Bedford Gallery: Opening Exhibition
TREASURES FROM THE CECIL HIGGINS ART GALLERY & BEDFORD MUSEUM
(1 April – 17 May 2009)
Bedford Gallery, a splendid 19th century, Grade II listed building, is a major new addition to Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Bedford Museum. Unused for 35 years, it has now been sensitively remodelled by Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins Ltd., architects acclaimed for their successful heritage projects. This gallery will provide over 200m² of state-of-the-art space for in-house temporary exhibitions and touring exhibitions from national museums and galleries.
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Bedford Museum house exceptional and wide-ranging collections. The inaugural exhibition in Bedford Gallery will display together a selection of the finest works and will ask the question... what is treasure?.
British watercolours and drawings, original prints by international artists and a selection of decorative arts from Cecil Higgins Art Gallery will be on show, alongside various precious objects which give an insight into the diverse collections of Bedford Museum.
The collection of watercolours and drawings at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery is one of the finest in the UK. Here are some examples of works in the first exhibition.
From the late 18th century, the display includes a major composition, in watercolour, pen and ink, by FRANCIS TOWNE, The Colosseum from the Caelian hills (1799), painted during his travels in Italy.
THOMAS GIRTIN, TURNER and CONSTABLE are all represented. GIRTIN’s The Village of Jedburgh, Scotland (c.1797) is an imaginative approach to the scene, conveyed in his characteristic, subdued tones, and TURNER’s The Town and Lake of Thun (c.1841), a watercolour from his final phase, is a study in light and atmosphere. CONSTABLE’s majestic pencil drawing, Fir Trees at Hampstead (c. 1833) expresses the transient effects of wind through trees.
In complete contrast, DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI’s portrait drawing of Fanny Cornforth (1861), in chalks on paper, shows one of his models and mistresses, “big, healthy and abundant…”. He considered Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion (1867), also on view, to be “one of my very best watercolours, particularly full and deep in colour.” Taken from Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’, it is a watercolour version of an original cartoon for a stained glass panel made by the Morris company.
FORD MADOX BROWN’s drawing, The Seeds and Fruit of English poetry (1845), is a study for his first major work, illustrating a “vision of Chaucer reading his poems to knights and ladies fair, to king and court, amid air and sunshine”. Sir EDWARD BURNE-JONES’s Cupid Delivering Psyche (1867), a theme he revisited throughout his life, is one of the most popular works in the gallery.
The visionary pastoral landscape painter, SAMUEL PALMER is represented by The Bellman from Il Penseroso (1881). A masterpiece in its own right, this is probably a study for a larger watercolour.
ALBERT MOORE’s Oranges (1885), depicting a graceful maiden, reflects an interest in the classical world, transmuted into a composition of sensitive, harmonious colours. He was admired by JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER, whose few watercolours are prized for their elegance and delicate handling, achieved by an economy of means. The Dancing Girl (c. 1867), a study for an oil painting, is a fine example.
Innovation, experiment and individuality – the key-notes of 20th century painting – are also reflected in this exhibition.
The Vorticists are represented by PERCY WYNDHAM LEWIS’s The Centauress I (1912), “A fragile mythological creature confronted by the harsh and threatening forms of the modern industrial world,” and DAVID BOMBERG’s The Dancer (1913–14). WALTER SICKERT’s Still Life on a Dinner Table (1919) is an unusual work painted in delicate colour combinations. CHARLES GINNER, his contemporary in the Camden Town Group, was known as ‘a Betjemin of the brush’ for tackling unfashionable architectural subjects, such as A London Backgarden (early 1920s).
The First World War is seen through two strikingly original preparatory drawings by CHRISTOPHER NEVINSON: Study for ‘Column on the March’ (c. 1914) and Loading Timbers at Southampton Docks (1917). HENRY MOORE’s Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers (1941) is from his famous series depicting people sheltering in the underground during the London Blitz. He said ‘I saw hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures stretched along the platform. Even the train tunnels seemed to be like holes in my sculpture’. Quartet “Arthroplasty” (1948), by his fellow sculptor BARBARA HEPWORTH, is one of a series of remarkable drawings made whilst observing hospital operations. In these she saw ‘an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture, very close to what I had been seeking in my own work,’.
