(Blogpost) John Bellany’s ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’

Bridgeman; (c) Swindon Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today it’s World Mental Health Awareness Day, so we want to shine a spotlight on particularly special piece in our collection, which speaks about creativity and mental wellbeing. ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ (1979) is an emotional painting by John Bellany, who is known for his expressive and confrontational artworks. This piece is infused with sorrow and anxiety, but it also shows the touching and supportive relationship Bellany shared with his wife Juliet.

It was painted at a particularly challenging time, for Juliet suffered from manic depression and had spent several periods very ill in hospital. Her sad face is partly obscured by her hair, her thin shoulders are hunched, and she leans heavily on Bellany’s shoulder. He grips his paint palette, a symbol of his trade which supported them emotionally and financially. The two of them seem to be hemmed in by their surroundings, which includes canvases behind and in front of them, and a boat in the foreground.

In many of Bellany’s paintings from this time, boats are symbolic of the voyage of life. The name inscribed on the side of the boat is MIZPAH, the Hebrew word for watchtower from the Old Testament, which goes with the text ‘The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from one another’. This was also engraved on Juliet’s engagement ring and the separation implied refers to her time in hospital. The sail of the ship reads, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, range against the dying of the light’. This heartfelt quote from Dylan Thomas seems to be Bellany’s plea to Juliet not to succumb to her illness.

Though perhaps not the most cheerful painting in the collection, ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ demonstrates the importance of communicating difficult emotions, and their potential for being transformed into powerful and affecting visual imagery.

Blogpost by Katie

(News) Launch of ‘Art on Trees’

Robert Bevan, Back of the Granary, Poland
(c) Swindon Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Fancy a bit of fresh air? Well, if you visit one of Swindon’s beautiful green spaces throughout October, you may wind up taking a walk in the park with a difference! That’s because Art on Tour is getting out and about this autumn, with an exciting trail which challenges you to find 10 vibrant artworks from Swindon’s collection!

We all know this year has been very challenging, and continues to challenge us still. However many have recognised that engaging with nature and creativity is hugely beneficial for our wellbeing, particularly in these troubling times. So, this trail is all about getting out into the fresh air, appreciating Swindon’s abundant green spaces, and being inspired by the town’s fantastic art collection.

Encase you’re beginning to feel slightly alarmed about the safety of the artworks involved… don’t worry! The actual artworks won’t be left to the mercy of the British weather. Your challenge will be to find 10 vibrant banners with images of the pieces printed onto them. This may not be quite the same as seeing the real artworks, but we promise you a unique and vibrant experience!

Art on Trees is totally free, and appropriate for anyone who fancies a wonder in the park with a difference. Those with young families are invited to download resources to help them navigate the trail and get creative on their journey. Those interested in finding out more information about the artworks on show will be able to do so through our Art on Trees page right here on the blog.

The trail will take place at the following locations on the following dates:

Town Gardens, 6 – 11 October

Coate Water, 13 – 18 October

Stanton Park, 20 – 25 October

Lydiard Park, 27 October – 1 November

Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity to explore the town’s beautiful parks during this dazzling season of change… before we begin hibernating for the winter! Full info will be available here.

(Blogpost) Art on Tour loves… Abstraction!

Terry Frost, ‘Grey, Red and Black Verticals’, 1962, Oil on canvas

This week we’re delving into the wonderful world of abstraction! Buckle up for a whirlwind of modern wonders from the Swindon Collection, which will be shared throughout the week via Art on Tour’s Instagram and Facebook

Throughout history, artists have responded to the time they live in, creating images which reflect religious, social, political or personal experiences, and leaving us a rich and varied visual history. The one thing that the majority of art from the 15th – 19th centuries has in common, is a sense of illusionistic space, and clear reference to the world surrounding it.

However, the twentieth century was an unprecedented time of change in art. Photography had become a popular way of replicating the world, so artists needed to find a different means of visual communication; one which reflected the search for progress that came with a new modern era. Hence the birth of abstract art!

In a nutshell, abstract art is characterised by simplified formal elements such as shape, line and colour. Sometimes subject matter is reduced to certain visually impactful characteristics. At other times, artists focus on a more instinctual approach, responding to personal feelings or memories. Either way, abstract imagery tends to be bold, unexpected and sometimes… a little bit baffling…

In Britain, early manifestations of abstract art appeared in work by the Bloomsbury Group and the Vorticists. From there it took many twists and turns, with the likes of Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost and Gillian Ayres taking bold steps to push visual imagery out of the realms of representation.  

