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.
Some of the artists at the Jerwood also appear in Pallant House’s The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, until February 19, a survey of how, in the aftermath of the First World War, artists looked to the antique as a way to retrieve the certainties that had fallen victim to the war.
Classicism offered both a hallowed and dignified artistic language and a way of expressing calm in a period of huge social upheaval. A portraitist such as Meredith Frampton, for example, turned to the neoclassicist Ingres as a model for how best to make clearly defined and carefully posed pictures. Henry Moore mixed classical statuary with European Modernism in his figure works. The period also saw a new interest in the ancient mediums of tempera and mural painting.
One of the most interesting paintings is William Roberts’s The Judgement of Paris, 1933, which shows just how far some artists changed. A former war artist, Roberts became known for his crowded images of the everyday — pub life, football matches, boxing bouts — but in the postwar years he painted a series of mythological pictures that have fewer figures and are consequently more tranquil in mood. Although he continued to be fascinated by the rough and tumble of urban life, his essays in classicism fulfilled a need in him for order.
What Roberts and his peers found for themselves was what artists from the Renaissance onwards have always found — that classicism could be used as a bulwark against the modern world and alternatively as a means of developing a truly modern style.
The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne takes night as its theme, and the way that artists from northern Europe have found inspiration in the dark, just as their southern peers have habitually turned to light. The 60 painters represented in Towards Night (until February 22) include figures of the highest quality — Caspar David Friedrich, Turner and Constable among the Romantics; Munch and Chagall among the early moderns; and Howard Hodgkin, Louise Bourgeois and Peter Doig among the latter-day practitioners.
A whole series of varied and complex themes emerge from the gloom; from reverie and dreams, fear and dystopia, to nature observation and wonderment. The benignity of night is perfectly captured in Chagall’s The Poet Reclining (1915) showing a figure sleeping in the posture of a tomb effigy outside a farm among grazing animals. The sky is a dusky pink and there is enough light to show the different greens of the grass and trees. Here is a scene of restorative — both mental and physical — peace.
Doig’s Echo Lake, 1998, on the other hand, could be a still from Twin Peaks. Seen from out in the still lake, a policeman stands on shore, his hands to his head, his car behind him on a track just before the forest begins. A study in browns, dark greens and flickering highlights, this is an image of disquiet. Is this the view someone drowning out in the lake would see looking back to shore, or is the viewer in a boat rowing away from the policeman? There are numerous possible stories here but no single right one. This exhibition, like the other two, is imaginative and full of fascination. Head south.