(Blog-post) Celebrating LGBT History Month with Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group

LGBT History Month was established in 2004 to help us understand the importance and context of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. It presents a valuable opportunity to celebrate historical figures who explored their sexuality against a backdrop of prejudice and persecution. As custodians of a modern art collection, it prompts us to shine a spotlight on artists who took great steps forward, both in regards to their creativity, and the ways they challenged limiting societal norms. This blog-post celebrates an artist who was at the heart of a creative community which pioneered an open-minded attitude toward sexual identity.

The Bloomsbury Group was established in 1905, with the aim of providing an atmosphere for intellectual discussion and creativity. The group is also celebrated for its progressive standing on  relationships that were considered “unconventional”, at a time when homosexuality was criminalised and viewed as a pathological illness.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in 1885, and would stay in place for 82 years. The law made homosexual sex illegal in England, creating an atmosphere of ignorance, fear and shame that had a detrimental impact for gay men. The Bloomsbury Group worked to detach themselves from strict Victorian morals, creating a bubble of boundless bohemian love.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978) was introduced to the group shortly after it was founded. A talented, good looking and charismatic figure, Grant had numerous affairs with men, including notable Bloomsbury members Lytton Strachey and David Garnett. He also had a special relationship with Vanessa Bell, with whom he lived, worked and had a child.  For the Bloomsbury Group, relationships were often free from barriers and definition. The constraints of authority were resisted, and sexual identities of all kinds were accepted.

Creativity flourished within the context of this close-knit and convention-challenging community. The likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster wrote some of the most iconic fictional works of the Twentieth Century. Meanwhile, visual artists embraced fresh new visual languages, and broke down time-honoured barriers between high art and craft.

Key members of the Bloomsbury Group are represented in Swindon’s art collection. It includes paintings by Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, and a bust of Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin. Two striking pieces by Duncan Grant demonstrate his fresh and modern approach to painting.

‘Seated Model’ (c.1915-16) was painted at 46 Gordon Square (the original home of the Bloomsbury Group) and depicts a female model gazing out of a window. The portrait shows Grant’s flair for handling paint in a free and fluid manner, and his talent for using colour to suggest light and form. A striking stroke of mauve paint suggests the shadows and contours of the sitter’s face, and reflects the colour of her clothes. Meanwhile, soft yellows and oranges within her skin and clothing are repeated in elements of her surroundings, evoking a warm and diffused light.

Duncan Grant, ‘Seated Model’, c.1915-16, Oil on board, 57.1 x 40cm

This approach to painting, which placed emphasis on the formal qualities, was reasonably new to Britain. However, cutting-edge European artists had been exploring the impact of elements such as line, colour, shape, space, rhythm and design on painting for a while. It is likely that Grant would have seen such work during his travels to Europe with economist and Bloomsbury associate Maynard Keynes. Bloomsbury visionary and art critic Roger Fry also played an important role, with his influential exhibitions of work by French artists at the Grafton Galleries in London. Manet and the Post-Impressionists (1910) shocked and appalled British audiences, but had a profound impact on the forward-thinking Bloomsbury artists.

The other painting from Swindon’s collection was made some years later, and demonstrates a different style from ‘Seated Model’. ‘Standing Woman’ is one of several paintings by Grant from the 1920s and ‘30s depicting draped female figures, though it is more simplistic and swiftly painted than many of the others. It is impressive to see that he has depicted a figure of such solidity and monumentality through an incredibly economic handling of paint. This can be identified in the way Grant has used a few rough strokes of grey to represent shadow, and simple black lines to suggest the shape of the body beneath the drapery.

Duncan Grant, ‘Standing Woman’, 1930, Oil on board, 48 x 24cm

‘Standing Woman’ demonstrates Grant’s natural flair for painting, and it is also likely that this was a preparatory painting for a decorative work. Though the famous Omega Workshops (established by Roger Fry in 1913 and run by Grant and Bell until 1919) were no longer in production, the Bloomsbury artists continued to adorn their living spaces with paintings, and create beautiful designs for fabrics and furniture. This indicates another element to the Bloomsbury’s boundary-breaking attitudes: that of the dismantling of the traditional distinction between “high art” and craft (or “low art”). For the Bloomsbury artists, life and art were inseparable.