Enjoy vibrant abstract artworks everyday this week by joining us on:

Instagram: @swindongalleryartontour or Facebook@ArtonTour2020

(News) The Case of the Missing Chocolate Bar

Each week we ask our wonderful families-in-residence to undertake secret art missions to help us save the world with art. This week, things got serious…..


Secret Agent Jackson reporting in. My eyes this week were drawn to an intriguing case. A highly valuable shipment of Kitkats were arriving from Asda. Despite heavy security at the fridge in the form of Agent Action The Labrador, the shipment was compromised. All that was left was a tattered wrapper that must have been discarded by the would-be chocolate thief. Luckily they had left clues in the form of a chocolatey fingerprint on the wrapper and a piece of crumpled paper. The investigatory task force sprang into action, and a highly sophisticated crime lab was set up. We started with fingerprints. All agents were required to submit finger and hand-prints….

Despite discovering all four agents on the case had different shaped whirls and tents on the lines of their fingers, none matched the oddly shaped print on the chocolate wrapper. Clearly this was not going to help us solve the mystery.

Next, we turned our attention to the crumpled paper. Holding it up to the light there appeared to be an oily residue on it. A message of sorts, but it was written in some kind of material that made it invisible to the naked eye. Luckily we had some water-colour paint in the lab. Mixing it with water, the crime scene techs Caelyn and Awen painted over the top of the paper and to our shock a message appeared….


Imagine our shock and surprise. The unlikely culprit was our security labrador, Action. He had waited for us all to leave, before helping himself to the Kitkats and closing the fridge door behind him to prevent our suspicions falling on him. Luckily for us, he had made two mistakes. The first was leaving prints behind. The nose print of a dog is as individual as human finger-prints – who knew! His second mistake of course was leaving a written confession. He’s not really a very bright dog.

Case closed.

By Annalisa Jackson, Family-in-Residence, blogger, writer

(Blogpost) Artist in Focus: A Conversation with Sarah Purvey

Sarah Purvey, ‘Untitled’, 2014

Sarah Purvey is a Wiltshire-based artist known for her monumental ceramic vessels, which utilise the physicality of hand building and energetic mark making to create a stunningly powerful presence.  

Sarah received an MA in Ceramics from the Bath School of Art and Design in 2009, and has since exhibited work regionally and internationally. These include (among many others) exhibitions in London, New York and Amsterdam, and a solo exhibition at Chippenham Museum last year. Following her involvement with the unforgettable exhibition ‘From Where I’m Standing’ at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery in 2016, Swindon was fortunate to acquire two of Sarah’s artworks for the collection.

Swindon Museum and Art Gallery was looking forward to welcoming Sarah back for an exhibition this summer. Since the current situation has meant postponing the show until 2021, we thought we’d chat to her about exciting opportunities of the past, present and future.   

Art on Tour: Hi Sarah. Can we start by talking about your relationship with Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. How did it all start?

Sarah Purvey: In 2014 I visited Swindon Museum & Art Gallery for the first time and was blown away by the quality of the artwork belonging to the museum’s collection. I made contact with Sophie Cummings, the museum’s curator at the time, and we began an ongoing conversation about clay. This conversation sparked an idea which then became the ‘From Where I’m Standing’ exhibition held at the museum in 2016.

AoT: Can you tell us a bit about ‘From Where I’m Standing’, and what it said about the way artists are transforming the use of clay as a medium?

SP: Sophie and I worked together researching artists who worked predominantly with clay in the surrounding Wiltshire and Bath areas and looked towards a group of artists who explored diverse approaches within their clay practice. We invited ten artists to select a piece from the Swindon Collection as their starting point for the creation of a new artwork to be exhibited in the museum alongside the collection piece.

The exhibition was a fantastic reflection of contemporary clay practice and resulted in diverse beautifully thoughtful, responsive work made by all the artists involved. The exhibition, like much contemporary ceramic practice, didn’t simply define itself by the material but instead allowed the artists to explore and interpret the medium through the brief. It was a huge success with all ten artists pushing the boundaries of their practice. 

AoT: Which piece from the collection did you chose to be inspired by, and why?

SP: I selected the incredible painting ‘Witness’ by Basil Beattie to work from. I loved its strong energised gestured marks and sheer commanding scale, even standing in front of the painting somehow feels physical, you meet its presence and that of the artist. The painting was also one of the works I had first seen when visiting the museum.

After the exhibition I was absolutely delighted when the Friends of Swindon Museum acquired ‘Witnessed’ one of the three pieces I exhibited for the Museum’s permanent collection.

‘Witnessed’ by Sarah Purvey

AoT: Since then Swindon has also acquired your fantastic drawing, ‘Untitled’ from 2014. I’m intrigued by the conversations between the mark making on your vessels and in drawings like this. Can you tell us a bit more how these two elements of your practice are linked?

