Joan of art: “Iris Tree on a Horse”, c.1920s, by Dora Carrington (©Ingram Collection)
While London’s galleries soak up most of the available publicity oxygen, Britain’s regional museums, over the past decade and more, have been quietly strengthening and burgeoning. Regional, indeed, seems a pejorative term for what have become centres of excellence. With the announcement of a new gallery of Spanish art to be opened in 2018 in Bishop Auckland, the north-east, which already has the Bowes Museum, will become an unlikely but bona fide pilgrimage destination for Iberian art. Yorkshire, with the Hepworth at Wakefield, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, is the place to go for 20th-century British sculpture. The recently revamped and extended Holburne Museum in Bath and the Whitworth in Manchester have beefed up the arts in their respective areas. Now, though, all roads lead to Sussex.
When the Jerwood Gallery opened in 2012 in Hastings it completed a sweep of galleries on the south coast, running along from Pallant House in Chichester and the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne (there’s also the newly refurbished Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in between). The Hastings gallery, a beautiful composition of black tile-hung boxes on the beach, is the showcase for the Jerwood Collection of modern and contemporary British art. Its latest exhibition, Century: 100 Modern British Artists — 100 works by 100 artists spanning 100 years — is the perfect showcase for what the gallery is all about.
Century, which runs until January 8, combines pieces from the Jerwood’s own holdings and works from the Ingram Collection put together by the media entrepreneur Chris Ingram, who, like Jonathan Ruffer (whose £25 million gift is driving the Bishop Auckland project), is one of a current crop of philanthropists determined that London shouldn’t suck up all the best art. The exhibition includes paintings, sculpture and works on paper and gives a snapshot of the variety of Britain’s petit-maîtres and of the occasional grand-maître too.
While the exhibition includes familiar names such as David Hockney, Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi, its real aim is to show something of the exuberance of 20th-century British art. Perhaps the piece that best encapsulates that spirit is a small portrait from the 1920s of Iris Tree on horseback by Dora Carrington. Tree was an actress and poet with a racy reputation: she was also a celebrated model who sat for Modigliani and Epstein among others. Carrington depicted her as Joan of Arc in oil, ink and silver foil on glass and Tree kept this strange jewel-stained glass portrait for the rest of her life. Not every work in the exhibition has a back story but enough do to give this ambitious exhibition an added layer of appeal.