Public Art Collections in North West England:
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.

Art Hello Carlisle. Finally. Of all the destinations in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Galleries in North West England, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery has always felt like the most remote even though oddly it’s only a couple of hours journey from Liverpool by train. That swiftness was explained when changing from my usual train at Preston onto a tilting Virgin Pendolino on its way to Glasgow, Carlisle being the penultimate stop. Apart from completely misunderstanding how the reservation system works (to the dismay of the passenger who’d booked my original seat) the journey was uneventful. I spent most of it looking out the window at more incandescently beautiful countryside pierced by what I’m sure was the Ribblehead Viaduct (glances ominously at his copy of Bradshaw’s).

Edward really likes Tullie House, devoting four and a half text pages to its collection and I can see why because it’s utterly marvellous. Having spent the best part of a few years within this project visiting houses and tiny museums with very focused collections, there’s something quite disorientating to pitch up at a municipal in which almost every object on display demands the attention, where there’s very little, for want of a better description, “filler”. Much of this has to do with its size. Although the main museum is in a huge, recently refurbished space, the art collection is presented in its original venue at the back, in actuality Tullie House is relatively tiny, smaller even than Sudley. It’s the kind of place so tight for space it has to display its Stanley Spencers in the stairwell.

The road to the museum is a familiar story. After a number of local art exhibitions across the 19th century, the local council eventually bought Tullie House, originally built in 1689 and in 1890 opened it as the local museum and art gallery, with an extension added through public subscriptions for the local library and a school. Both of those have since moved out and the museum filled that space and a further extension completed in 1990. But the collection didn’t really begin to flourish until the 1930s when Mrs Maud Scott-Nicholson, the daughter of Sir Benjamin Scott, whose fortune through his company Hudson Scott & Sons Ltd, was made as a box and packaging manufacturing, proposed the introduction of a proper purchasing scheme (always a philanthropist).

In turn Sir William Rothenstein, the principal of the Royal College of Art was appointed, with a budget of £100-£200 a year, to amass a collection at his discretion from as Edward describes “work by young and little known artists” which he did until 1942. The scheme continued through various successors until 1975 when it was abolished presumably in favour of a more traditional municipal purchasing policy. The collection was also boosted when Rothenstein’s friend, poet and dramatist Gordon Bottomley bequeathed his collection to Carlisle in 1948 and it’s fair to say, judging by Edward’s description that a large proportion of the display are from these additions. But there are also still plenty of recent purchases and gifts, creations from right up until the present day.

A quick user guide. If you do visit the museum and you’re alone, bring music and headphones. From what I can gather the venue also houses some of the office space for the staff of the museum and has a downstairs meeting room and at the time I visited people were walking through all of the time which was just about ok when I was in the gallery space but made the experience of looking at the art in the stairwells abysmal. My usual choice of Preisner’s music helped to drown out much of the noise of people clomping about but all of the business of moving refreshments in and out of that meeting room and people marching around the building was, I’m afraid, horrendously distracting and particularly problematic given that the gallery has an admission charge (albeit one covering the year).

Of course the counter argument is that there were visitors too, and in London galleries you can barely see anything for the crowds. But there’s a big difference between visitors shuffling about looking at art and staff members who already know the space marching through and us having to get out of the way for them (which happened on a couple of occasions). Note this isn’t about the on hand attendants who were really helpful and offered some useful points about how to navigate the space and where to look in the main museum for other sections of their permanent art collection. Plus it’s not really the staff’s fault. They’re just going out to lunch. It’s the original policy of putting their offices in the top and meeting room at the bottom of this building, small enough to swing a small mammal.

Nevertheless, I did see some extraordinary art which is presumably all that matters. My notebook contains thirteen pages of notes, titles of works and notes and I scarcely know where to begin. Half of the wall space is dedicated to Bottomley’s pre-Raphaelite collection, mostly watercolours and drawings but some oils. There’s a woman’s head by Rossetti, startling for its similarity to modern comic art and cartooning in a way I don’t remember seeing from him. For the Shakespeare collection is his The Death of Lady Macbeth, a nihilistic scene showing Lady M wringing her hands as exhausted servants stand nearby unable to cope much more. Through a window her husband leads his army into battle with the artist able give as much detail in pencil to them as is usual in his paintings.

