Public Art Collections in North West England:
The Walker Art Gallery.

Art  The final end. Back in 2007 when I began this project, to visit all the venues listed in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Collections in North-West England, I hadn’t actually planned to visit all the venues listed in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Collections in North-West England. As I said in that original post, for the Atkinson Gallery in Southport, I originally planned to “take some trips to a few of these local smaller galleries and report back on what I find”. The blog doesn’t then have a later post where I actually say I’m going to “catch them all”, but there was definitely a moment some time in about 2007 or 2008 when I decided that I might as well.

It’s probably about then I determined that it would be best to leave The Walker until last because having worked there, being so familiar with the collection, it seemed more valuable to head out and visit the places where I’d never worked and was unfamiliar with the collection. Then, I was only seven years out from that employment. Now it’s fifteen years. Of course, I’ve been to the Walker in between, many times, for temporary exhibitions, but on each and every occasion I’ve avoided looking too closely at the permanent collection because I knew at some point I’d be approaching it as part of this project. The quest is the quest. Or rather was. Now.

Do I need to talk about my time at the Walker? Perhaps I do. This was at the end of the 90s, when I was contracted for one or two days a week and my business was collating together various volunteer projects in which items in the collection were added to a computer database together and completing the job by giving every object in the collection a thorough computer record based on internal archival documents. Ultimately I was cataloguing the collection and readying the data so it could be uploaded to the newer systems coming on streaming. As I wandered around, I wondered if the information on the walls was the same as I typed in back then.

In truth, I visited the Walker twice for this project in the end. My first attempt was last October with the idea that I’d complete the project before my fortieth birthday. But the gallery having so much art and an eye infection (yes, really) meant I only managed the first three rooms that day. So I returned yesterday to complete the survey noting that some of the paintings I’d seen in those first three rooms were no longer on the walls.  I could have spent even longer but at a certain point I have to put a stop to all this and if the gallery wasn’t as geographically convenient I wouldn’t have had a choice anyway. I had to wise up.

As you might expect given that he was a curator at the gallery until his retirement in 1999, two years before the publication of the book, Edward dedicates fourteen pages to the Walker including four for illustrations. I’ll provide the usual synopsis in a moment, but it’s important to stress that unlike most of the other galleries in the book, the Walker as with Sudley House and the Lady Lever is a national institution with the same status as the London galleries. As of 1986 it stepped outside of local authority control, gaining its funding from central rather than local government.

Yet despite that, it still retains an element of obscurity. Perhaps I should whisper this, but there are still people I’ve met visiting Liverpool for the first time from the south, who I still have to recommend the Walker to or have stumbled into it and told me afterwards how surprised they were not just that it exists but also the quality of its collection. Even now. Even in 2015. When I began this blogging project, it was with the aim of promoting these local venues, to demonstrate the quality of the work on display and that’s still vitally important, reminding people that as they glance towards London with envious eyes, there’s some fabulous art on their own doorstep.

The Walker’s collection began with a bankruptcy. In 1816, William Roscoe found himself at the sharp end of an economic downturn and his art collection, much of it from 1300 to 1550, was liquidated. Luckily for us it was sold to a group of his philanthropic friends, Liverpool merchants with nonconformist attitudes who then presented them to the Liverpool Royal Institution, a cultural club founded by even wealthier merchants and this then became the first public art collection in the country (albeit on technically own privately and with a visitor charge) and the model for many of the future examples in the book.

But despite the publication of a number of thorough catalogues and the purpose building of a venue to house them between 1840 and 1843, Edward says, the collection did not prove popular and in the early 1850s, Liverpool Town Council attempting to take over the institution and its collections as the basis for a municipal art collection as per other local authorities. But the institution’s members resisted, negotiations collapsed and by 1893 they were deposited on-load to the Walker Art Gallery then finally presented to them in 1948. At which point, I think you will have noticed, the narrative becomes slightly more complicated.

The Town Council, with the support of Roscoe had already been holding exhibitions of contemporary at various intervals between the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, which began with the support of the Liverpool Institution but continued under the control of a group of local artists calling themselves the Liverpool Academy. These ongoing exhibitions, from which the town council was also purchasing items for its permanent collection, were originally presented in the old Liverpool Museum until in 1873 the local brewer, Andrew Barclay Walker gave the council £25,000 to build a new dedicated art gallery which opened in 1877 for them.

So the initial foundations of the collection were built from the Royal Institution and the local council’s purchases from the Liverpool Academy’s Autumn exhibitions and years before the Tate and other major provincial cities. But the process of increasing the collection doesn’t differ markedly, a mixture of purchases and bequests though with the eye of a national gallery, with concerted efforts to bolster various aspects of the collection to reflect various art eras and movements. In 1961, for example, a £70,000 appeal specifically directed at industry and commerce in Liverpool was for the purchase of impressionist paintings.