SP: I was so pleased a work on paper joined the collection alongside the ceramic piece ‘Witnessed’. As to whether working in 2D or 3D, the connection with my process remains very much the same; the narrative, the physicality, the responsive mark, the emotional trace, all elements are intrinsically linked. I’m not even sure if I would consider the ceramic pieces and the works on paper as two different elements to my practice but rather an exploration of drawing in two and three dimensional form.

AoT: It’s great to hear that you’ll be exhibiting at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery once again, this time with Anna Gillespie with a show called ‘Trace’. What can we expect from this exhibition?

SP: Anna is a figurative sculptor based in Bath, we have been friends for many years sharing connections and understandings within our practice. We both explore work that reflects the self and carries with it a trace and emotional connection with time and place.

This understanding through many conversations over the years led us towards the idea of exhibiting together and to each creating a body of work that would allow us to interpret the personal concept of ‘Trace’. 

Sadly, as we all know too well, 2020 has been a challenging year. Anna Gillespie RWA and I had planned to exhibit together at Swindon Museum in the July but the exhibition programme had to be postponed. We are both grateful this experience has not been lost with our exhibition now having been rescheduled for 2021.

AoT: We’ll look forward to it next year! In the meantime, is there anything else you’re working on that you’d like to shout about?

SP: For the last year I have been incredibly lucky to have worked on a very exciting project with the team at Chippenham Museum. After having a solo exhibition in the museums wonderful ACE (Arts Council England) supported galleries in 2019, I began working with the museum to help facilitate a new art collection for the museum which would help to support and reflect the area’s rich art history and the contemporary artists living and working in the North Wiltshire area today.

It has been a brilliantly supported project with the first wave of the Modern and Contemporary Art Collection now on exhibition and ready to open to the public in August 2020. The new collection is a wonderful celebration of painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, photography, illustration, and sculpture and well worth a visit.

Looking ahead to the Autumn, I’m incredibly proud to say I will be starting my residency at Bath Spa University’s Corsham Court Campus in September. I’ve been invited to take on the role of Artist in Residence following on from my friend and mentor Professor Michael Pennie who was the first AIR on the site, giant shoes to try and fill as anyone who knew Michael would agree.

In August I will be exhibiting work in Cardiff with the Albany Gallery and in Shropshire in September with the Twenty-Twenty Gallery, all details can be found on my website or by following my social media pages.

AoT: Finally, if you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?

SP: Perhaps, impassioned — physical — drawing

AoT: Thank you Sarah!

Sarah Purvey’s work in ‘From Where I’m Standing’ at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, 2016

Find out even more about Sarah’s work by listening to our recent Episode of Art Snaps which looks at her drawing practice in reference to ‘Untitled’ 2014.

(News) Art on Tour: Past, Present and Future

We’re thrilled to announce that we (Katie and Mags) will be giving a talk via Zoom this Thursday (6th August), as part of the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery’s virtual talks programme!

This fabulous organisation is dedicated to promoting and fundraising for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and have done lots of amazing work over the years. This includes raising money for the conservation of artworks and objects in the collections, contributing to exhibitions, volunteering to support events and activities at the museum, and the purchase of new artworks.

It was, in fact, the Friends who purchased one of our favourite pieces, ‘Girl Selling Flowers’ by Desmond Morris, which features (in part) as our blog’s banner…

So when we were asked to give a talk as part of their virtual talks programme we said “YES, What a great opportunity to chat to this vibrant group of culture vultures about what we’ve been up to!” (Or words to that effect anyway.)

This Thursday evening we’ll be talking to a grid of lovely albeit pixilated faces about Art on Tour… Including info about the education and engagement programmes we have planned, the challenges we’ve faced during lockdown and exciting things ahead. We will also be welcoming your burning questions about the project if you have them. If not, just listen and enjoy!

To join us all you have to do is become a member of the Friends, for the very reasonable price of £15 per year, which gives you access to all the fabulous virtual talks coming up, and goes a very long way to support Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. All the info about joining is available here. One you’re signed up you’ll get an email from the Friends’ Chair, Linda Kasmaty, with a link to access the talk.

Thursday 6 August, 7.30pm – We hope to see you there!

Katie Ackrill and Mags Parker

(News) The Summer Club for Art Adventurers!

It might sound like an Arthur Ransome novel, but ‘The Summer Club for Art Adventurers’ is our new online summer holiday programme for 5 – 12 year olds!