Around a partician from there, with a dozen other pieces I could mention in between is Burne-Jones’s Voyage to Vinland the Good, a sketched design for a windows of a private house in Newport, Rhode Island which the internet tells me was built by hardware and tobacco heiress Catherine Lorillard Wolfe on Ochre Point Avenue but sold in 1937 to the Cohen Brothers of Baltimore. As you can see, the curve of the ship is submerged in the cure of the sails almost to the point of abstraction and in the pencil version without the pigmentation, it’s not quite clear in places where the sky, sea and ship begin and end, exactly what it was like to navigate the globe in those old boats. Also remarkable is how the artist manages to communicate the fear of the figures within so little space for expression.

Leading up from this room is a stairwell filled with portraits, self and otherwise from various eras including this curious self portrait by Peggy Fitzgerald which Your Paintings says is the only oil work by her in public ownership. The shaping reminds me lot of Magritte, especially the way she’s holding that branch. Whatever could it mean? On the window ledge halfway up the stairs is a marble sculpture by Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo (though not Donatello). Mike holds a piece of machinery, Rapha a miniature Venus and Leo and book and the way they’re arranged makes them look like they could be three incarnations of Doctor Who (if you’re Peter Capaldi, the Doctor to the rest of us). It’s hollow, I think, accounting for the marble’s translucent quality, glistening in the sunlight.

Upstairs and into the long room and arguably the business end of the collection. It’s here the pre-Raphaelite oils are kept, including one of their star pieces, The Rift within the Lute by Arthur Hughes, the quintessential example of the form with its beautiful woman wearing a richly-coloured dress and cloak, lute and Tennyson connection, loosely based on Alfred’s The Idylls of the King. Next door is his Madeleine, originally titled The Casket in which his wife provided the model for a young in an intimate moment looking at jewellery. Both of these paintings, for all their late Victorian trappings have that magic and sense of fantastical otherworldliness which I know repels some but I adore. There’s a melancholia in both. a sense of the story hidden behind the story.

Which is also true of my absolutely favourite painting on display, The Farewell by Frederick Cayley Robinson. A young woman in straw hat is shown embraced by a taller figure whilst leaving a simple white house, what me must assume is her luggage being carried away by an adult couple, a man and a woman and we might think this was in biblical times were it not for this being a chest and the clock tower in the background. The information nearby offered little clue to context. We don’t know the story. Who is she? Who are they? Why are they pointing to the sky? Where is this? The same building reappears in his Reminiscence which is at Lemmington Spa Art Gallery. Are they parts of the same story? It’s the not knowing that makes this so alluring. I stood looking for well over ten minutes.

Which is something I did a lot walking around, wanting to take everything in, much too much to really talk about here though I will just quickly mention the two massive paintings by Robert Forrester, commissioned it seems for illustrative purposes for the museum, two massive works Borrowdale in the Ice Age, about 20,000 Years Ago and Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, about 1500 BC, painted in the mid-sixties when the fashion for landscapes had well moved on but seem to have been upheld in these epic images. This is widescreen, technicolour painting that recalls the pre-Raphaelites but depict historical reality rather than myths and fantasy. Having recently spent some time in the wilderness (somewhat) this is exactly how I’d imagine it would be in winter, though I fear it may not be now.

The whole business took about two and half hours and with a train to catch within a few more not enough to actually see the rest of the museum properly, or Carlisle Castle just across the road. Instead I decided to visit the Cathedral, which judging by its website has esteem issues: “It may not be the best known medieval Cathedral in England, it is certainly not the biggest, but it delights its many visitors.” Which it did having amongst its many fixtures, the Brougham Triptych, a rapturously beautiful carving originating from Antwerp in 1520 and has ended up in Carlisle via St Wilfred’s Chapel, Brougham where it was brought for decoration in the 1840’s by Baron Brougham and Vaux. It’s impossible to put into words and these images barely capture its beauty. Not the first time I’ve said that about something lately.

All of which now means there’s just three venues left to cover in the project and since I’m forty at the end of next month I’ve decided I’m going to try and complete this project by then. Back to Knutsford tomorrow for Tatton Park all being well and then Manchester Art Gallery followed by the Walker in the coming weeks. After that, perhaps some revisits. Blackpool was closed when I visited and Stalybridge didn’t have its permanent collection on display. You may remember I saw Oldham’s collection while it was in storage and I’ve just had Abbot’s Hall recommended to me and its six years since I’ve been to Kendal. But we’ll see. Like I said, Bradshaw’s is glaring at me from the shelf and now that I’ve been to Carlisle Cathedral, there’s handy list of the others on the Wikipedia. It’d be a reason to visit Guilford, finally.

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