A Lasting Legacy: The House and Collection of Victor Skipp
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until 26 January 2014
In his final Reith Lecture delivered at the beginning of this month, Grayson Perry restated the position that the artist’s primary role is to notice things. Victor Skipp was a local historian, educator and hoarder of art whose collection is the subject of an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard. By Perry’s definition, Victor Skipp might also be understood as an artist.
The exhibition marks Skipp’s death in 2010 and the subsequent gift of most of his collection to Kettle’s Yard, communicating a powerful sense of Skipp’s infinite capacity for noticing. Through his collection and writings, he appears to have been a human divining rod, acutely alert to patterns, geometry and the unifying ideas that he saw everywhere.
His publications were mostly in the field of Midlands local history. These covered a vast historical range: medieval Yardley, the Forest of Arden during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution in Birmingham. Punctuating the local histories were wider surveys with a more political or philosophical flavour, such as Out of the Ancient World and The Industrial Revolution Then and Now, which compared the landscape of British industry in 1997 with that of 1825.
Skipp brought his methodology as a local historian – using microcosm as a means of understanding macrocosm – to his enjoyment of art. His house in Hopton, Suffolk, shown in a film that leads the visitor into the exhibition, was full of all kinds of art displayed in every corner, its collector’s eccentricity amplified by occasional quotations or phrases scrawled in chalk on the timber beams. Objects were juxtaposed to accentuate formal resonances regardless of their cultural context; these conflations may trouble Marxian art historians, but they also make for an intriguing domestic space.
“It sometimes feels that I must be one of the very last people in the world who hasn’t given up on Modernism: who is still utterly devoted to Modernism,” Skipp wrote in his final, unpublished, manuscript. His appetite for connecting contemporary work with the likes of Benin bronzes and Turkoman rugs was perhaps an expression of this arch-Modernism. It recalled the spirit of exhibitions such as the famous 1948 show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 40,000 Years of Modern Art, which drew associations between Modernism and “primitivism” (Skipp’s copy of the catalogue appears in one of the exhibition’s vitrines).
Another mainstay of high Modernism is the found object, exemplified by Marcel Duchamp and his urinal. Found objects abound in the footage of Skipp’s house, reinforcing the sense that he was indeed the paradigmatic Modernist he professed to be. But perhaps not entirely: conventionally, Modernist found objects were elevated to art-object status; Skipp, conversely, seemed to have treated everything as if found, including parts of his art collection. In a room recreating arrangements from his house, a drawing by Bob Law scratched and incised on a sheet of lead is framed by a woven reed wall hanging. It is an irreverent intervention that manages nonetheless to be poetic.
A substantial group of drawings and etchings by Linda Karshan in the same room offer a visual metaphor for the exhibition, again recalling a Modernist leitmotif: the grid. Karshan’s lines are imperfect, informed by the rhythms of her mark-making and her interest in numbers. Their hesitation towards the edges of her drawings suggests a continuation of the picture outside the frame. In this respect, they represent the ethereal lines drawn between culturally and functionally dissimilar objects by Skipp’s juxtapositions. On another wall are several drawings that Skipp himself made of the timber-framed walls of his house, rendered playfully as flat, bold grids in homage to Mondrian. Just as the display of his collection inverted conventional relationships between the found object and Modernism, his treatment of these grids “undoes” pure abstraction by making it representational.
These gestures evidence how Skipp’s gaze seems to have dissolved divisions between art and life, and between his collection and house. They also complicate his self-proclaimed adherence to Modernism: making abstraction representational and turning art back into found object are subversive to core tenets of the Modern movement, to say the least.
As might be expected from Skipp’s taste for uniting dissimilar objects, the exhibition at Kettle’s Yard is richly diverse. It includes a large canvas by Alison Turnbull, extensive displays of work by Bob Law and Linda Karshan, ceramics by Lucie Rie, 18th-century Mughal miniatures, African masks and two unframed paintings by Ivon Hitchens. Kettle’s Yard is inescapably a gallery, with clean walls and crisp lighting, but its relatively small spaces coupled with the decision to replicate some of Skipp’s hanging arrangements mean that the exhibition retains a homely air. An area where visitors can sit and browse through a selection of Skipp’s publications accentuates this domestic atmosphere. It also links Skipp to Kettle’s Yard, where one of the shibboleths of the collection (as displayed in the house next door) is that visitors can sit in the chairs and look through the books. The display of a writer’s collection in the gallery is therefore an ideal fit: the opportunity to look at Skipp’s books is a reminder both that this is Kettle’s Yard and that Skipp was a writer and educator. He taught in secondary schools after leaving the University of Cambridge in 1950, and was a lecturer at Bordesley College of Education throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During that time he also ran extramural research in local history at the University of Birmingham.
The display of Skipp’s collection at Kettle’s Yard is, therefore, a homecoming of sorts. The conception of his house and its collection clearly borrowed from Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard house that Ede created. This domesticates art and gives a context far more heterogeneous than typical museums allow: books, furniture, plants and pebbles surround work from its permanent collection, which is placed at every conceivable height rather than at the standard eye level of a gallery. Skipp was a frequent visitor to Kettle’s Yard, and in his Hopton house he adopted many of these unorthodox hanging strategies.
If Skipp’s aptitude for noticing patterns and associations suggests a case for his being an artist, his relationship with his collection places him even more firmly in the mould of other artists. Unpublished manuscripts of reflections on the collection – one titled The Binary Business, the other The Year of Mythical Thinking – are as much experimental or whimsical as they are documentary. As such, they evoke precedents such as John Latham, who declared his house and studio Flat Time House a “living sculpture”, or Ian Hamilton Finlay, who considered his landscape Little Sparta a “garden poem”. Victor Skipp’s house and collection, glimpsed through this endlessly absorbing exhibition, are perhaps best understood in those terms.