Determined that the show must go on this summer, we’ve gone digital and are inviting families to create in the comfort of their own homes, instead of attending the usual art workshops at the Gallery. Families have signed up for free and receive a weekly set of themed resources and ideas direct to their inbox. We recognise the amazing efforts of parents over the past 5 months and this is our attempt to extend a little helping hand.

Each set of resources is themed, so families can go on a different art adventure every week of the summer holidays! From under the sea adventures to surrealism, and from sound to sculpture, there is no shortage of creative inspiration!

It’s lovely to see so many families across Swindon getting involved in the programme. If you’d like to get involved, there’s still time! Simply email maparker@swindon.gov.uk. For more information on the programme and to access all the resources, click here. We’re looking forward to lots more summer fun!

Mags Parker, Learning Officer

(News) Secret Missions for Families-in-Residence!

Top secret missions involving invisible ink and spy surveillance have been taking place all over Swindon, as part of our Families-in-Residence programme!

We’ve recently established the Families-in-Residence programme, in collaboration with Scrapstore Swindon, to help families across Swindon get involved in creative activities at home.

In June we put a call out for families to join us and we were delighted with the huge response! We’ve now got families of various shapes, sizes and ages, across Swindon, taking part in weekly Art Missions, from finger-print painting to creating art outdoors! They’re also helping us test our huge range of free learning and activity resources inspired by Swindon’s Collection of Modern British Art.

The levels of enthusiasm and creativity amongst our families are infectious, and we’re enjoying watching the formation of one giant, supportive Art on Tour family! Thanks to all our wonderful families for throwing themselves in at the deep end! We hope that their creative adventures will inspire others across Swindon and will help us to further develop our families programme. Our eventual aim is world domination – we’d like to get every family in Swindon creating!

In the Maclaughlin family, three generations of family members are taking part! We asked them why this programme was so important: ‘Three generations of us have grown up visiting Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and we are loving being involved in this project. Lockdown has been difficult as we’ve been shielding, and this is a great way to do something positive and to spend quality time as a family making memories. We love Swindon and it’s great learning about local artists and history, giving back, and being involved in the community.’

We would like to extend huge thanks to our partners, Swindon Children’s Scrapstore, who have provided all our families with Art Discovery Boxes full of resources to kickstart creativity. Scrapstore is a community resource centre and social enterprise which has been providing low cost environmentally-friendly resources for use in educational and recreational play, for over 35 years. Over 50,000 people in Swindon now benefit from their projects and services each year. Projects include the Creative Scrap Resources project, an Arts & Crafts shop, a Community Re-Paint Scheme, a Re-use Office Furniture project, an I.T refurbishing project, a Foodbank, and Scrappers Community Gym. Funding from the Wiltshire and Swindon Community Foundation has allowed Scrapstore to develop the Resources Boxes.

Look out for some amazing creations from our families-in-residence on social media and on our blog this summer! For more information on the project, visit our Families-in-Residence page.

Mags Parker, Learning Officer

(Blogpost) Borlase Smart: Drenched in Talent

Borlase Smart, ‘Ebb-tide on the Reef’, 1943, Oil and tempera on canvas, 101.6 x 129.5cm (c) Brian Smart, Currently on exhibition at the Civic Offices

This week Art on Tour has been focusing on artworks relating to the element of water. After all it’s National Marine Week and we just love to find links between art and… well… Just about any topic going!

So this week’s episode of the Art Snaps Podcast explores two nautical-themed still lifes in the collection by two great names of British painting, Christopher Wood and John Nash, and ends with a look at Nana Shiomi’s stunning contemporary Japanese print ‘Waves’.

However there wasn’t quite enough time to discuss another fantastic piece about water in Swindon’s collection; Borlase Smart’s Ebb-tide on the Reef (1943). And it really is about just that… water. Rushing, crashing, rippling, splashing water…

It’s a brilliant painting which is full of energy and movement, painted by an artist who lived near to, and closely observed water for most of his career. Borlase Smart moved to St Ives in 1919, aged 29, where he lived in a loft overlooking Porthemor Beach. Over the following decades he established himself as a talented painter of seascapes, even writing a book ‘The Technique of Seascape Painting’ in 1934.

He also became an invaluable member of the growing artistic community in St Ives, encouraging the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon with what were, at the time, ground-breaking practices. As Secretary of the St Ives Society of Artists from 1934-47, Smart organised exhibitions of work by important St Ives-based artists, and has often been credited with making the name of St Ives famous the world over.

Ebb-tide on the Reef was purchased from Smart in 1946, after he opened an exhibition of works by St Ives Artists right here in Swindon. Records show that he sold it at a concession to Swindon Museum and Art Gallery to show his appreciation for the kindnesses shown to him during his visit.