It is safe to say that the Bloomsbury Group were progressive in a number of ways; in terms of the way they lived, the modern style they embraced and the radical overturning of artistic hierarchies. Though they were a small and secluded cohort, they took huge strides away from the confines of bourgeois culture and Victorian morality, and toward freedom of creativity and sexual identity.

Blog-post by Katie (Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

For more information on the Bloomsbury Group, visit The Charleston Trust.

For more information about artworks from the Bloomsbury Group in Swindon’s collection, watch Episode 13 of Art Snaps.

Happy Birthday to us!

Art on Tour celebrates its One-Year Anniversary by looking back over an unexpected yet eventful year…

Back in January 2020, an ambitious learning and engagement programme was launched at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Dubbed “Art on Tour”, this initiative aims to take more art to more people in more places throughout Swindon, including (but not limited to) schools, colleges community centres, arts venues and businesses. Art on Tour is about removing the walls of the Museum and accessing audiences on a broad and impactful scale. This is an exciting prospect indeed, since only a small portion of Swindon’s impressive art collection can be celebrated at one time in its current home.

Katie Ackrill (Engagement Officer) and Mags Parker (Learning Officer) hit the ground running, by forging partnerships with schools, colleges and venues throughout Swindon. Mags set to developing a schools outreach programme, complete with a pop-up gallery, workshops and student exhibitions. Meanwhile, Katie began planning exhibitions with the likes of the Wyvern Theatre, Central Library, Pebley Beach and Pinetrees Community Centre.

The foundations for a year of fun and creativity were set, and the big launch was imminent. So, when a worldwide health crisis was announced and the country was forced into lockdown, there was more than a little disappointment among the Art on Tour crew. After all, when the purpose of a project is to engage with as many people as you possibly can in one year, a global pandemic does throw a bit of a spanner in the works.

In a bid to make the best of a bad situation, a new phase of the project was born. ‘Art on Tour at Home’ still bears the same mission statement to bring “more art to more people in more places”, but the digital strategy aims to deliver valuable experiences to people within the comfort and safety of their own homes.

To quench the thirst of art enthusiasts everywhere, the Art Snaps Series was created, along with a blog with accompanying articles and Q&As with artists from the Collection (this one!). Meanwhile, from March-September, families were invited to join in with daily art challenges, a Summer Club and Families-in-Residence programme.

Families in Residence Creations

A Youth Programme also developed in new and exciting ways, with Young Artist in Residence, James Keel, and Young Photographer, Rose Russell (both from New College), becoming valuable ambassadors for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Exciting schools resources inspired by Swindon’s collection have also been developed, including a Learning Library and Art Discovery Boxes.

Whilst the majority of that work happened online (bar the Discovery Boxes, which are a fabulous physical resource!) we also launched the Art on Trees trail on October. Visitors to Coate Water, Lydiard Park, Stanton Park and Town Gardens were invited to find ten vibrant banners with artworks from the collection hidden among the greenery. We had such a lovely response to Art on Trees that it’s legacy now lives on in our schools education programme! 

Art on Trees at Lydiard Park

Just before Christmas, we also managed to collaborate with STEAM Museum on an exciting exhibition Through the Window, which combines modern paintings from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and vintage GWR Posters from STEAM’s collection. At the time of writing STEAM is closed under government guidelines, but Through the Window is ready and waiting for your visit when the museum is able to open once again.

It’s safe to say that over the past year, there has been plenty to keep the Art on Tour team busy. Though they have yet to realise their original vision for the project, overcoming the challenges of the previous year has had its rewards. With more digital content available, knowledge of Swindon’s art collection has reached audiences across the other side of the globe, with one Art Snap enthusiast even commenting that they were listening from Australia!

