Julian Cooper at Abbot Hall

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On Easter Saturday we drove up to Abbot Hall to take a look at their latest exhibition – a mini-retrospective of the work of a Cumbrian artist, Julian Cooper.

The paintings on display could be divided into four periods

His earliest works, shown on the landing at the top of the main staircase are quite abstract, although clearly based on vegetation and geological formations. The paintings from the second period, displayed in the first room, were figurative. A number of them based on Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano and feature characters from the novel. But dominating the background are mountains, which later became the primary focus of his work.

The work then evolves again into a unique form of representation that is frequently near-abstract in its emphasis on the texture, shadow and irregular surfaces of rock and ice.  these mature period works

These mature period works were my favourites.

The second room was dominated by two large paintings of the Tibetan holy mountain, Mount Kailash which he visited in early spring 2006. One painting shows it’s north face, the other, the south.

A unique mountain, Kailash is worshipped by Hindus, Jain and Buddhists alike as the home of their Gods yet is so remote and difficult to get to that it is visited by only a handful of pilgrims each year. (Art Space Gallery Press Release)

The majority of the other paintings in this and the third rooms are close ups of rock faces, many of them from quarries in Italy, Tasmania and his native Cumbria.

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They are very detailed and standing back they are very realistic – particularly the Cumbrian works. However, they also have an abstract quality particularly when viewed a little closer.

A number of his paint brushes and palettes give an insight into his method of work. He works on large canvases yet despite this many of his paintings are started “plein air” and supplemented by photographs and then finished back in his studio Working in a large scale he uses large paint brushes with long handles, sometimes extending them to make them even longer.

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It must be something of a challenge to get his large canvases up into the relatively inaccessible locations in the mountains.  I found this interesting article by the artist, describing how he went about painting the holy Mount Kailish in Tibet.

George Shaw: My Back to Nature at Abbot Hall

Last Saturday we drove up to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition showing at Abbot Hall. It’s devoted to the work of George Shaw, a working class artist from Coventry who was a Turner Prize nominee in 2011 for The Sly and Unseen Day, a series of paintings of Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where he grew up. As with the present exhibition, these were painted using Humbrol enamel paints, which I used to use as a young teenager to paint Airfix and Tamiya model aircraft and military vehicles.

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From a distance his paintings have a photographic quality – perhaps not surprising as he paints from photographs – but closer up it’s clear they’re not. Imperfections in the surface due to the use of his unusual medium become visible and the paint has an unusual sheen quite different from more traditional media. He doesn’t romanticise his subject, but shows it “as is”. However, they’re usually devoid of people so the scenes look deserted and a little intimidating.

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We’d seen The Sly and Unseen Day at the Baltic in 2011 and were keen to visit the current exhibition, which  was originally shown at the National Gallery where he spent two years as Associate Artist (2014-2016) The paintings are inspired by woodland scenes from the National Gallery’s collection – three of which (by Piero del Pollaiuolo, Nicolas Poussin and John Constable) are on loan to Abbot Hall and showing in another room in the Gallery.

But these are urban woods, in and around the estate where George Shaw grew up. They’re not idealised Sylvain landscapes, but clearly well used by locals who leave behind the residue of their visits – litter, beer cans, discarded mattresses, pornographic magazines and damaged and vandalised trees. The scenes are very typical of woodland bordering urban areas. There are similar scenes in some parts of the Plantations at Wigan.

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Taking the paintings by the Masters

Shaw is interested in how their stories – often featuring violence, illicit sex and drunkenness – have parallels in the way that people might behave in the woods today, when they think they are unobserved.

He considers his paintings to be modern equivalents, showing evidence of the same tyes of activities, or at least the modern equivalent. One major difference being the absence of people – except for one painting where the artist himself can be seen from the rear, clearly relieving himself against a tree.

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George Shaw was brought up as a Catholic and that certainly comes across in a number of works in the exhibition.

This is complemented by Shaw’s interest in Christian imagery, especially how landscape artists of the past often alluded to the Crucifixion in their depiction of trees.

such as this one

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one of a group of three paintings that can clearly be interpreted as a representation of the crucifixion.

There’s a series of 14 charcoal drawings – The Loneliness of the Middle‑Aged Life Model  – which are self portraits showing the artist in various poses – reaching, stretching, kneeling , and crucified. They are clearly  inspired by the fourteen stations of the cross.

