I went over to York last week to visit my sister, and while I was there we popped into York Art Gallery which recently reopened to the public after an £8 million revamp. However, my sister and a good number of York residents are justifiably outraged by the fact that it now costs £7.50 to visit the gallery. Compare this with Leeds Art Gallery or the Tate and the Walker in Liverpool where entrance to the permanent displays remains free.

York Art Gallery
York Art Gallery after its renovation

There have been protests, but the gallery appears to be in a bind after York Council cut its subsidy to the York Museums Trust by 60%. A decision on whether to waive charges for York residents has been delayed until later in the year.

It’s only a small regional gallery, not really comparable to the Walker or Leeds Art Gallery, and walking around I felt it was a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg: in general a bit uninspiring, but with some gems to be found.

York gallery 2b
Clare Twomey’s Manifest: 10,000 Hours
York gallery 2
Clare Twomey’s Manifest: 10,000 Hours

The centrepiece of the renovation is a new Centre of Ceramic Art which  features an installation by Claire Twomey comprising 10,000 ceramic bowls piled in towering columns on shelves which makes you feel you’ve entered IKEA by mistake. Manifest: 10,000 Hours is Clare Twomey’s response to York’s collection of ceramics, presumably an ironic comment on the obsessiveness of making and collecting pots.

York gallery 1
Clare Twomey’s Manifest: 10,000 Hours

Individuals from across the UK assisted Twomey in the production of the bowls, each one taking about an hour to make and representing one of the 10,000 hours it is said that it takes to master a skill like pottery.

York gallery 2 Picasso ceramic
Pablo Picasso, Scene de Tauromachi, 1954

Among the gems in the ceramics gallery (for me) were an exquisite pot by Bernard Leach created in his pottery in St Ives in Cornwall. There is a short audio description of the Leaping Salmon Vase, on the gallery website. Nearby was a bowl decorated by Picasso with a bull-fighting scene in 1954. Seeing this reminded me of the two occasions when I’ve visited the Picasso Museum in Antibes which has a superb collection of Picasso’s ceramics, created at his pottery in nearby Vallauris in the 1950s. There’s a short audio description of this piece on the same web page.

York gallery 3 Grayson Perry ceramic
Grayson Perry, Melanie, 2014

Taking centre stage in the ceramics gallery is Grayson Perry’s Melanie, a pot I had last seen when it was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery as part of an exhibition of works he made while filming his Channel 4 series Who Are You?

York gallery Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry, Melanie, 2014

Then, Melanie was one of three figures representing contestants in the Miss Plus Size International competition. Perry had been deeply struck by the confidence and pride of a group of women whose identity had been forged through their struggle for acceptance – from others and by themselves – as larger women. Taking part in the competition was the first time many of them had acknowledged and celebrated their size – it was, in Grayson’s words, ‘a mass coming-out experience’.

Melanie represents a large curvaceous female and echoes fertility figures such as the Venus of Willendorf from 11,000 years ago which we saw a couple of years ago in the British Museum Ice Age Art exhibition. With the same exaggerated breasts, hips and thighs as her Ice Age sisters, but with the addition of facial features, Perry’s work is a truly individual portrait.

LS Lowry, Cliffords Tower York, 1952
LS Lowry, Cliffords Tower, York, 1952

Moving along to the paintings, the Gallery currently has on display three paintings by LS Lowry, reunited and shown together in public for the first time since he was commissioned by the gallery in 1952 to paint a scene of the city for its annual Evelyn Award (for the princely sum of £50).

He painted two for the gallery to choose from, with the one of Clifford’s Tower (above) being purchased by the gallery. The other work – plus a third he made during his time in the city – were both purchased by private collectors.

The familiar view of Clifford’s Tower is given a twist by Lowry. It’s immediately recognisable as a Lowry: with his distinctive way of depicting a landscape with buildings and people. But Lowry adds something unexpected: alongside the the picturesque view of the Tower, industrial buildings and cooling towers with steam rising from them appear in the distance.

LS Lowry, A View of York From Tang Hall Bridge, 1952
LS Lowry, A View of York From Tang Hall Bridge, 1952

Alongside Clifford’s Tower hangs the other work whih Lowry presented to the gallery in 1952: A View of York (from Tang Hall Bridge).  In this case the viewpoint had been suggested by a city councillor who wanted a scene that would ‘blend gothic and industry’. The work shows the wide open spaces that existed at the city’s outskirts, as well as cooling towers, chimneys and a railway track. It’s a scene that reminds us that York was always an industrial city – one where Seebohm Rowntree carried out his research into poverty in 1901 – now considered a seminal work of sociology.