Now at the end of its first year, Art on Tour looks forward to the next twelve months. Though initially intended as a year-long endeavour, Art on Tour’s funding has been carried into 2021, giving the project another year to flourish, and perhaps even realise its original vision.

To keep up to date with all things Art on Tour, follow us on:

Instagram: @swindongalleryartontour

Facebook: @ArtonTour2020

Twitter: @AoTSwindon

(Guest Blogpost) Contemporary British Painting by Sophie Cummings

Throughout November and December 2020, Art on Tour explored the fascinating and varied world of modern British art, in the hope of shedding some light on its defining groups and movements. We were inspired by the collection at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery to create a virtual exhibition on Art UK, which charts the history of British art from the 1880s up until today. Alongside this, we’ve published a series of blogposts that expand on some of the artworks explored in the exhibition.

It has been quite a journey, and we’ve had a lot of fun! Since this is the last post of the series (and the first of 2021!), it’s only fitting that we deviate from the norm and bring something extra special to the table…

So the following piece was written by Sophie Cummings, former Curator at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Sophie worked closely with Contemporary British Painting to expand Swindon’s collection with some of the most fascinating acquisitions of recent years, and we’re thrilled that she was able to tell us about the significance of this work.

Amanda Ansell, Swan, 2008, Oil on canvas, 45 x 60cm

Back in 2013, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery was approached by the artist Robert Priseman who wished to present a major collection of contemporary British painting. Swindon is, of course, known for its remarkable collection of modern British art. However, by the start of the 21st century, collecting, especially of contemporary art, had slowed. Priseman contacting Swindon was both generous and timely. It allowed the museum to again start collecting contemporary art, and to highlight some of the important trends emerging in contemporary British painting.

Priseman, born in 1965, is an artist, writer, curator and collector. He co-founded the network “Contemporary British painting” in 2013 with fellow artist Simon Carter, and invited a range of British painters to join them. The group was and is united in their belief in the importance of painting. The group offers opportunities for exhibition, leaning and collaboration, as well as a forum to discuss the role of painting within contemporary art.

Simon Carter, Burnt Gorse, 2011, Acrylic on paper, 66 x 70cm

The gift to Swindon comprised a range of contemporary painters, including Nathan Eastwood, Amanda Ansell, Linda Ingham, Greg Rook, Freya Perdue and Susan Gunn. The paintings encompass precise, socially engaged realism, as well as pure abstraction.

The collection was first exhibited as part of the exhibition, “Present Tense: Contemporary Painting and Photography from the Swindon Collection” in January 2015. This exhibition, one of the gallery’s more controversial displays in recent years, showcased aspects of the collection made since the 1980s and included work by Steven Pippin, Tony Bevan and Eileen Cooper.

One of the works which generated most comment was by Priseman himself. Home was a series of very small paintings depicting buildings associated with murder. Each was labelled only with its address, and presented in elaborately carved frames. The series could be viewed in different ways, depending on the viewer’s knowledge, the information presented alongside the paintings, and the resonance of each painting’s title. Some of the contemporary works of art do address controversial and challenging topics, such as violence, sexuality and grief. However, many of the older works in the collection explore similar themes, which would have felt shocking when they were first displayed.

Robert Priseman, 16 Wardle Brook Avenue (from Home), 2011, Oil on board, 6.7 x 5.1cm

In the years since Present Tense paintings from the Priseman Gift have been incorporated into various exhibitions and displays, and provided a platform for Swindon to collect other examples of contemporary art, including paintings, collage, photography and ceramics. These include important acquisitions by Monster Chetwynd and Nicola Tyson, along with ceramics by Ashraf Hanna, Akiko Hirai and Edmund de Waal.

