Saturday, 7 January 2017

Walsall: The New Art Gallery

 The New Art Gallery

We read an interesting piece in The Guardian last year about how some towns and cities had hired a "starchitect" to build a new art gallery which had helped to put the place on the map - think of Bilbao with its Guggenheim Museum - while in other cases the same strategy had been unsuccessful. One such example was Walsall whose New Art Gallery, designed by Peter St John and Adam Caruso of the Caruso St John partnership, was in danger of closure only 16 years after it was opened. We immediately felt we must make a visit and inspired our friends Dave and Chris to join us.

The permanent collection of the Gallery is centred on the Garman Ryan Collection which was bequeathed to the Borough of Walsall in 1973. It was assembled by Kathleen Garman and her friend Sally Ryan. Kathleen Garman had three children by the artist Jacob Epstein and married him in 1959 after the death of his wife. Sally Ryan was the granddaughter of a wealthy American and an artist in her own right (there are several works by here on display). The collection they built up had 365 works of art and was arranged by subject. After the initial bequest it was housed in the civic Museum and Art Gallery attached to the central library.

The New Art Gallery building (above and below) is quite dramatic from the outside, even on a dreay misty day.

Inside, it is airy and spacious, with a lot of wood. One very nice touch is that the banisters are all covered in brown leather, a reflection of Walsall's industrial heritage as a major centre of leatherwork.

We focused on the Garman Ryan collection which is housed in nine or ten rooms of various sizes on the first and second floors. The entry point was a hall extending over two floors.

 One of the conditions of the bequest was that the Collection should continue to be displayed by subject and it must be said that this is enormously effective, allowing you to see side by side works would never be displayed in this way in a conventional gallery. This was enhanced by a current initiative of enhancing the collection by hanging complementary works loaned from the Tate Britain beside them, often by the same artist. Thus in the first room, which deals with Landscape and Townscape, there was lovely pair (to the right in the photo) of landscapes by John Nash (younger brother of the better known Paul Nash) and John Constable. The window in this room was also a very welcome feature, containing a nice townscape.

For me, the highlight of the next room (Animals and birds) was this fabulous eagle, captured in a few decisive strokes by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed during the First World War at the tragically early age of 23.

For some reason, I found that it was drawings that touched me most. I just loved this pair of tree studies, the first by Constable and the second by Corot.

 Given Kathleen Garman's connection to Jacob Epstein, it is no surprise that there is quite a lot of work by Epstein. I was especially thrilled by this design for Oscar Wilde's tomb, as we saw and admired the finished work in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris last year.

I realise that these subjective highlights have failed to give an overall sense of the collection, which contains works by a great range of artists including Rodin, Picasso, Braque, Degas, Dufy, Gainsborough, Modigliani, Lucien Freud, Augustus John, Robert Bevan, Odilon Redon. And also there are many fine artifacts from around the world. It is a small, but wonderful collection, chosen with rare taste.

We quizzed the staff about the impact of the Guardian article, and were delighted to discover that it had been followed by a marked increase in visitor numbers. We devoutly hope that Walsall Borough Council will lift the threat of closure of this fine gallery.

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