Monday, 22 August 2016

Picking Pictures for the Mayor's Parlour

Yesterday Elspeth and I acted as rent collectors. The Mayor is required to collected a dozen red roses from the charity who run the Flower Show in lieu of rent for Victoria Park. Today I undertook another of the more unexpected duties of the Mayor, namely to pick pictures to hang in the Mayor's parlour in Southport. I understand that the duty used to be discharged annually by the new Mayor but in recent years the practice has lapsed somewhat. In truth the same pictures have hung there for so long I doubt if anyone has looked at them for a good while and of course if they were to be taken down they would reveal a rather obvious need for redecoration. Clearly my first move was to get agreement that the parlour needed redecorating-which given the state of the room I managed to achieve even in these austere times. My next task was to acquire some new pictures.

As many readers will know The Atkinson is home to our art gallery. Over the years there has been an active programme of acquisitions and donations. I booked an appointment with the Curator of Pictures, Steve Whittle, to see what I could find. Steve had done his homework and had visited the Town Hall to view the 'space'. It is a mid C19th building and the pictures that hang there broadly come from the period. I was keen to have a change. Clearly there were constraints on my choice, even if I had wished to have a Lowry or Sir John Collier's Lilith from The Atkinson collection they are too valuable to be lent. Equally the panels where the picture will be hung do rule out some of the larger pictures.

Apart from wanting a change I was keen to inject some local interest into my choices. My first thought was that a past Mayor, Samuel Lawson Booth, was a well know artist. He is in the 'rogues gallery' of past mayors in the ante room to the Council Chamber. I thought it might be a good idea to show to visitors who come on tours of the Town Hall. Visiting school children usually pick him out as he is the only one wearing knee britches and sporting a sword. He seems to have majored on large scale scenes, hills and mountains, Steve showed me his 'Holy City' by way of persuading me not to choose him. I guessed he donated that particular work to The Atkinson because he couldn't find a buyer. He clearly didn't always paint on that scale as he did have a royal commission to paint a picture for the library of Queen Mary's dolls house.

It was becoming clear what I couldn't have so now is the time to explain the choices I did make: There are nine pictures and I will initially post on the four pictures that are catalogued on the Art UK website  beginning with my favourite by a modern artist who spent time as Portrait Artist in Resident at The Atkinson, Peter Layzell. I will return to the others when they are hung in the parlour.

Peter Layzell, Three Figures in a Gallery
As we entered the storage room in The Atkinson one picture at the farthest end of the first rack and the edge of my vision made me pause and look. Steve Whittle had prepared a long list of options for me to consider and was already sliding out an English  Impressionist landscape of Ormskirk, I had logged the modern painting with the women in the vivid pink dress and wanted to look at it more closely. After we had worked our way through more English Impressionists and  I had been shown my folly in considering Samuel Lawson Booth we at last returned to the modern painting in the first rack.
It was painted by the Lancashire based artist was Peter Layzell who was Portrait Artist in Residence at The Atkinson in 2008 and this picture is from the same year. In a couple of interviews one with Lancashire Life and one with Jackdaw Magazine-a publication described as taking a satirical, fun poking review of the Arts world- Layzell has discussed his time in Southport. He commuted daily from Lancaster and when asked if the daily time spent on public transport was wasted he replied: 'Not a bit of it! “I was so taken with the exercise of capturing a likeness in a very short time that I made indelible sketches with a pen, of  no less than four hundred fellow train passengers, many of whom were completely unaware that  their image had been recorded.'
I am not an art critic and so I cannot fully analyse why this picture caught my attention. It was not just because of the obvious craftsmanship, the attention to detail or the vivid colours, there was something else which made you want to stop and look more carefully. In his interviews the artist discusses his approach:
Peter is predominantly a figurative painter who has chosen to work with oil paints, preferring to paint onto smooth wood panel rather than canvas,  a combination which he feels allows  him to work the paint a little faster across its surface. He works slowly and meticulously in a small studio at his home, focusing painstakingly on detail and using strong colour. It can take as long as a year to finish a single work, though he may have a number of paintings on the go at any given time.
.Challenged with a question about whether a modern world awash with images of people needed  yet more of them created from paint, he asserts that painting is not dead, that it has been a “reliable tradition”, that the “transformative power”  of paint was something everyone can connect with, and that painting involved an “intensity of looking” that he feels is due for revival in the world of contemporary world.
I am becoming increasingly aware of the importance of painting in a virtual world where computers monopolise the workplace and manual dexterity is replaced by push-button stupidity. Picking up a pearl of colour on the tip of a brush and applying it with thought and sensitivity to a hard wooden panel seems to me an altogether more real and satisfying sort of activity.
Of all the pictures I viewed that afternoon this was my runaway first choice. Once the parlour is redecorated it will hang by the entrance in the foyer. Steve pointed out that the door in picture has a similar architrave to the one in the parlour.  I certainly hope people will pause and study the picture when they come to visit.