Readers can learn more about Contemporary British Painting through their website: https://www.contemporarybritishpainting.com/. Those interested in Priseman and in realism in contemporary painting in particular might enjoy “Documentary Realism: Painting in the Digital Age” which was published by the Seabrook Press in 2015 and features essays by Robert Priseman, Paul O’Kane and myself.

Blogpost by Sophie Cummings

(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Figuring out the Figurative with The School of London

Hello there! Thank you for joining us. This month we’ve been publishing a series of blogposts celebrating the exciting variety of movements which define modern British art, alongside our virtual exhibition ‘Modern British Art: A Story’. Our previous blogpost considered a big leap taken by some artists in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, who believed the idea behind an artwork was more important than the final product.

Well, today we’re continuing to demonstrate the many conflicting ideas and styles which define modern British art, by looking at a group of artists who, rather than abandoning representational art, sought a way to bring it into the 20th Century.

The School of London was a loose group of London-based artists, who explored figurative painting and drawing in the 1970s and ‘80s. The term was coined by R.B. Kitaj, who aimed to draw attention to artists exploring the human figure at a time when abstract movements dominated the art world. Key artists included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, who are among the most important mid-late 20th century British artists.

Lucian Freud, Girl with Fig Leaf, 1948, Etching

In 1976, when minimalism and conceptualism were at the height of fashion, Kitaj organised a major exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery, which consisted solely of new figurative art.

Kitaj himself was interested in depicting the human figure and conveying human experience in his art. Sketch of CBD with Auerbach Drawing depicts an anonymous nude, pregnant woman reclining on a chaise-longue designed by Le Corbusier. In the background, a painting by Frank Auerbach, another School of London artist, is depicted with expressive and angular marks. The female figure is skilfully drawn with confident strokes of charcoal; from the bulging belly, to the muscular legs and hand clasping the side of the chair.

R.B. Kitaj, Sketch of CBD with Auerbach Drawing, 1989

If you love this piece, and want to discover pieces by two other, prominent members of the School of London – Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud – take a look at Episode 14 of Art Snaps, Refugees and British Art.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) An Art of Ideas: Conceptualism and Land Art

Hello and a very warm, Christmassy welcome to the Art on Tour blogpage! These past few months, we’ve been sharing a series of posts which tell a fascinating story of modern British art, spanning the twentieth century and beyond…

Why? Because Art on Tour is all about sharing Swindon’s fantastic modern and contemporary art collection with more people in more places! Since the times we live in call for a more digital approach, we’ve created an online exhibition, ‘Modern British Art: A Story’.

We’ve also been publishing blogposts which expand a bit more on some of the artists, artworks and movements included in the exhibition, beginning with ‘In Pursuit of a Modern Aesthetic: The London Group’ and most recently ‘Pop and Prosperity’ (scroll down just a teeny bit for that one)!

Now we find ourselves in the 1960s and ‘70s which is arguably one of the most interesting and mind-boggling periods of art. After visual representation was stretched to its limits in the preceding decades, some artists began to feel that the idea behind the artwork was more important than the final outcome. Let’s take a look at some fascinating movements that defined this ethos…

Michael Craig-Martin, The Box That Never Closes, 1967

The term “conceptualism” was coined in 1967 by Sol Lewitt, but as an art movement it continued to come into its own in the 1970s and ‘80s. Conceptual artists tend to place importance on the ideas behind an artwork and our intellectual understanding of it, rather than the final art object.

Conceptualism is at the heart of Michael Craig-Martin’s work, which often questions the way we perceive objects. This early piece, The Box that Never Closes, has the smooth, white finish of a domestic appliance and therefore gives the impression of functionality. However, it does not have a purpose, and even its basic use as a box is denied because it cannot be fully closed.

Even though we understand this, our mind completes the cube by imagining that the lid should close and the shape thus becomes whole. Therefore Craig-Martin comments on the push and pull between actual and imagined looking which is constantly at play, and makes us aware of our own perception as a viewer in an art gallery.

