Leamington Spa Art Gallery

A look back at the art highlights of 2015 in Coventry and Warwickshire

As I take a rest before throwing myself bravely into a new year of trying to balance a wine glass, note book and pen at exhibition openings, there’s time to reflect on a year of varied shows – and meeting two gallery bosses called Kate who really suffer for their art.

In July, a retrospective exhibition by Coventry-based artist Nancy Upshall was my first experience of the Deasil Art Gallery in Oxford Street in Leamington. I talked to Nancy about her artistic career and paintings made in Coventry from the 1950s onwards, and also Kate Livingston and Kate Bramwell who run it.

Openings at Deasil are always fun, and Kate B welcomed me to one, when she had her hands full, by inviting me to pour my own Prosecco and “fill it to the brim” – a girl after my own heart. The exhibitions I’ve enjoyed the most have been Nancy’s and also Inked Palette, which brought a new audience to the gallery, as it showed works by people who normally work as tattoo artists. The two Kates really showed their commitment to their work at that exhibition, as each got a tattoo live at the opening – I’m glad to say I’d left by that point, though Kate B has an artist’s palette on her abdomen and Kate L a letter on her leg as a memento of it!

Adrift Adrift by Nancy Upshall

Earlier in the year, Gallery 150 bowed out of its central space in Leamington after Englandia, an exhibition by former Coventry University lecturer John Yeadon, an investigation into England’s national identity which John said doesn’t exist. I met up again with John at the Hunger Meal at Coventry Cathedral, organised by Artspace’s City Arcadia project, where we were among the naughty children, including Dean John Whitcombe, who didn’t join the organised conversations, but still enjoyed the talk and food enormously.

Rugby Art Gallery started the year in uncertain silence, with the Rugby Collection making an earlier than normal showing, including some new additions to the collection. Its later Open, fairly predictably inspired by the Rugby World Cup, was a bit disappointing but The Gain Line by Ravi Deepres was a mesmerising film which held my attention thoroughly, partly through merging local scenes from the town with a game at a huge venue.

The Mead Gallery at the University of the Warwick began the year with some fascinating Russian photographs from the early twentieth century, and by five contemporary photographers. And, not usually a huge fan of film installations, I was blown away by The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen installation by John Akomfrah about cultural theorist Prof Stuart Hall. The summer exhibition focused on the Mead’s own collection, now in its 50th year. It was an excellent chance to see together works which are generally spread around the university.

I was also lucky enough, on a beautiful bright day, to be invited to the installation of a new work by David Nash at the University of Warwick’s Diamond Wood, accessible from the Coventry to Kenilworth cycle route and walkway. I talked to the artist as the work was painstakingly winched into place and David positioned it down to the last millimetre. It’s called Habitat and the idea is that local wildlife such as bats, birds and insects will use it; I must return to see how it’s bedded in.

The Mead’s final exhibition of the year, Making it: Sculpture in Britain 1977-1986 was a thorough and educational exhibition about the works in this period, but my overwhelming feeling afterwards was that this wasn’t the most interesting period of sculpture by a long way.

Nuneaton’s Museum & Art Gallery does a valiant job in staging two or three exhibitions at the same time, and it continued to show some small and interesting ones this year, including some inspired by works left to the museum. It started the year with an exhibition of miniatures, which revealed some lovely works by Lady Stott, who’d lived an interesting life. A later exhibition of works by Jhinuk Sarkar was inspired by a collection of items owned by Canon John Turner during his time as a missionary in Baffin Island early last century. It’s amazing where these things end up. Other good shows there this year included urban landscapes of Coventry, Nuneaton and Senegal painted by Sarah Moncrieff, and cartoons by Nuneaton-born professional cartoonist Noel Ford.

The White Room in Leamington continued to lay on fun opening nights, packing people, wine and nibbles into the small but perfectly formed gallery space.

The Lanchester Gallery had been in the prominent and easily accessible spot on a corner in Jordan Way in Coventry for the last couple of years, and flockOmania, which combined giant jewellery and performance, was one of the oddest. It’s a shame it’s now back inside the far less accessible art school building on the corner of Cox Street.

The RSC in Stratford continued to surprise with some good exhibitions, including one about Bruce Bairnsfather, the Warwickshire-born wartime cartoonist I had never heard of but was fascinated to learn about.

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Works by Jade Blackstock, Michael Carr and Jennifer Shufflebotham in New Art West Midlands.

