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’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)
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.
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.
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)
Greetings fellow art lovers! If you’ve found your way to this blog, you may have already heard that we’ve recently launched a virtual exhibition called ‘Modern British Art: A Story’ on Art UK! This selection of artworks from Swindon’s collection charts an interesting history of art, from the light-loving New English Art Club to the latest developments in Contemporary painting.
However, as is usually the case, there is so much more to the story than the space of an exhibition caption allows! So this blogpost is the first of a series providing a more in-depth look at what artists of the 20th Century were trying to do with their boundary-breaking artworks…
The London Group is a good place to start, since it gives me the opportunity to talk about three of the most iconic artistic groups of the early 1900s – The Camden Town Group, the Bloomsbury Group and the Vorticists – and the way they joined forces to go against the grain of authority.
Let’s begin with the Vorticists, who came together in 1914 to embrace the speed and dynamism of the modern machine age. They conveyed this by reducing their subjects to hard, geometric patterning, and creating energetic compositions made from bold lines and harsh colours. William Roberts’ Study for ‘Bank Holiday in the Park’ is a sketch for a painting exhibited with the London Group in June 1925.
By this time, the Vorticist group had lost its momentum. After witnessing the horrors of World War I, many of its artists, including Roberts, felt disillusioned with its focus on the machine age. However, we can see the legacy of the movement’s visual language in this piece. The angular, faceless figures and the dynamic composition were characteristic of Vorticism’s response to the speed and technology that defined the new century they lived in.
Despite the Vorticists’ enthusiasm for all things fast and shiny, The Bloomsbury Group’s forward-thinking attitudes have perhaps given them more staying-power in the public conscience. This informal group of artists, writers, philosophers and other intellectuals were connected by an interest in visual experience and the pursuit of knowledge. They were also driven by left-liberal politics and a rejection of typical middle class conventions and behaviours.
The Bloomsbury artists were among the first to embrace the idea that art did not need to reflect reality, but should rather have a reality of its own, and be led by formal design elements such as line, colour, shape, space and rhythm. They were also revolutionary in the way they broke down divisions between fine art and craft. According to the Bloomsbury Group, art no longer needed to belong to the realm of the gallery, but could be a part of everyday life.
Vanessa Bell’s Nude with Poppies is a design for a bed headboard depicting a nude of simplified and elongated forms beneath two large poppies. Flat planes of colour, bold outlines, and a lyrical and organic quality define this important painting from Swindon’s collection.
Finally we have the Camden Town Group; a short lived yet important cohort of artists active between 1911-13. Its artists drew their subject matter from the world surrounding them, embracing the essence of modernity through its people and its places. In doing so, they used techniques that captured light, colour and form with more intensity than was seen previously in British art. Thus, the Camden Town Group has become synonymous with art made just before World War I.
The group was named after the area in London where its founders Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore lived and worked at the time. Marie Hayes was a model who posed for both artists; most notably for one of the most famous Camden Town Paintings, Ennui by Sickert. Gore’s portrait of Hayes was painted early on in the Camden Town Group’s short lifespan, and shows his talent for capturing the play of light on a subject through rapid brushstrokes and colour.
In 1913 the Camden Town Group transformed into the London Group and embraced the whole spectrum of modern art in the capital. As such, artists of the Bloomsbury Group and the Vorticists (among others) joined too. Though their styles were different, their intentions were aligned. As an exhibiting society, the London Group opposed to the traditional and conservative styles still advocated by the Royal Academy, and helped to catapult British art into the Twentieth Century.
Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer for Art on Tour)
It’s lockdown in November, the weather’s a bit dodgy, and the nights are drawing in… but, it’s not all bad! In fact, we think it’s all a jolly good excuse to introduce a brand new way to enjoy Swindon’s art collection from the comfort and safety of your own home…
We’re thrilled to launch an exciting virtual exhibition, ‘Modern British Art: A Story’, which tells a fascinating story of (you guessed it) modern British art, through important artworks from Swindon’s collection. This (we hope) is a quick and easy way to get the lowdown on several key art groups and movements that transformed British art, from the 1880s right up until today!
This is made possible by Art UK’s BRILLIANT Curation Tool, which enables anyone who fancies it to curate their very own virtual exhibitions. We thought we’d get on the bandwagon and seize the opportunity to map out the multifaceted madness that is modern art history, and transform it into bite sized chunks of art historical goodness.
You can check out ‘Modern British Art: A Story’ right HERE. For the best experience, we’d recommend switching to “Storyline View” which puts the artworks in chronological order.
But that’s not all! If you feel we’ve dangled some information bate and are hungry for more, look out for regular blogposts which will be published throughout November (what’s left of it!) and December. These will expand on a number of the artists and movements covered in the exhibition, with an aim of satisfying those healthy art historical appetites (that’s the last of the food references, we promise).
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so we want to shine a spotlight on a particularly special piece in Swindon’s art 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. It’s 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. 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.
‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ is a poignant portrait, which demonstrates the power of creativity to communicate difficult emotions, and to transform experience into meaningful visual imagery. A year has passed since this blog-post was first published in May 2020, and we still find ourselves affected by a global pandemic that has changed our lives and challenged our sense of wellbeing. Here at Art on Tour we continue to use Swindon’s art collection to connect to communities both digitally and in person, in the hope of advocating the power of art and creativity.
Blogpost by Katie (Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)
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.
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
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…..
CLASSIFIED. TOP SECRET.
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….
I DUN IT. ACTION THE LABRADOR.
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.
By Annalisa Jackson, Family-in-Residence, blogger, writer
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.
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!
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.
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!