Richard Long, Two Walks, 1972

Land Art evolved from conceptualism’s claim that art should be an idea, rather than an object. It involves making temporary, physical interventions within a landscape, which may take the form of a journey or a creation of an installation from the site’s natural materials. As such, documentation is often the only existing evidence of the work.

Richard Long is a pioneer of landscape art. He started making small interventions in landscapes in the 1960s, and continues to do so today. Two Walks from 1972 is part of a larger body of work Long produced to explore the landscape of Dartmoor, altering his walks to examine the effect on his experience of the place.

This piece presents an Ordnance Survey map of the area, on which the artist has marked two straight lines representing the two walks he took across the flat landscape of Dartmoor. Each is marked with the time it took him. The photograph shows an ancient stone boundary cross named “Bennett’s Cross”, which was located at the point where the walks intersected, and was thus the focal point for this piece of Land Art. 

Fascinating stuff eh? Next up, we’ll be looking at a group of artists who bought something a bit more human to their work. In the meantime, if this post has tickled your fancy, why not take 10 minutes out to watch Episode 17 of Art Snaps, The Great Outdoors? Enjoy!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Pop and Prosperity

Hi there art lovers! This December we’ve been looking at the ins and outs of British art history, from the 1880s right up to the most recent developments in painting. Today we’ve reached the Swinging Sixties, which means shining a spotlight on Pop Art and Minimalism, as seen in in Swindon’s art collection…

Let’s begin with Pop Art, a vibrant art movement which flourished in Britain and America in the 1960s. Its artists rebelled against traditional art forms and responded to the world around them, which was dominated by consumer-driven culture, mass media and developments in technology. Popular imagery like advertising, product packaging and comic books became sources of inspiration.

Richard Hamilton was one of the key artists to emerge in the first wave of British Pop in the 1950s. His work aimed to break down boundaries between high and low art, and reflected his interest in two innovations of the era – modern technology and mass media culture.

Richard Hamilton, Interior Study (a), 1964, Oil and collage on paper

Swindon’s piece, Interior Study (a), is a collage constructed of imagery from a number of sources. The setting is the house of the daughter of French realist artist Édouard Manet, which was photographed for a magazine. The female figure was cut out of an advertisement for a washing machine, and in her new context admires a TV screen, which has replaced a painting on an easel.

In contrast to this vibrant mash-up of popular imagery, another movement that emerged in this decade advocated a more stripped-back approach…

The term “minimalism” came into use in the 1960s to describe art that was devoid of subject matter and expression. In sculpture, industrial materials were favoured, and painting was reduced down to simple geometric forms such as squares, rectangles and circles. In doing this, minimalist artists sought to alter environments, and find new relationships between an artwork and its surroundings.

Roger Cook. R25, 1964, Acrylic on Canvas

Roger Cook’s R 25 is comprised of six equal boards measuring 10 x 61cm, encased in canvas and painted with monochromatic tones of acrylic. This reflects minimalism’s aim to achieve equality of parts, repetition and neutral surfaces within a work of art. R 25 does not represent a particular subject matter or personal response, but rather considers the relationship between basic forms and their environment.

Cook also plays with the communication between light and dark within the work. By placing various tones next to each other in such a linear fashion, they create the illusion of receding inward or projecting outward. So you see, when it comes to minimalism there’s often more to it than initially meets the eye!

Before you go… If this quick overview of Pop Art and Minimalism has tickled your fancy, why not visit our YouTube Channel and listen to Episode 10 of our Art Snaps series Pop and Prosperity? You can also click here to read a past post about another fabulous piece of Pop Art from Swindon’s art collection. Our final offering for today, is a virtual exhibition Modern British Art: A Story, which is the inspiration behind this series of blogposts exploring the story of Modern British Art through Swindon’s collection!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Making Waves in St Ives

Welcome to the Art on Tour blog! This is the place where we share interesting news about all things Art on Tour, as well as information about Swindon’s wonderful collection of modern and contemporary British art. Right now, we’re half way through a series of blogposts celebrating Swindon Museum and Art Gallery‘s virtual exhibition ‘Modern British Art: A Story’, which you can view right HERE!