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There’s also a series of drawings of the head of Christ

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It was also interesting to see the selection the three of the artist’s sketchbooks from his residency which give a further insight to his inspiration and technique.

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There’s a video accompanying the exhibition where George Shaw talks about his  work, his development as an artist and his residency at the National Gallery. He comes across as a very engaging, pleasant, unpretentious and humorous individual. We spoke to a some of the Gallery staff who had talked to him when he visited the Gallery with his family and they all had nothing but good words for him.

People on Paper at Abbot Hall

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To finish off our short break in the Lakes we drove over to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition at Abbot Hall. People on Paper , as the title implies, features drawings of people by British artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from the Arts Council Collection with loans from the British Council Collection.

The show includes drawings by nearly 50 artists,  from the early twentieth century, including Gwen John (with the earliest drawing in the exhibition), Augustus John and Walter Sickert, right through to more modern artists such as Euan Uglow, Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Antony Gormley.

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Drawing of a Girl, Alice (1974) by Lucien Freud

Drawing people is inevitably figurative but there were some more abstract approaches, particularly this sketch by Mimei Thomson (Liquid Portrait 4, 2008)

Mimei Thompson, Liquid Portrait 4, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist

The works included simple sketches (some unfinished), more complex drawings, watercolours and even some incorporation of multi-media as in Kate Davis’ drawing Partners Study (Figure 1) from 2005 which incorporates a ceramic “telephone” made from small slabs of white clay.

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Walking into the exhibition, the first drawing I saw, almost facing the door, was a rather creepy sketch by L S Lowry Woman With Long Hair (1964). The other drawings in the first room, from the early part of the 20th Century were a little more “normal”, including Gwen John’s simple sketch of the head of a young woman

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Head of a Woman (c 1910)

and this drawing by Harold Gilman,

Harold Gilman. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Woman Combing Her Hair (1911)

although there was also an early work by Antony Gorman.

The second room brought us forward in time and included works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth, Reconstruction, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Reconstruction (1947)

The third room included some later works, including this simple sketch by Euan Uglow

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Girl Close To (1968)

Another enjoyable exhibition at one of our favourite Galleries. A good selection of artists with works encompassing a wide range of styles and approaches.

Winifred Nicholson in Cumberland

Cumbrian landscape painting by Winifred Nicholson, one of the leading British 20th Century modern artists

‘The earth of Cumberland is my earth … I have always lived in Cumberland – the call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of the lonely fells is my mystery, and the sliver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.’

Like many women, Winifred Nicholson is largely known for who she was married to rather than for her ability as an artist.  But she was a talented artist and her work deserves to be better known. The latest exhibition at Abbot Hall, curated by her Grandson, Jovan Nicholson, and concentrating on works created in her native county, will hopefully contribute to correcting this.

Born Winifred Roberts in the north of the old county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria following local government re-organisation in the 1970’s), her Grandmother, Rosalind Howard, known as the ‘Radical Countess’, was involved in Liberal politics, Temperance reform and Women’s suffrage. Her father was a Liberal MP who served as a member of the Asquith government.

After studying art in London she married a fellow artist and after travelling to Italy returned to live in Cumberland, at Bankhead near Hadrian’s Wall. He was something of a philanderer and in the early 1930’s started a relationship with another artist who he later married and then deserted for yet another woman.

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Winifred continued to live in Cumberland, at Bankshead and then at her parent’s home, Boothby, later returning to Bankshead. She also travelled in Europe, living in France for a number of years in the 1930’s and met Mondrian, Giacometti, Kandinski, Alexander Calder and other artists.

The exhibition, though, concentrates on her time in Cumberland and is divided broadly into three sections based on where she was living: Bankshead in the 1920s and 1930s, Boothby and the Lake District post war, and Bankshead again for the last two decades of her life. It includes a significant number of works and also included two vases which feature in some of the paintings on display.

While in Cumberland she developed the style for which she is best known – landscapes painted using a palette of bright, but subdued, pastel colours. She also began to paint a large number of pictures of flowers on window sills with a landscape in the background. There were a significant number of such pictures in the exhibition.

Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils and Pewter Jug, 1953

Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils and Pewter Jug (1953)

These aren’t botanical pictures with precise illustrations of the flowers but are painted in an impressionistic style

As well as views from her two homes, she also got out and about in the Lake District painting landscapes.