LS Lowry, Wilson’s Terrace, 1952
LS Lowry, Wilson’s Terrace, 1952

The third work – painted while Lowry was in York in 1952, but not offered to the gallery – shows Wilson’s Terrace which has long since been demolished. The painting was later bought by a private collector.

Edward Burra, Silver Dollar Bar, 1948
Edward Burra, Silver Dollar Bar, 1948

Tucked away in a corner I found a painting by one of my favourite artists – Edward Burra. Silver Dollar Bar was painted in 1953, inspired by a visit to the eponymous bar in Boston made by Burra while he was staying with the American poet Conrad Aiken. According to Aiken’s wife, Burra painted the scene from memory after he had returned home to England:

What a memory – photographic – they couldn’t have been more ‘like’! Especially of the essence, which only Burra could do.  We’re lucky they exist since the bars themselves are gone forever. I shall always miss them, and thus be more than grateful for the paintings, a lost juicy slice of life as it will never be lived again.

In his book on Edward Burra, Simon Martin argues that paintings such as Silver Dollar Bar reflect Burra’s deep love of  jazz and black visual culture. He writes:

At a time of widespread racist imagery in the media, his pictures  were conspicuous for their lack of prejudice and genuine warmth towards black people. The series of paintings inspired by street life in Harlem that he did following visits to New York in 1933 and 1934 stands out as a major  contribution to the history of black visual representation. […] These, and later images of Boston nightlife such as Silver Dollar Bar (1953), led the poet Conrad Aiken to describe Burra as ‘the best painter of the American scene’.

Paul Nash, Winter Sea, 1925-37
Paul Nash, Winter Sea, 1925-37

Two further highlights of the collection were a couple of paintings by two more leading British artists of the 20th century. For Paul Nash the sea was a frequent inspiration, and Winter Sea – which reflects the influence of  Cezanne and Cubism –  is one of a series of paintings he made of the sea wall and breaking waves at Dymchurch on the Kent coast. Sombre in colour, the waves are reduced to geometric shapes, emphasising the forbidding nature of the sea.There’s an interesting audio guide to this painting on the gallery website.

Nearby was a painting by John Piper of Stair Hole, just to the west of Lulworth Cove on the Dorset coast.

John Piper, Stair Hole, Lulworth, 1948
John Piper, Stair Hole, Lulworth, 1948

5 thoughts on “York Art Gallery: a bit potty

  1. Interesting post – especially because we have a house about 6 miles outside York and virtually never go these days. Parking for one…….. costs a lot and like everything else, just an excuse to empty my wallet of money.

  2. I do wonder about museums Gerry. I fear in a nation that increasingly relies upon images on a screen for knowledge and entertainment, maybe museums are a curiosity for those prepared to pay for them. What purpose does an untouchable artifact behind glass in a remote building serve when it can easily be accessed via a screen from the comfort of one’s own home? Mobile devices aside, are not such collections just a hangover from a Victorian obsession with collecting things? Often, they are misplaced items that should really be somewhere else. I was amazed to discover that my local Museum holds Bert Trautmann’s neck brace ( Manchester City’s goalkeeper from the early 1950’s who suffered an unfortunate accident). I suggested to our local curator that it should be sent to Manchester so that City supporters could appreciate it first hand. Well I might as well have asked the Earth to stop turning. I live in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

    1. Your comment about the Victorian obsession with collecting things reminded me that on one floor York Art Gallery has the Lumber Room, ‘a room of miscellaneous stored objects and artefacts’ curated by the artist Mark Hearld. There were certainly some weird and wonderful things there – presented in quite striking juxtapositions (a line of black Victorian women’s shawls hung above a row of accordions, above a line of fairground roundabout horses). Nothing quite as mad as Bert Trautmann’s neck brace, though (how on earth did that end up in Hitchin?) But on your main point – although I love being able to access historic and artistic treasures on a screen in my own home, I also believe there is nothing that compares with seeing a work of art, or even a row of old fairground horses, up close and in the flesh.

  3. Was reading Jonathan Franzen this week “How to be Alone” and he suggests that art museums are about experiencing art with another person. Or, as we say in NYC you had’da be there.

  4. Very enjoyable post. Living in London, I’m spoilt somewhat but do worry about the future of municipal museums and galleries, such as the ones in Wolverhampton and Dudley where I grew up. My other half has dabbled in ceramics and I’ve picked up an appreciation via osmosis. Love the Picasso stuff as well as Bernard Leach and Grayson.

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