The blogposts are for those of you who want just a little bit more information than the exhibition word count allows. So far, previous posts (below) have covered the Camden Town Group, the Bloomsbury Group, Vorticism, Unit One, the Seven and Five Society, Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and Realism… Yet, there’s still so much more to explore! This week: The beloved St Ives School…

The term ‘St Ives School’ refers to the artists associated with St Ives from the 1940s-60s, when it was the centre for modern and abstract developments in art. Though notable artists visited the town as early as the 1920s, it was at the outbreak of World War II that Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth settled there. Well-acquainted with modern European movements, and already working in abstract styles, they became the heart of an artistic community that broke new ground in British art (check out The Advance of Abstraction for more on Nicholson). In the 1950s, a number of younger artists who shared their interest in abstraction joined them.  

Terry Frost moved to Cornwall in 1946 and became a key member of the St Ives School. In 1950 he worked as an assistant to Hepworth and took a studio next to Nicholson. Grey, Red and Black Verticals is an abstract painting characterised by bold black and red forms. It is, in part, a celebration of Frost’s love of the colour black. The thick black stripes painted onto a horizontal cream wash evoke a particularly powerful presence.

Terry Frost, Grey, Red and Black Verticals, 1962

Though the title alludes to the formal qualities of the work, it is not completely devoid of narrative reference. Frost asserted that the forms suspended from the top of the canvas were inspired by the three goddesses in Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Judgement of Paris, at the National Gallery.

Another significant artist associated with the St Ives School is Roger Hilton. November 1955 was painted just before his first Christmas in St Ives, and was inspired by snow laying on muddy fields. The bleak winter landscape is suggested with simple lines and planes of yellow, white, black and brown. Hilton captures a scene with which many of us can relate without being too descriptive, showing a push and pull between abstraction and representation.

Roger Hilton, November 1955, 1955

Artworks such as these were experimental when they were painted in the 1950s, and ’60s, and we often still struggle to understand them today… So ingrained is the need to understand a narrative, or at the very least a sense of pictorial space! It’s important to remember that in an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing world, artists strove to find new visual languages to express themselves and their surroundings. St Ives was a place where artists could push boundaries like never before. Painting could be as much about colour, shape and line as it could a landscape, person or still life.

Before I sign off, a quick head’s up to look out for our Christmas edition of Art Snaps, which will include more information about Hilton’s November 1955. Of course, do also look out for our next blogpost Pop and Prosperity. Thanks for reading!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Real or Sur-real?

Do you ever feel a bit perplexed by modern art? Do the many “isms” and “schools” leave you feeling more confused than enlightened? Or do you get all that, but crave more information about the specifics? If your answer to any of these questions is YES, then you’re in the right place!

Here at Art on Tour we’ve been doing some work to detangle the beautiful and befuddling world of modern British art. A virtual exhibition, Modern British Art: A Story, explains the ins and outs of some of British art history’s defining moments through artworks from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Alongside this, a series of blogposts expand on some of the exciting groups and movements covered in the exhibition.

As is the case today, 20th century art is littered with lots of different ideas running alongside each other, and the movements covered in today’s post are no exception. In fact, Realism and Surrealism pretty much represent opposite ends of the scale…

Desmond Morris, The Mysterious Gift, 1965

Surrealism was an artistic, literary and philosophical movement, which emerged in France in the mid-1920s, and was influenced by developments in theories of the unconscious. Its artists embraced the idea that art did not need to be shaped by reason or aesthetic judgements, and they enjoyed creating artworks and objects which were unexpected, uncanny and unconventional. Surrealism was predominant until around 1945, though some believe that it did not truly end until 1966, when its leader André Breton passed away. Many agree Surrealism still has a profound influence on art today.