Winifred Nicholson, Ullswater, c1949s

Winifred Nicholson, Ullswater,(c1949)

She also spent some time at St Bees and a number of her works were sea views with the Isle of Man in the background.

Winifred Nicholson, Lily of the Valley, St. Bees, 1940

Winifred Nicholson, Lily of the Valley, St. Bees (1940)

Some of her landscapes included trees and animals. These were largely painted in a naive, childlike style, probably reflecting the influence of Alfred Wallis.

In the last few years of her life she began to make paintings inspired by the use of a prism.

‘I found out what flowers know, how to divide the colours as prisms do, … and in so doing giving the luminosity and brilliance of pure colour

There were some examples in the exhibition, including this one

Winifred Nicholson, Accord, 1978

Winifred Nicholson, Accord (1978)

The exhibition brings together a large number of works produced over a period of some 40 years from a number of sources, including many from private collections. Inevitably, there is some variability in quality, but overall it’s a good survey of her work with many attractive, colourful paintings. And I think the following statement on the Abbot Hall website is about right

Taken as a whole, the paintings in the show feel timeless, depicting Cumberland landscapes that have hardly changed. They are more than just views: they give an indescribable sense of a window opening onto a sunlit morning of endless opportunities.

Laura Ford: Seen and Unseen

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Last weekend, on a whim, we decided to take a short break in Cumbria. We’d planned to visit the latest Lakeland Arts exhibition which straddled Abbot Hall in Kendal and Blackwell, down the road near Bowness, and as the weather outlook was pretty good a stop over in Grasmere followed by a walk on Sunday seemed like a good idea. So that’s what we did.

We set out earlyish on Saturday and drove up to Kendal. First stop was Abbot Hall to see the first half of the exhibition of works by Laura Ford, previously shown at Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, (20 June – 6 November 2015), and also the National Gallery’s Rembrandt self-portrait which is “on tour” round the country with Abbot Hall one of the venues.

I have to admit of never having heard of Laura Ford before the exhibition was announced, although she is represented in the collections of Galleries including the Tate, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The publicity photos I’d seen looked interesting but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

The works on display were mainly sculptures, but there were also a number of ceramic pieces, paintings and drawings. Most of her works are figurative – lifelike humans and animals, but with a twist. She works in bronze, other metals, fabrics, wool, Jesmonite and other materials, including clothing to dress some pieces. Her works include  humans dressed as animals (or ‘sculptures dressed as people who are dressed as animals’), humans with animal aspects and anthropomorphic creatures. Most with a very Surreal influence evident.

The exhibition blurb tells us that

Laura Ford is one of Britain’s most original sculptors and is well-known for her portrayals of animals through which she explores aspects of the human condition – although Ford describes her own work as sculptures dressed as people who are dressed as animals. Deploying a nightmarish imagination she uses humour and acute observation to engage with social and political issues. Her works are personal and particular but also draw inspiration from popular culture as well as painting and sculpture from throughout the history of art.

Nightmarish is a very apt description for many of the works we saw.

The artist is skilful in creating realistic poses so that many of the figures look as if they are about to move. In some cases we worried that if we looked back they would have followed us! That aspect made some of the works very creepy indeed.

At Abbot Hall, they were displayed in the main exhibition space upstairs but some were located in the Georgian furnished rooms on the ground floor. For example, this pair of Medieval Cloud Girls standing amongst the furniture in the drawing room on the ground floor

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Upstairs we encountered this group of rather creepy penguins the size of children. There was something about them that made it seem as if there were real children inside the costumes.

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Perhaps it was the worn plimsolls they were wearing and the way they were posed. I was almost convinced that they had moved when we came back into the room.

At Blackwell the works were distributed throughout the house and outside in the grounds.

These Armour Boys  appeared to be evidence of a battle that had taken place in the Great Hall

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The poses were very convincing.

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Old Nick relaxing by the fire in the dining room

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There were a number of smaller ceramic pieces displayed in the White Drawing Room.

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I don’t think I’d like to bump into these fellows. A rural version of the Ku Klux Klan? or Something out of the Wicker Man.

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There seemed to be a surprise around every corner including this mouse boy

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and an elephant boy partially concealed behind a wardrobe in the small dressing room

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There were two giant rag dolls in the bedroom

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creepy enough without the second face on the back of it’s head

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The Lake District is closely associated with Beatrix Potter who lived over the other side of Windermere from Blackwell. There were three sculptures which almost could have come from her stories, except the characters were clearly down on their luck

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Perhaps that’s what upset these two children

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It was a marvellous exhibition that we thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always great to discover something good that you weren’t expecting and this was certainly the case on Saturday.

