Thursday, March 30, 2006

The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Yesterday I visited the New Art Gallery in Walsall. This is one of those white elephants, built with Lottery money, which dot provincial England. But the collection it houses is special and worth going to see.

It is easy to find as it stands in the centre of town beside the canal basin. It looms over the water like a dreadnought where the narrow boats used to load. There was a family of swans in the basin. The cygnets were very adolescent - their feathers, turning from grey to white, looked like drifted snow with highways department salt dumped on it - and gave the impression they would be a happier in hoodies.

Walsall, at least the short stretch of it you see between the railway station and the gallery, is not inspiring. But I have seen tree-lined streets on the outskirts which suggest that it has been prosperous in its time. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its wealth came from coal mining - today the area to the south is badly affected by subsidence - and later it became famous as a centre of the leather trade. (The local schools used to do their bit for the town's economy by beating the children with leather straps rather than canes.)

With celebrity architects (Caruso St John) and a celebrity director (Peter Jenkinson), the gallery made a great splash when it opened. Jenkinson wrote about its early success in the New Statesman in 2000. But the Wikipedia article on it suggests that it has not had such a happy time since then and is now run by council officers.

This would explain the display that greets you upon entering. There are trade union banners (Lambeth NALGO Women's Group, NUT Bexley Association) and poems from schoolchildren about racism and bullying. No doubt they are meant to represent popular culture, but they are characteristic of the cheerlessness and sententiousness of municipal Labourism. Still, if you climb the stairs to the galleries the views along the canal lift the heart and make you want to walk the towpath.

The galleries are upstairs too, and the art displayed in them is what makes the trip to Walsall worthwhile. The heart of the gallery's collection is the Garman Ryan Collection which, the gallery's website explains, was:
donated to the Borough in 1972 by Lady Kathleen Epstein. It consists of three hundred and sixty-five works of art, over a third of them being three-dimensional works from many different cultures and periods around the world. It also contains a wide-ranging body of the work of Sir Jacob Epstein and many significant works by European artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, Corot, Renoir and Constable represented in prints, sketches and drawings as well as paintings and sculptures.
You can explore the collection online on this page of the gallery's website.

Jacob Epstein is an appealing figure. He was born in 1880 in New York, the son of Polish refugees, and settled in England in 1905. He was a friend of leading British artists like Augustus John and Eric Gill, and one of his daughters married the painter Lucian Freud. The collection at Walsall has works by all these friends and family connections.

Epstein was at first a controversial artist, thanks to his predilection for nude figures on buildings such as the former BMA headquarters on The Strand in London and John Lewis's in Liverpool. But he lived to be knighted, to produce a bronze of Churchill just after the war and to contribute the sculpture of St Michael and the Devil to the new Coventry Cathedral. (The model for St Michael, incidentally, was the distinguished economist Wynne Godley.)

So that is the New Art Gallery at Walsall. The cafe is friendly but limited, and you may do better to eat next door at The Wharf, described as "Walsall's trendiest bar". How much competition there is, the writer does not say.

1 comment:

Colin Ross said...

Glad you enjoyed your visit to Walsall. The Gallery is a much underused facility in Walsall - you didn't mention how few people were there - due to lack of advertising and mismangement...

As you say this is a shame as the exhibitions are good and I absolutely love the building and views.

The Wharft Bar food is the best I have found in Walsall - oddly enough I am the so-called 'partner' mentioned in the link you provide. It probably is the 'trendiest' bar as you correctly point out lack of opposition makes the title easy to win.

You may be interested to know Wolverhampton is currently building a Pop Art gallery and I am sure would love a visit from you when it is open - plus we have some better bars and food too!