Desmond Morris was born in 1928, and emerged as a surrealist painter in the 1950s, exhibiting with the famous Spanish surrealist Joan Miro in London and writing and directing two surrealist films. Now in his 90s, Morris has referred to himself as “the last living Surrealist” and continues to paint in a distinctive surrealist style, characterised by biomorphic forms within ambiguous landscapes.

The Mysterious Gift is an early example of Morris’ surrealism. It presents an unusual still life, with a vessel balanced disconcertingly on a bone-like support. It contains egg-like naturalistic objects and an indistinct bodily form.    

The origins of Realism go back to the mid-19th Century, when artists began to draw their subject matter from the everyday; such as nature, urban scenes or working class labour. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries a whole host of other movements erupted throughout Europe, but Realism has always had staying power.

The Euston Road School was a British realist group, which consisted of artists who taught and studied at the School of Painting and Drawing at Euston Road in London. Founded in 1938, its teachers encouraged observation and social relevance, and stood against the spectacle of Surrealism. Though brought to an end by the outbreak of war, The Euston Road School demonstrated a strand of art that went against new developments in abstraction, and advocated direct study from life.

Lawrence Gowing, Portrait of a Youth (Alfie Bass), 1939-41

Lawrence Gowing was a student and friend of one of the school’s founders William Coldstream, whose extremely measured approach to painting the figure became infamous. Portrait of a Youth, which depicts the emerging actor Alfie Bass, demonstrates Gowing’s close observation of his sitter, whom he depicted many times and in several poses. Yet its small size and intimate cropping, combined with the relaxed expression of the sitter, also demonstrate Gowing’s general desire for closer involvement with his subject matter.

Though Realism and Surrealism presented very different visions of the world, they both remain extremely important to artistic practices today. Next time a piece of art catches your eye, it might just be worth asking yourself whether its born of observation, or something a little less conscious…

Don’t forget, if you fancy learning more about Swindon’s collection and the bigger picture (get it?) of modern British art, you can visit the exhibition and/or read the other posts (below) if you haven’t already! You can also hear more about surrealist art in Swindon’s collection by listening to Episode 27 of Art Snaps, A Sense of the Surreal.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) Isn’t it (Neo) Romantic?

John Piper, Pistyll Maes-Glasau, 1940

Well hello there! Welcome to the Art on Tour blog and, more specifically, welcome to number four in a series of blogposts telling a fascinating story of Modern British art! So far, we’ve looked at some of the new and exciting artistic developments of the early 20th Century, including the geometric abstraction of the machine-loving Vorticists, and the liberal-minded boundary-breaking Bloomsbury group.

But what about artists who looked backwards as well as forwards? Those who wanted a bit of tradition mixed in with their modernism?

In the 1930s, Neo-Romantic artists sought a return to the traditional subject matter of landscape painting, but transformed it through their understanding of modern art and the threat of conflict. The movement continued throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, when artists including John Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland responded to the scarred landscapes and cityscapes left behind by the Second World War.

These artists conveyed emotion through heightened imagery in a similar vein to Romantic landscape painters of the 19th century. The likes of JMW Turner and Samuel Palmer had transformed the genre by focusing on the sublime power of nature and its ability to stir emotion in the viewer. Like the early Romantics, the neo-Romantics looked to transform landscape painting once again, but used modern artistic languages to ground their work in their own context.

Through his striking landscapes, John Piper aimed to evoke the spirit of a place, and the way it is experienced through its weather, season or location. Pistyll Maes-Glasau depicts a waterfall with a 600 foot drop, and was painted when Piper visited Gwynedd (Wales) in 1940.

Piper captured the height and energy of the waterfall by emphasising its brightness, and as a result it almost looks like a flash of lighting against the dark and foreboding cliffs. Through the contrast between light and dark, and the expressive manner with which he has captured the scene, Piper has not just given us a landscape, but a moving and awe-inspiring experience.