The Lakeland Arts website suggests that visitors really need to see both aspects of the exhibition by visiting both locations. I think that’s true and they do offer a reduction voucher for the second site when you ay admission at the first you visit. Mind you we are Friends of the Trust and so are able to visit as often as we like. And the excellent exhibitions they put on make the annual fee well worthwhile.

British Surrealism at Abbot Hall

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There’s No Time Like The Future, (1957) by Desmond Morris

Last Saturday we drove up the M6 to Abbot Hall in Kendal to see the British Surrealist exhibition which has been on for a little while now. In fact it was the last day, so our last chance to see it. I’m not a great fan of Surrealism, but, as has been the case with other Surrealist exhibitions I’ve seen I found I liked some of the works on display, finding some others interesting, even if they didn’t move me, with others I didn’t like.

There were other works included in the exhibition that were not really Surrealist and others that had a connection with the movement and had some Surrealist features or elements, including work by Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and the sculptor, F E McWilliam. As the Gallery’s publicity for the exhibition pointed out

unlike other key artistic movements, surrealism has never had a single overriding visual aesthetic, and has constantly reinvented its means of poetic expression.

The main works were by British Surrealists, many I’d not heard of before and there were some interesting discoveries. So I came away feeling quite satisfied as it’s good to make such discoveries. The works in the exhibition were all collected by a Leeds G.P. who was also a Tory Councillor in Leeds andin that capacity was heavily involved in the Leeds City Art Gallery. Ironic that he was a Tory, really, as the majority of the artists he collected were on the left politically.

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Twilight Symphony, (1954) by John Banting

My favourite works were a couple of large sculpture by F E McWilliam – Spanish Head and The Long Arm, both inspired by the Spanish Revolution, the latter representing the clenched fist salute of the Republican side. I was also fascinated by some paintings and small sculptures by Desmond Morris – the author of the “Naked Ape”, who was also one of the presenters on “Zoo Time” which was a children’s TV programme when I was a boy. The paintings in particular were very good. One was used as the main image for publicising the exhibition.

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An interesting collection and well worth the trip up to Kendal, which is a pleasant place to visit, especially on a sunny Saturday. The next exhibition at Abbot Hall will be devoted to Barbara Hepworth and, like the Lynn Chadwick exhibition last year, will also include some larger works on display in the grounds of Blackwell. That’s something I’m looking forward to.

Not so grim up north?

Abbot Hall recently acquired two late LS Lowry paintings on long term loan. Inspired by this they have created a small exhibition of paintings by northern artists from their collection shown together with the new Lowry paintings. There are works by William Bell, Jack Simcock, Percy Kelly and Lowry himself.

Although the exhibition is titled “Not so grim up north”, I’m not so sure that the moody, melancholic paintings they’ve included dispel the image of a dark, grey, gloomy landscape.

The two Lowry loan pictures were interesting. Neither conform to the stereotype of industrial landscapes peopled by “matchstick men”. One of them, Man Waiting, painted in 1964, portrays a monochrome single figure  in the bottom right of what is otherwise almost a blank canvas. He is wearing a bowler hat and carrying a brolly – more of a city gent than a factory worker. A simple, but effective depiction of the figure, almost, but not quite, a silhouette.

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To me, he comes across as a lonely individual. I don’t know whether that is what Lowry intended. Who is he waiting for?

The other picture was much more disturbing. A rear view of a man in a hat and coat with arms raised surrounded by three children with a group of children, sketchily portrayed, in the background. It’s viewed through a doorway. One of the children, a girl, in the foreground is looking at the man. Another girl looks away. Is he waving or doing something more sinister?

Or is he the evil Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

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The boy in the foreground looking out at the viewer is very scary. With his hunched shoulders, a white face, sunken eyes and open mouth, his expression and posture makes him look like a zombie. Very disturbing indeed. I’ve seen some scary kids in Salford but nothing quite like this.

There was a dark side to Lowry. He was

a far more complex character, one prone to depression and loneliness and darker sexual urges that some viewers may feel fit oddly with his much-loved image (Mark Brown in the Guardian)

It’s definitely demonstrated in this painting.