New Art West Midlands was challenging, not least to me when I found myself shut outside Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum desperate to get in early before a drive to Colchester (don’t ask). Thankfully PR Helen Stallard rescued me and it turned into a fun opening, with chats to several lovely artists including Michael Carr who I kept running to at exhibitions throughout the year.

Compton Verney had what felt like a good year, starting with an exhibition entitled Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, which showcased his paintings from 1746-55, and I was glad to have attended the official opening and heard gallery director Dr Stephen Parissien put them in their artistic, social and historical context.

Warwickshire-based artist Faye Claridge’s Kern Baby was on show outside all season, a five metre-high faceless, gowned creature, inspired by some Benjamin Stone photographs, with some of her admittedly “edgy” photos inside. I described Kern Baby at the time as looking as though she’d escaped from the building. Months later I visited to find her down by the lake; apparently her prominent position – great as an art work – didn’t go down so well with the venue’s wedding business and photo opportunities.

 

 

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Kern Baby’s second position, by the lake.

The Chinese Collection enjoyed a big revamp after winning funding, and it made a huge difference, showing the importance of the collection rather than just being on a route between galleries.

Leamington Art Gallery & Museum held A Leamington Lad brought together lots of works by Terry Frost, 100 years after his birth in the town. It was brought to life by some recordings of interviews with the characterful Frost. Later in the year I chanced upon another Frost exhibition in Banbury, Frost, Family and Friends, showing works loaned by individuals rather than galleries, and the often personal stories behind them. The works were mostly smaller and not all in Frost’s usual style, which made it fascinating; it’s on until January 9 so there’s still time to see it.

Recording Britain at The Herbert was a V&A touring exhibition which showed the country in 1939 captured by artists of the time, and many lost scenes were recorded; it was poignant though that not all were lost in the war, some were drowned under reservoirs or lost as industries declined. The autumn season of remembrance at the Herbert included work by contemporary artists, but seeing John Piper’s paintings of the city the day after the Blitz were most memorable.

Away from my usual round of galleries, there were some other gems.

A photographic exhibition at the Belgrade Theatre showed the works of a class of 11 adults studying for City and Guild Level 2 Photography & Photo Imaging at City College, and included some really good works on the theme of city life.

Skateboarder John Blakemore

A skateboarder by Tony Skipper in the Belgrade Theatre exhibition, and a John Blakemore from Imagine Hillfields.

Imagine Hillfields was an exhibition which came from a research project, and brought together works by contemporary and historic photographers depicting Hillfields. Jason Tilley had created new portraits for it, Richard Sadler had documented his grandmother’s life in the 50s and Masterji had documented South East Asian families through the decades; but the most astonishing, by John Blakemore from the 1960s hadn’t been seen before. The bleakness of some of the images was at odds with the fizz-fuelled and fun opening.

Lucy Cash presented a film installation in Gosford Books in Coventry city centre as part of the Dance and Somatic Practices Conference 2015 which was being held in the city; about two people could squeeze in to view it at a time.

In the Michael Heseltine Gallery at Middleton Cheney near Banbury, Coventry artist George Wagstaffe, known for his sculptures, held his first painting exhibition at the age of 80-plus, and it was interesting to hear about how Pre-Raphaelite women he’d seen in paintings in Birmingham around the time of the Second World War were influencing him still.

I discovered CRW Nevinson at the Barber in Birmingham, and loved his attitudes and mix of futurist and cubist styles; the gallery showed German Expressionist prints at the same time, works which were derided by the Nazis and can be appreciated now for their honesty and power. On London visits, I discovered and enjoyed the art galleries at the Imperial War Museum.

My first visit to Bilston Craft Gallery was to see Bilston’s Happy Housing: Otto Neurath’s Vision for Post-War Modern Living, an examination of the plan for homes that would actually make people happy, and what happened to that inspirational idea.

There was an exhibition of photographs as part of Coventry University Romani Week in April, with an introductory talk by the late Deputy Council Leader Phil Townshend, who spoke passionately about the city’s dedication to community cohesion.

On a trip to Cornwall, I was amused to find lots of koans (you know, the pointy thing in front of the Warwick Arts Centre) on show at the Tate St Ives as part of a show of Liliane Lijn’s works. I didn’t get to London often this year but was very glad to make it to Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy; I had thought he was more interesting as a person and campaigner than artist, but seeing lots of his pieces together made me revise that view – the personal and the political merge to create really great works. An exhibition of portraiture by Giacometti found me also having to look anew at works more on paper than in clay by one of my favourite sculptors.

One of the oddest art experiences of the year was the Art Trail run as part of the Earlsdon Festival, where I paced the streets looking for some elusive art works. It was something I felt could grow and be improved upon in 2016, but with the Earlsdon Festival now not happening perhaps it won’t go ahead at all.