He also felt that Swindon had a future as an important centre for the Arts. I certainly hope he would be thrilled to see that Swindon’s art collection has expanded significantly since it started out in the mid 1940s, and includes work by several important artists associated with St Ives, including Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and the aforementioned Ben Nicholson.

Ebb-tide on the Reef depicts an Atlantic reef of rocks called Codgy, located one mile from his studio where, according to the artist, the waves were biggest. It’s one of four pictures Smart painted of this spot which were exhibited at the RA in 1943, and he described it as one of his “best sea pictures”.

When I read this I realised that, as familiar as I am with Swindon’s painting, I’ve never actually taken the time to look at other paintings by Borlase Smart. A quick visit to Art UK revealed his gift for capturing light and movement through water. Morning Light, St Ives (1922) at the Royal Cornwall Museum has an incredible luminosity about it, and shows the artist’s close observation of the reflections of light bouncing off the surfaces of the water and wet rocks.  

A later piece River Scene, Scotland (c.1938) at New County Hall, Truro, is much darker and almost foreboding with its rushing white undulations on top of a dark mass of water. However closer inspection reveals blues, greens and orangey browns which capture the nuances of colours beneath the surface.

Swindon’s work Ebb-tide on the Reef is a later piece in Smart’s oeuvre, and seems even more charged with energy than Morning Light and River Scene. It’s almost an immersive experience. The rushing water on the large canvas is pushed right up into our space. If we were there, the water would be splashing our faces and drenching our feet. I don’t think I’m over exaggerating to say that you can almost hear the noise of the crashing waves, and taste the sea salt.

By this time, Smart had been paying close attention to the dynamism of water for several years. We can see how, with his trained eye and artistic skill, he has boldly captured the reflections of light and variety movements, with the great energy and painterly expression of someone who knows and appreciates the stuff of water.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill

(Blogpost) Exploring ‘Refugee’ by Kathleen Williams

Kathleen Williams, ‘The Refugee’ , 1943 (c) Swindon Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This week Art on Tour decided to explore portraits from Swindon’s art collection, and it didn’t take us long to discover that there are… well… rather a lot of them. This isn’t surprising, given that portraiture is one of the most enduring themes in British art; from those famous bull-like images of Henry VIII, to the revolutionary romanticism of Thomas Gainsborough.  

I could sit here all day talking about famous portraits and portraitists of the past, so rich is British history with images of people… powerful, pompous, poverty-stricken and everything in between. But today I just want to talk about one very special portrait from Swindon’s collection.

This particular piece isn’t notable as a groundbreaking piece of modern painting, as other pieces in the collection are. Nor is it by a famous “name” in our great canon of British art. In fact, we don’t know very much about ‘Refugee’ at all, other than it was painted in 1943 by Kathleen Williams, who lived between 1911-1997 and was a successful portrait painter in Bath.

Yet ‘Refugee’ has been one of my favourite portraits from Swindon’s collection since I can remember, and I can’t let Art on Tour’s celebration of portraiture pass by without drawing attention to it. So in the absence of concrete facts, I want to think about the portrait in terms of my individual reasons for loving it (sometimes it’s nice to just think about why you like something) and also what can be deduced from the little information we do have about it.  

So what makes me respond so strongly to this particular portrait? Partly because of how it is painted. Williams makes use of a very limited, “no thrills” colour palette of black, beige and a little pink, but this only enhances my awareness of the incredibly sensitive way she has painted the sitter. Using soft, fluid brushstrokes, she captures touching details such as the slight flush in her cheeks, and light wisps of hair. She also very beautifully depicts the subtle play of light and shadow on the sitters face.

There’s no doubt about it… Kathleen Williams sure can paint a portrait.

But who is the sitter? That, I’m afraid, remains a mystery. Luckily for us though, the title and the date do provide us with a bit of information. In the context of the Second World War this portrait of a refugee seems to signify displacement and loss, and this is further suggested by her jet black clothes and their associations with mourning.

It also seems that Williams has captured something like sadness and resignation in the sitter’s eyes, and there is something quite psychologically intense about the way she looks out to us. I’d argue that in the absence of any other information provided by the artist, this unforgettable gaze makes us wonder all the more about the experiences of this anonymous refugee.

‘Refugee’ is currently on show at Swindon’s Civic Offices as part of the Art on Tour programme. Sadly it isn’t available to view at the moment due to Covid-19, so hopefully this blogpost has provided an interesting alternative to seeing the work “in the flesh” for the time being!

Quick plug to finish with – If you enjoyed this, and want more of the same, why not have a listen to Episode 18 of our Art Snaps podcast ‘About Face’, which explores more wonderful portraits from the Swindon Collection –Available Here.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill