Campus close-up: University of Hull

Campus gallery to act as a gateway in £28m refurbishment of Philip Larkin’s library

April 2, 2015

Source: University of Hull

Bernasconi: Hull’s ‘hidden gem’ is now in a space that does it justice

Since 1963, the University of Hull has been building up an important collection of British art. It was started from scratch by the late Malcolm Easton, senior lecturer in the history of art, with an endowment of £200 a year from the estate of local industrialist Thomas Robinson Ferens – the man who provided the funding for the city’s Ferens Art Gallery and helped establish Hull as a university college in 1927.

Given the financial constraints, says John Bernasconi, director of the University of Hull Art Collection, Easton chose to concentrate on British art between 1890 and 1940 “partly because it was out of fashion and cheap”. Although the period has since begun to attract more interest, it is “still possible to acquire ‘museum-quality’ work without needing to be an oligarch”. Hull can therefore keep expanding the collection through several purchases a year as well as gifts (its relatively narrow focus makes it an obvious place for people to donate suitable material), while long loans from the Arts Council Collection have helped plug some of the gaps.

Hull’s collection now contains about 500 paintings, drawings, watercolours, cartoons and sculpture, and is particularly strong on the Camden Town and Bloomsbury groups. Most of the big names, from Aubrey Beardsley to Augustus John, Ben Nicholson to Henry Moore, Walter Sickert to Stanley Spencer, are represented.

In its early years from 1963 to 1967, the collection was housed in the main university library, now the Brynmor Jones Library, where the poet Philip Larkin famously served as librarian from 1955 until his death in 1985. It was then moved into galleries in the basement at Middleton Hall, a sort of university arts centre, and, in the words of one critic, was “buried in two plain rooms in an undistinguished 60s building”.

Although public access was gradually increased from two hours a week in term-time to six hours every weekday, the collection remained largely neglected by students and the local community. So, if such collections can play a role in opening the campus up to the city and bringing students into direct contact with major works, it was largely failing to fulfil its potential.

Now, in the lead-up to Hull’s year as UK City of Culture in 2017, the university’s “hidden gem” of a collection has staged “a homecoming” to the library and is displayed in a purpose-built space that does it justice, claims Bernasconi. One of his main tasks during the relocation was to spend about a year updating and rewriting works’ labels, about 18,000 words in all.

The relocation represents the final stage of the £28 million refurbishment of the whole library, one of the most ambitious revamps in the country, which has opened piecemeal since 2013.

“The entire building has been redeveloped”, explains Richard Heseltine, the current librarian, “to transform the student experience. It was built in 1959 and extended in 1966-67, with both projects overseen by Larkin, so it is very much of its age, designed for students working quietly on their own around printed materials. We have aimed to create a variety of different styles of learning spaces.

“We want to make the library one of the main gateways to the university for the wider community as well as an academic hub for students. The new gallery demonstrates our commitment, creating a space which showcases our art collection in a more publicly accessible way. It’s seen as very much part of the library, but you don’t need to go through any security to get in.”

Now open from 10am to 5pm every day, with extended evening hours also planned, the gallery should form one of the city’s major cultural attractions, both during 2017 and in the lead-up period while the Ferens Art Gallery is closed for refurbishment in preparation for the City of Culture accolade. The library cafe’s opening hours have been extended and an additional space for temporary exhibitions has been created, too.

All this creates opportunities for 2017, when the university will be a key partner in providing venues, volunteers, cultural activities and research expertise. Heseltine predicts a number of “Larkin-related events” and opportunities for students to develop skills in curation and marketing, with a view to pursuing careers in galleries, auction houses or other parts of the culture industries.

Bernasconi is just pleased that the collection is now “very much at the heart of the university”.

In numbers

500 works of art, including cartoons and sculptures, are contained within the university’s collection

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