By Jeremy Miles
When Victorian art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes bequeathed his lavish cliff-top home, East Cliff Hall, and its huge collection of paintings and sculptures to the people of Bournemouth he created an intriguing problem. He was a fearfully hard act to follow. The collection that he and his wife Annie had spent decades acquiring was idiosyncratic and wide-ranging. Magnificent paintings shared wall space with those that were considered minor and mediocre, but somehow it all worked. It was a collection that reflected Sir Merton’s flamboyant style and generosity of spirit.
But it also highlighted the fact that he had been a man of his age, born into the era of Empire. By the time of his death in 1921 the contemporary art world had moved on. Post First World War sensibilities were open to radical change and though public taste, as ever, lagged a few years behind the artistic vanguard, eventually the inevitable happened and Victorian art fell seriously out of fashion.
However Bournemouth was sitting on what was effectively a priceless time-capsule and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum collection is now recognised as one of the finest complete Victorian collections in the world. That it is housed in its original home is a major bonus. Unfortunately none of this helped answer the problem of how to add to and develop the collection. The answer is found in Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection which runs at the museum’s galleries until 24th April.
It’s an interesting title. For modernism is generally considered to encompass such styles as impressionism, cubism, surrealism, futurism, abstract expressionism and so on. At a glance there is little of that in this nonetheless fascinating show although myriad influences from all manner of isms can be found without looking too hard.
The mid 20th century curators at the Russell-Cotes favoured, with understandable logicality, the work of locally based artists. Once again it mixed the marvellous wth the mundane and once again, given the passage of time, it works. Personal tastes and arts-world connections are obviously reflected in this exhibition which is drawn largely from the museum’s bulging vaults. There’s a particular focus for instance on works in tempera, a medium that was championed by Norman Sylvester, curator of the museum for 25 years up to 1957
There is much more of course including landscapes by local talents like Henry Lamb, Leslie Moffatt Ward and Maxwell Armfield and a significant collection of portraits and war art. Contributors include some big names like Stanley Spencer, Alfred Munnings, Graham Sutherland and John Piper.
It is clear that the Russell-Cotes museum acquired some very impressive works during these years. Undoubtedly many were the direct result of its close connection with the thriving and innovative Bournemouth Arts Club which had frequently exhibited works by artists like the aforementioned Sutherland, Paul Nash and Augustus John. It would later attract guest speakers like Sir John Betjeman, David Hockney and Sir Hugh Casson, all of whom helped boost an already heightened interest in art.
The Meeting Modernism exhibition is, like the original Victorian collection, diverse in content. There are overtly local paintings as epitomised by the work of Leslie Ward and Eustace Nash, two close contemporaries who often sold work directly to the museum, particularly in the 40s and 50s and there are works by nationally recognised artists too.
Ward’s A Dorset Landscape is hardly a masterpiece but it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s a lovingly idealised study of a sweeping view across Worbarrow Bay with five hikers set against a patchwork of the Purbeck Hills. It’s an image that pre-dates Blyton’s Famous Five by more than a decade but you just know there would have been lashings of ginger beer at the end of that walk.
Nash meanwhile uses his skill as a commercial artist to colourfully evoke the fun of a seaside merry-go-round at Weymouth but adopts a darker palette to evoke the day to day reality of the local bus station. There are stylish nudes, commissioned portraits that offer thinly veiled displays of wealth and status and excursions into the spiritual world.
There are bleak scenes from wartime too with Keith Henderson’s study of an RAF machine gunner and Stephen Bone’s tank landing craft. Graham Sutherland meanwhile used his position as an official wear artist to capture the furnaces at work for the war effort.
Elsewhere there are stylised portraits from between the wars like Arthur Bradbury’s 1930s painting Pamela and several studies that explore the work and leisure pursuits of the era like Joseph Southall’s Fishermen and Visitors.
Many, though certainly not all, of the paintings on show are quite lightweight in art history terms but, like forgotten snapshots rediscovered years after they were originally taken, they tell a fascinating story about a century that with two world wars and major economic depression suffered from a kind of arrested development before being catapulted at enormous speed into the 21st century.
One particularly fascinating painting, John Minton’s Artist and Model, offers a glimpse of society gradually shrugging of its shackles. It also points towards the Russell-Cotes next major exhibition in October which celebrates the area’s lesbian, gay, bi and trans community and marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Minton’s 1953 work is a self-portrait which sadly I can’t show here for copyright reasons. It finds the artist capturing himself in the act of painting the object of his desires, the young actor Norman Bowler. Minton is caught in a mirror, reflecting one feels, on a love that he knows will remain unrequited. Bowler would go on to marry Minton’s friend Henrietta Moraes, a Soho character who was the sometime muse and model for both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. He would also become a well known TV actor and for years played Frank Tate in Emmerdale. John Minton meanwhile struggled with depression, became increasingly dependent on alcohol and eventually committed suicide in 1957, ten long years before homosexual acts in private between consenting adults became legal.
Like so many other paintings in this intriguing exhibition Artist and Model has several different stories to tell. It is well worth exploring.
*Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection isn on show at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth until 24th April, 2017. More info at http://www.russellcotes.com