Graham Sutherland, Dark Hill – Landscape with Hedges and Fields, 1940

Graham Sutherland’s Dark Hill – Landscape with Hedges and Fields is another great example of a neo-Romantic style. It was painted during the first years of World War II. The dark tone and foreboding structure evoke an oppressive presence which reflects the tragedy and turmoil of the years to come. Along with Piper, Sutherland would go on to create some of the most affecting images of war-torn British urban landscapes.

That’s all for today – Thanks for reading! If you’re keen to know more about the history of modern British art, check out our online exhibition Modern British Art: A Story right here, or follow this blog to be the first to know when we publish a new post. Next up – ‘Realism or Sur-realism?’

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

(Blogpost) The Advance of Abstraction: Unit One and the Seven and Five Society

Hello and Happy December! Needless to say, the lead-up to Christmas is going to be a little different this year, but we’re hoping to keep things upbeat with a series of blogposts charting the history of modern British art. That’s right… this Christmas we’re giving the gift of Art History… from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery right to your screen!

This is all happening alongside our online exhibition ‘Modern British Art: A Story’, which charts the many ideas that energised art in 20th Century Britain. Over the course ten blogposts, I’m expanding on some significant artists, groups and movements that feature in the exhibition, to provide a bigger picture of British art during this time.    

Of course, one of the main ideas that transformed art of the 20th Century was abstraction. Some artists realised that art no longer needed to replicate the world around them (photography could do that well enough!) but could be impactful in other ways. It could be about form, line or colour, it could represent a sensations, dreams or memories, or be analytical and hard-edged. Whatever the drive, abstraction was a very new idea, and in order to succeed artists needed to be bold, brave and collaborative.

The previous blogpost in the series looked at The London Group, which bought three early 20th Century groups together to promote everything new and edgy in art. Another important collaboration was Unit One, which formed in the mid-1930s and embraced both abstraction and Surrealism (to be covered in another post)!

Unit One was led by Paul Nash, who wanted the work to show ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’. Other group members included modern art icons Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. In the absence of a more specific unifying principle, the group was only active from 1933-35. However, it was important in establishing London as a centre for abstract art, and held a seminal exhibition named Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, in 1934.

Ben Nicholson made important contributions to the development of abstract art in Britain, and Composition in Black and White was painted the same year Unit One was launched. It marked a significant change in his style, which moved away from recognisable subject matter and towards pure abstraction, and broke down distinctive barriers between painting and sculpture. The painting is characterised by a monochrome colour palette and a variety of textured surfaces, into which he scraped a gestural combination of straight and curved lines, to reveal a white painting underneath.

Ben Nicholson, ‘Composition in Black and White’, 1933, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery

Another notable triumph for Nicholson was his transformation of the Seven and Five Society. The group was founded in 1919 to promote traditional and conservative values in art, in reaction to the emergence of modern movements in the early 20th Century. However Nicholson joined in 1924 and, along with a number of other celebrated artists, transformed it into a modernist group that championed abstract art. They changed its name to the Seven and Five Abstract Group, and held the first all-abstract exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1935.

Such a dramatic change in ethos meant most of the original members retreated. Ivon Hitchens was the only artist to stay in the group from start to finish. His work hovers between abstraction and figuration, never completely abandoning recognisable subject matter, but becoming increasingly characterised by flattened forms, bold colour and loose brushwork throughout his long career.

Ivon Hitchens, The Chinese Bowl, 1936, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery

In The Chinese Bowl, there is a sense of receding space with the bowl in the foreground, the reclining figure reading a book in the mid-ground, and a curtain or wallpaper in the background. Yet the forms are reduced to flat, painterly planes of colour, which lead the eye from one element to another. Here, Hitchens shows us the essence of the scene, rather than a direct imitation. 

That’s all for today! If you’ve enjoyed this little slice of art history, don’t forget to visit the exhibition on Art UK, and/or follow this blog by scrolling to the top and clicking “follow” at the bottom right of the screen. Don’t forget, you can also leave us a comment if you wish!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)