'Big Berg' 178 cm x 178 cm Gloucester Gate Regent's Park 

The vibrant colours- of what turned out to be the spring blossom in Adrian Berg's picture of Gloucester Park- and the size of the canvass led me to ask Steve about the picture. The first thing he told me was that the artist didn't mind which way up you hung the painting. Adrian Berg had a studio overlooking Regent's Park and he had painted the scene many times from different stand points and at different seasons.  It was clear that this canvass came into the category of  'too valuable' to borrow but Steve told me that there was a smaller version that we could consider.

'Little Berg'  61 cm x 76.5 cm gifted to The Atkinson by the Contemporary Arts Society 1986
 Berg was brought up in the heart of the British establishment; prep school, public school (Charterhouse), Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge where he embarked on a degree in Medicine before deciding to switch to English. He then spent a year at Trinity College, Dublin, taking a Higher Diploma in Education. Two years of National Service followed and it was only then, in 1955, that he began to train as a painter, at St Martin’s, Chelsea and finally at the Royal College of Art.
In 1961 Berg set up his studio in Gloucester Gate, overlooking Regent’s Park, which he occupied for almost a quarter of a century and where he made the rich, exquisitely coloured Regent’s Park paintings for which he is well known.
He was a renowned teacher and amongs his pupils was Tracy Emin who allegedly called him 'Bergy Baby". He was a quiet man who did not seek publicity -unlike his some of his pupils.He died in 2011 you can find his obituary here He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1992.
This was an occasion when knowing more about the artist and the picture helped. When we went back to the Mayor's Parlour we agreed that 'Little Berg' would be the picture you see facing you on entering the room.

Mary McCrossan (1863-1934)

My next choice was of a renowned Liverpool artist. Mary McCrossan attended Liverpool’s School of Art and studied in Paris before becoming a member of the Sandon Studios Society. She later settled in St Ives. This picture of the Doge's Palace was purchased in 1925 by The Atkinson

Later works by McCrossan, including St Ives (1927) from the Liverpool Williamson Art Gallery and Museum’s collection, suggest that she was significantly influenced by the Post Impressionists.
Some people cannot see a picture of Venice without recalling Mahler's music which accompanied 1971 film. I think this will be a popular choice for the parlour.

A still life by another leading female artist. Amy Katherine Browning met and became friends with Sylvia Pankhurst later assisting her in the mounting of the Women's Exhibition of 1909 and during the First World War worked alongside Pankhurst to raise money and provide work for women in the East End of London. There is, apparently, a very useful book about Browning and her work, with excellent illustrations: Joanna Dunham's Amy K. Browning: An Impressionist in the Women's Movement.

She is well known as a portrait painter who was commissioned by Winston Churchill and who also painted his wife Clementine. Browning is a portrait painter whose own portrait appears in the National Portrait Gallery.
I thought that this colourful picture would contrast well with some of the other choices I have made.

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