Anyway – thanks for the art, the laughs and the gossiping in gallery corners this year – and looking forward to what 2016 will have to offer!

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Poignant performance for works of talented composers killed in Gallipoli

 

A First World War commemoration event with an interesting approach is taking place in Warwickshire this week. It will remember the artistic creation of two people who died in the war, and what might have been had they survived.

A press release from the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum explained that as part of the Gallipoli Music Memorial 2015, the gallery is hosting a free dance performance in the Royal Pump Rooms on Wednesday, 29 April from 6-7pm.

The London Central School of Ballet will perform The Comic Spirit, a short ballet by the Leamington-born pianist, organist, critic and composer William Denis Browne. This will be the first public performance of the ballet, which Browne wrote in 1912.

There will also be the first solo dance setting of Frederick ‘Cleg’ Kelly’s Elegy for Strings: in memoriam Rupert Brooke. An introduction to the performances will be given by Nick Peacey, William Denis Browne’s great-nephew.

Senior Curator Vicki Slade said: “William Denis Browne had a promising career as a composer before the First World War broke out. 100 years after his death at Gallipoli, it is fitting that the first ever performance of his only ballet should be given in his home town.”

This event is free, though places are limited. They must be booked by phoning Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum on 01926 742700, or calling in beforehand.

This event runs in conjunction with Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum’s exhibition A Leamington Musical Meteor: The Life of William Denis Browne (1888-1915) which runs until Sunday, 10 May. The exhibition, which was organised by Nick Peacey for the Gallipoli Music Memorial 2015 project, brings together family archive material alongside compositions by Browne, to celebrate his career.

Browne was born in Leamington on 3 November 1888 and grew up at Lynnwood, a large house on Lillington Road. He attended Greyfriars Preparatory School in the town and Rugby School, before attaining classical scholarship to study at Clare College, Cambridge.

It was there that his talents developed as a performer and composer. After university he was building a successful musical career, with performances at 10 Downing Street and Westminster Cathedral, when the First World War intervened. Browne was killed fighting at Gallipoli on 4 June 1915, aged just 26.

*The Gallipoli Music Memorial 2015 is a unique project looking at the vastness of the First World War through one battle. It will tell the stories of nine men who fought at Gallipoli and will set their wartime experiences against their peacetime lives. All nine men pursued artistic careers, and although they fought for different causes, they were united by their experiences of the battle. The Gallipoli Music Memorial 2015 project is funded by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

 

Coventry and Warwickshire’s art world in 2014 – a quick look back

A tour with Jeremy Deller, an evening with a KLF star, a camp parade, champagne on the terrace – and an embarrassing slip into an art work. Some of my memories of 2014.

As most galleries stay closed today, it’s time to look back at some of the highlights of the last year in the local art world – or my take on them anyway.

I can’t believe it’s nearly a year since I set out on a horrible January night to see George Wagstaffe and Michala Gyetvai’s exhibition at the Michael Heseltine Gallery in Middleton Cheney, near Banbury.

Their combination of sculpture and textiles work well together and it was lovely to see how they’ve inspired and revitalised each other’s art careers.

I ran into them several more times during the year too, at Ragley Hall where artist Dawn Harris had a residency which produced some interesting exhibitions and some fun openings, and where Michala was one of several artists working from studios in the stable block.

Champagne on the terrace outside the Hall in the sun before a tour of the first (and now only) Open exhibition was particularly memorable. It’s a shame that with a year’s worth of events planned Dawn and the other artists were asked to leave a few weeks ago – I hope they find somewhere else soon, but I fear it won’t be so attractive.

As openings go, the best had to be Qasim Riza Shaheen’s exhibition The Last Known Post at the mac in Birmingham. Vodka and orange, live Sufi music, a highly glamorous and camp parade – what’s not to enjoy!

Walking art featured strongly at the start of the year, with exhibitions of various artists’ work at the Mead, the mac in Birmingham and a Richard Long exhibition at The New Art Gallery, Walsall. Long held an In Conversation in Walsall which showed his non-nonsense nature, and the thought of his long walks, carrying everything he needs with him, was very impressive. The New Art Gallery also held an exhibition dedicated to the history of its Garman Ryan Collection and it was great to see the influence of two women on Midlands art.

Nuneaton’s Museum & Art Gallery continued to offer up some little gems of exhibitions in its own quiet way. At the start of the year I enjoyed Shaun Morris’s exhibition of paintings mostly of the underneath of the M6, and later in the year explored the varied world of illustration and some expansive works by Paul Newman.

