towards the haggard silhouette of the enemy.

In A Sunny Day, William Gunning King verdantly reminds us of a forgotten piece of England in which an Edwardian family step from a road into some woods in what looks for all the world like a shot from a 70s Sunday night BBC costume drama. Ary Scheffer’s tiny but perfectly drawn Annunciation of the Shepherds has a small group of the sore afraid looking in wonder towards a sight we’re not privy to, their eyes perfectly fixed on that point no matter where they’re positioned within the painting as though an invisible ray is flashing towards them. But the undoubted highlight of the collection is Max Gaisser’s The Conference which shows a group of bearded Jacobians around a table deep in conversation in front a bookcase filled with antiquated volumes, delicately painted and full of mystery. Who are these men? What are they talking about? Why is what looks like a cardinal standing in the shadows at the back like the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files. Sadly there’s no information label with this work so perhaps I’ll never know.

The most intriguing part of the building is fairly unheralded and a legacy of the building’s past. On the first floor are two rooms; a display in (aptly) the old court room commemorating the work of the Lancaster army regiment and in the council chamber an exhibition relating the history of the town. About that in the corners between the wall and ceiling, partly obscured by the internal structure of the exhibit is a series of murals shows scenes from history, significant moments in the lives of monarchs interspersed with their coats of arms and seals, incredibly vibrant vignettes depicting the period covered by Shakespeare and beyond through to Queen Victoria. There’s no mention of them in the local history handbook on sale in the foyer, other than a photograph dating from 1890 and the attendant didn’t know anything about them. They’re very far away and dimly lit but with these layman’s eyes they reminded me of Edward Burne-Jones and are certainly something which could be made more of a feature of. They’re as impressive as the paintings in the collection, and in some cases moreso.

To be continued ...

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