A new home for modish masters

Modern British Art at Pallant House Gallery
July 22, 2005

This beautifully designed catalogue heralds the opening, in March 2006, of a new gallery at Pallant House in Chichester. The exciting and controversial extension to this elegant 18th-century Sussex town house has been designed by the architect Colin St John Wilson, in association with his wife, M.J. Long, and her partner, Rolfe Kentish. Howard Hodgkin's painting Granchester Road (1975), an abstracted view of the interior of Wilson's Cambridge house, appears strikingly on the front cover - a fitting fanfare to a book on one of the finest groupings of modern British art in the country, to which Wilson has recently added his own outstanding collection, dating from the mid-20th century to the present day.

As the first chapter reveals, Pallant House Gallery has been particularly fortunate since its opening in 1982 in the number and quality of works it has acquired, most from generous local benefactors. Indeed, it owes its existence to Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester Cathedral from 1955 to 1977, an enlightened patron of church art and music, who offered his private collection of contemporary British artworks to the town on the condition that it was housed in Pallant House, making the point that good contemporary art can be at home in historic interiors. The significance of his commissions for Chichester Cathedral, from figures such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ceri Richards and Cecil Collins, is discussed in a chapter on church patronage in postwar Britain.

Whereas Hussey collected mainly representational compositions by such distinguished artists as Henry Moore, Matthew Smith, Paul Nash, Christopher Wood and Ivon Hitchens, his Chichester colleague, Elisabeth Murray, former principal of Bishop Otter College of Education, built up an important collection of works by abstract painters, including Terry Frost, William Gear and Peter Lanyon.

The two collections complemented each other perfectly, and their scope has been greatly extended by subsequent bequests, notably that of Charles Kearley in 1989. The property developer, hotelier and local resident added such names as Percy Wyndham Lewis, John Tunnard and Alan Davie, as well as those of continental and American artists, among them Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, Gino Severini and Sam Francis. The latter are somewhat disconcertingly included in the catalogue, presumably to show links with the British works. The more recent Golder-Thompson gift of contemporary Scottish art grows yearly, while a steady stream of bequests and loans continues to enrich the collection, whose great appeal lies in the very personal choices of the benefactors.

This fully illustrated book, which contains about a hundred entries on individual objects, is more than just a catalogue. Introductory essays on the background to the project, including a survey of the historic collections, are followed by chronologically arranged sections with informative introductions and catalogue notes. The authors refer to a wide range of media as they trace the development of 20th-century British art from Walter Sickert and his contemporaries to the present day in a scholarly yet thoroughly approachable way. In the process, they use the term "modern" rather more inclusively than the curators of the seminal 1987 Royal Academy exhibition British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement , which embraced only artists influenced by continental theories and practices.

Nowadays it is still fashionable to consider innately British representational landscapes, such as those by Nash, Piper and Eric Ravilious, as old-fashioned or nostalgic; yet here these artists are recognised for their individualistic styles, which are original for their very lack of influence from abroad. Similarly, figurative painting by William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and others demonstrates an alternative tradition to the succession of abstract art movements that have predominated from the 1950s onwards, admirably represented by Hitchens, William Scott, Mark Lancaster and Prunella Clough, among others.

Nigel Henderson's remarkable screen collaged with mass media imagery gives a foretaste of Wilson's Pop Art collection, which includes powerful works by Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Patrick Caulfield. The American-influenced movement that epitomised the "Swinging Sixties" is lucidly described in two chapters titled "Knowing consumers" and "Please, please me", the latter alluding to Peter Blake's eye-catching portrait of the Beatles.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the gallery policy is its ongoing project with contemporary artists such as Langlands & Bell to make powerful artistic statements within the environment of Pallant House. Andy Goldsworthy's incised chalkstone sculptures laid in a marble fireplace, Paul Huxley's geometric Wall Drawing ascending the grand staircase, and the quirky egg installations of jewellers Wendy Ramshaw and Miranda Watkins would surely have appealed to Hussey, as, no doubt, they will to future visitors.

Joanna Selborne is curator of prints and drawings, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery.

Modern British Art at Pallant House Gallery

Author - Stefan van Raay, Frances Guy, Simon Martin and Andrew Churchill
Publisher - Scala
Pages - 144
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 1 85759 331 6

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