Romanian-born Coventry University graduate Mircea Teleaga exhibited his moody paintings influenced by his home country at the Lewis Gallery in Rugby School, an attractive gallery which often has interesting exhibitions but is unfortunately only open weekday afternoons.

Other Coventry University graduates were chosen to have their work exhibited as part of New Art West Midlands, and I’m sure we will be seeing a lot more of Lucy Hutchinson’s work in future. Her striking golden wallpaper telling stories of family across the world was a highlight of the show at the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum.

At Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, Professor David Carpanini brought Welsh valley life into focus in gritty paintings. The Compton Verney the season opened with Moore Rodin, including some striking large works in the grounds which made a great impression, and continued with the Folk Art exhibition which moved up from London later in the year.

At Rugby Art Gallery & Museum the annual show of the Rugby Collection was enlivened with a focus on conservation work, and the end of the year show It’s A Wrap looked at the tradition of wrapping in Japan, furoshiki.

In March, I saw Bill Drummond begin his 12-year world tour at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, which was a fun and predictably wacky occasion – let’s hope we’re both back there for the planned end of it in 2025.

At the Mead, a personal highlight was being shown around the All That is Solid Melts Into Air exhibition by its creator Jeremy Deller, while I interviewed him, then also hearing him talk about it at the Herbert, before being bussed back for the official opening. Very entertaining and interesting.

At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, the interactive exhibition Is This A Dagger? Was a good idea for an exhibition, and a nice excuse to visit the theatre again. And at Packwood House in the summer, Hilary Jack created some great installations to enhance a tour of the lovely grounds.

Coventry Artspace launched a programme of exhibitions looking at Coventry in the former Coventry Blaze shop in the City Arcade in the autumn, and at one event there I stepped back to clap a speech and ingnominously stepped back into Kathryn Hawkins’s installation, river …. splashing water all up the wall. Sorry about that (again).

There were closures too; the Gallery Upstairs in Henley-in-Arden, run by brother and sister Carey and Paul Moon, and previously owned by their parents, closed with a final exhibition in May and the beautiful building was put up for sale.

In Coventry, a group of artists calling themselves Through the Wall Projects, including another New Art West Midlands artist James Birkin, who paints great paintings of mostly derelict buildings, set up shop in one of Coventry’s fairly derelict areas in Bishop Street. Matthew Macaulay of Pluspace got involved to hold a couple more exhibitions there, but unfortunately the threat of business rates saw them having to move out.

The Lanchester Gallery Projects project ended at the building in The Hub after a varied and often challenging series of exhibitions but the university has continued to run it as a gallery, ending the year with a bright exhibition of paintings by John Devane including some influenced by American movies. The American influence was also strong in the closing exhibition of the year at the White Room in Leamington, in which Horace Panter – day job: bassist with the Specials – showed is growing catalogue of paintings.

So that’s it for 2014 – an interesting, if not stand out year. Here’s looking forward to more in 2015 – preview in the Coventry Telegraph, January 2.

2011 was the year of George Shaw and galleries coming and going

A year ago Private View began, and before we launch ourselves into 2012 I want to look back at a year of the Coventry and Warwickshire art world, of Georges, and of galleries coming and going.
One of the early pieces I wrote on Private View focused on the find in an auction house catalogue by Coventry’s now former Conservation Officer George Demidowicz of a fantastic set of early 19th century watercolours of the city by William H Brooke, and The Herbert launched a £12,000 public appeal to buy them (George is pictured below right with Martin Roberts of The Herbert). Luckily it was a success. Sadly George is no longer with the council so one wonders if a similar set of works would be missed in future.