Which explains why the collection has such range and depth and punching above its weight as a “local” museum, why it seems so surprising to visitors who might not otherwise know of its existence. As well as the medieval collection, which is as good in some aspects as the National Gallery in London and the pre-Raphaelites which rivals Tate Britain, we have Murillo, Rubens, Hogarth, Poussin, Seurat, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, Freud, a few Gainsboroughs, some Stubbs, a Rembrandt and a Hockney (thanks to the John Moores Painting prize arguably the successor to the Autumn exhibition and also the source of many purchases).

As you can see from the room guide, the gallery arranges its collection in chronological order beginning with the Medieval and Renaissance period through to “1950-now” the final room offering a series of changing displays. There’s also a semi-permanent display of John Moores Painting Prize winners, a sculpture gallery and a relatively new Craft and Design gallery installed in the space where my office used to be. There’s an overall atmosphere is of grandeur and unlike some other regionals, after navigating the massive entrance hall there is a display area to match, large rooms filled with massive art works.

All of which means it is impossible to really approach the “what I saw and what liked” section of these posts in usual way since as with Manchester Art Gallery, it is collection of range and depth. The BBC’s Your Paintings lists 2,254 oils and clicking on any of the search pages reveals a platter of works that would be the entire display of some of the places I’ve visited in the past decade. So I’ve decided to utilise the same arbitrarily chosen theme and concentrate on the works either directly or somewhat related to Shakespeare, concentrating on those items which are actually on display (sorry, Robert Fowler’s Ariel).

In the first set of rooms we find next to each other a portrait of Henry VIII attributed to the Workshop of Hans Holbein and of his daughter Elizabeth I attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  The former is the classic, iconic image of the king as appears on dozens of different portraits all with the same grand pose if different costume.  The Walker version is especially similar to the portrait at Petworth House.  The National Portrait Gallery website has a lengthy article analysing the "Hilliard" portrait along with its twin from their collection after they met for the Making Art in Tudor Britain research project though it won't categorically agree on who they were painted by.

For all Shakespeare's parody in the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ovid's story of Pyramus and Thisbe was a popular subject in the 16th and 17th century, especially amongst painters and in room three we find Gaspard Dughet's version, Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe.  It's the moment when Thisbe discovers the dead body of her lover Pyramus sealing their mutual suicide, just the moment when the best productions of Shakespeare's versions allow the actors playing Flute and Bottom, Thisbe and Pyramus to drop the comedy and play the emotion for real, confronting the audience with the reality, sticking the metaphoric knife into us, as well as each other on the stage within a stage.

Arguably the most important or at least famous Shakespeare painting in the collection, Hogarth's portrait of David Garrick as Richard III (in room five) dispenses with the audience altogether.  Rather than depicting the actor on stage, the artist chooses to place him within a war torn landscape as though he's part of history.  Nathaniel Dance-Holland would utilise a similar approach later and although in his version Garrick brandishes his sword aloft, Hogarth has the moment of greater drama as Richard awakens from his nightmares of being visited by the ghosts of his victims which must have been en electric moment on stage.  Note this is the sort of painting which has its own wikipedia page.

Into room six and the thick of the pre-Raphaelites and their successors.  Emma Sandys's Viola by contrast to the Hogarth doesn't faithfully depict a moment from Twelfth Night.  The frame has the moment when the Duke Orsino question's Viola about Olivia, ("And what's her history?" "A blank, my lord. She never told her love") with its double meaning as Viola talks about the concealment of feelings in which she's really talking about herself and Sandys chooses to portray this as the character showing her true feminine self rather than the boys clothes she would otherwise be wearing during that scene as directed in the text.

Finally, Arthur Hughes's As You Like It is a painting I'm already very familiar with.  Having seen it during a visit during my school days, it's the version of the characters that flashed through my mind when I first listened to the play from a vinyl copy of the British Council productions released by Argo borrowed from the Central Library and I now have the postcard on the wall above my desk.  It's a tableau, various scenes from the play against one another and although I now prefer the more realistic landscape in John Everett Millais's Rosalind in the Forest displayed nearby (its an age thing), there's no denying the romance of the Hughes painting and I can see why my young heart leapt.

Usually in these posts I mention some anecdote about the visit, something else which happened.  Well, the lock on the cubicle in the men's toilet doesn't work so I did have someone pay me an embarrassed visit ("Ooh oh, I'm sorry, um ...") which I mentioned to an attendant and there was an "out of order" sign when I returned.  Oh and the air conditioning machines which have appeared in some of the rooms are amazingly loud though I listened to music all the way round (Priesner as usual) so that was pretty fine.  But like this is really just me wanting to continue writing so that the project doesn't end.  When really it's about time for the project to end.  Here.  For now.

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