Martin Roberts and George Demidowicz at The Herbert

At the end of 2011, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about another George, George Shaw, who also paints Coventry, but in Humbrol paints and watercolours. His works focusing on Tile Hill featured in a major exhibition at the Baltic early in the year, and gained him a nomination for the Turner Prize. Staff at The Herbert must have been jumping for joy when they learned about this, as five years of work to stage an exhibition of his work at the gallery coincided with the prize announcement, which unfortunately he wasn’t successful in.
I make no apologies for writing so much about him when his work stands out so much, has gained national acclaim – and the opportunity to write about a local, internationally-recognised artist does not occur all that often!
The opening of an exhibition of lesser-known works by Graham Sutherland at Modern Art Oxford a few days after the Turner announcement, curated by George, was also a lucky coincidence and led to another enjoyable interview. He may be in need of a rest but I’m sure there will be much more that is entertaining, whether through paintings, writing or curating, to come from George in the future – and I’ll never forget some of the tales I heard over lunch at Oxford!
To look at galleries around the area, The Herbert staged Secret Egypt at the start of the year, which tried to cover a lot but only really managed to scratch the surface, and the summer was given over to a dinosaur exhibition aimed at the family market. Its smaller exhibitions caught my eye more – Stitch in Time, looking at the stories behind patchwork creations, the Coventry Consortium, and Lisa Gunn and Flora Parrott’s joint exhibition earlier in the year.
The Art Fund has held a number of interesting and varied fund-raising lectures in the area, which should be looked up by anyone interested in hearing about art and helping secure works for galleries.
At Rugby Art Gallery, Faye Claridge started 2011 with an exhibition inspired by Morris Dancing, and got local girls involved, which was great. The gallery’s 43 uses of drawing exhibition was also memorable.
The White Room gallery in Leamington continued to succeed with its eye for commercial exhibitions, mainly of prints, led by the enthusiasm of John and Heather Gilkes and their family. Their current exhibition of works by Specials’ bassist Horace Panter must surely be one of their most successful.
Compton Verney offered a mixed bag, starting with the wonderful Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson exhibition, continuing with Stanley Spencer landscapes, and ending with the damp squib of an exhibition about fireworks. Next year is looking promising though.
Often-overlooked Nuneaton Art Gallery and Museum put on several small but interesting exhibitions, including subjects as varied as black footballers, little fairly sculptures, lots of painters, and a tribute to local sculptor John Letts.
Leamington Art Gallery also put on several excellent exhibitions in its small temporary exhibition space, including Sir John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations, an exhibition about the life and legacy of Robert Dudley, and the current James Edward Duggins watercolour and pastel exhibition. Its permanent collection is worth visiting for alone.
Hannah Starkey at the Mead exhibited her staged photographs of women in thoughtful situations and I was sorry flu kept me away from meeting her at the opening night. The photos tell stories and are more beautiful the more you return to them. Later in the year the Mead showed fascinating sculptures by Hupert Dalwood, and also photos by Tom Hunter, whose works were staged photos in Hackney, inspired by old masters, and also having a definite something about them.
Hunter’s work is also currently on show at the RSC in Stratford, a different set of photos showing some of Hackney’s more striking people in scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ll be writing about it in the paper soon, but it’s a captivating exhibition.
Unfortunately 2011 seems to have seen the end of some of the smaller galleries in the area. I only discovered Our White Room in Rugby had gone recently when I went to visit and found other businesses in its space. The Fishbone Gallery in Longford, Coventry, which opened with some entertaining exhibitions and even more fun opening nights, has gone all quiet, and after moving to more attractive premises in the Canal Basin the Lock Gallery hasn’t had so many exhibitions this year, though Emma O’Brien has secured more regular art fairs at the Canal Basin. The Forge at Stretton-under-Fosse succumbed to its rural location.
On a more positive note, the opening of two attractive new gallery spaces in the RSC in Stratford is a good move, and Gallery 150 continues to go from strength to strength with its excellent central location in Leamington. Its opening nights are always entertaining and it’s good to have a chat to the artists, who often have interesting stories to tell, but I do sometimes wish there was more quality control over what is staged there.
The Meter Room opened in unprepossessing premises in Coventry city centre, quickly filling its artists’ studios, and having several interesting early exhibitions. Let’s hope it can keep up its momentum. Dunchurch Art Gallery and Painting Studio is up against it, being based on a busy road in a small village, but has held a few exhibitions which have given good local artists a chance to show in the area, and I hope Mick McCormick continues with his venture.
Towards the end of the year, Matthew Macaulay exhibited in his studio space in Broadgate House in the city centre showing enterprise. Coventry Transport museum has also started showing more temporary exhibitions which is encouraging. The Association of Midland Artists held several exhibitions in Leamington of works by their many members, which were interesting to see.
BRINK, a new ‘not for profit’ arts organisation was also set up in Kenilworth and has also made some interesting first moves, though if they stage outdoor art at the Kenilworth Lions Show again in the summer I hope it’s a less windy day than this year!
And the new Lanchester Gallery Projects exhibition space in the new Coventry University building, the Hub, offers exciting opportunities. Apparently the prominent space became available out of the blue to the gallery, which has no collection of its own, so it will be interesting to see what is made of it.
All in all – it’s been lots of fun this year – and looking forward to lots more in 2012!
(You can follow me on Twitter at JulieinCov).