Other works which demonstrate the diversity of 20th century images in the collection include, LUCIEN FREUD’s haunting Head of a Girl with Red hair (c. 1948) drawn in pastel on black paper, and GRAHAM SUTHERLAND’s The Thorntree (1946) from his series on thorns, symbols of human cruelty. JOHN PIPER’s poetic vision has transformed the town of Ironbridge (c. 1957) into shapes and colours that are as vibrant as a stained glass window. British Pop Art is represented by PETER BLAKE’s Mabel Stark, an 80 year-old Lion Tamer (1963), whilst PATRICK HERON’s abstract Black and White – Pink Lines (1962) is inspired by the forms and vibrant colours of the Cornish landscape. A Man with a Bib (1980), by BILL JACKLIN, is a very moving depiction of his elderly father.
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery has a very significant collection of fine original prints, which show the different techniques of print-making as practised by the greatest exponents of this field. Whilst earlier examples in this exhibition include PIRANESI and GOYA, the collection is particularly strong in works by 19th and 20th century continental artists and contemporary British masters.
The display includes iconic images by artists such as DEGAS ( Standing Nude at Her toilet , 1891 – 92), TOULOUSE LAUTREC ( A Gala Evening at the Moulin Rouge , 1894), PICASSO ( Le Repas Frugal , 1917) and MATISSE ( Odalisque , 1925).
There are outstanding examples by MAX BECKMAN ( Die Nacht , 1922), OTTO DIX ( Evening on Wjitschaete Plain, November, 1917 , 1924), ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER ( Frau Schuh Zuknöpfend ), EDVARD MUNCH ( The Urn , 1896) and GEORGES ROUAULT ( Ca Sera la Derniere, Petit Pere! , 1927), as well as by ANDY WARHOL ( Tomato: Campbell Soup , 1968), DAVID HOCKNEY ( Lithograph of Water made of Lines and a Green Wash , 1978 – 80) and ALAN DAVIE ( Foxwatch series 1, no. 1 , 1970).
A number of sumptuous objects from the Gallery Collection are also on show.
These include an Elizabethan domestic silver Tazza (shallow drinking vessel, 1578 – 80), which is one of only twenty known to exist in this country.
The life size, porcelain Swan Tureen (1752 – 6), purchased by Cecil Higgins himself, was produced at the famous Chelsea factory during its ‘red anchor period’. This majestic item, which was made to grace a dinner table, is extremely rare – it is thought that only two were made in this period.
The Decanter, (1865) designed by WILLIAM BURGES was made for his own use. This splendid, rather idiosyncratic item of glass and silver is decorated with jade, lapis-lazuli, mother of pearl, intaglio gems, semi precious stones and classical coins, all collected by Burges.
Fortune’s Treasure Chest, (1898), was designed by ALEXANDER FISHER. The goddess Fortune, with enamelled wings, is illuminated by electric lamps – a novelty at the time. She stands on the wheel which she would spin to influence the fate of man. Below her is an enclosed compartment with an enamelled door, to her left and right are doors with hooks to hang jewellery. This fascinating piece is made of bronze, brass and enamel.
Bedford Museum houses a number of items of international or national importance. It is the official English Heritage repository for all archaeological excavations in North Bedfordshire, and its holdings of ethnography and foreign archaeology include objects of major interest.
Several magnificent finds from the Late Iron Age are on show in the exhibition.
The Copper Alloy Mirror (probably around 80 B.C.), from Old Warden, Bedfordshire, is one of the masterworks of this period. A very rare object, the design on the back is a complex helix based upon plant-like motifs. It was made for show, and such objects were hung from belts and on the wall of the house where the owner lived. A Bronze Hanging Bowl and Bronze Bucket Handle, both made around 50BC-50AD, were found in Felmersham, Bedfordshire. The Bowl is a high status, beautifully crafted item, used at a time when it was fashionable amongst the elite to consume wine from quality metal drinking services. The body of the bowl was made by turning a thin sheet of bronze into shape using a lathe, the base by fixing a disc of thin bronze with solder and rivets. The Bucket Handle, in the shape of a cow’s head, was made using the lost wax technique. It is both naturalistic and comic: the cow has the tip of its tongue in its right nostril!
Blackbeard’s Cutlass and the Copper Commemorative Plaques from the R101 Airship are treasures of a very different kind. Edward Teach (c. 1680 – 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was a notorious English pirate in the Caribbean Sea and the West Atlantic, during the Golden Age of Piracy. This splendid sword, allegedly owned by Teach, is engraved with a T and skull and crossbones. It was acquired by the prolific collector P G Langdon, well known for obtaining objects apparently associated with famous historic personalities, when he was curator of the museum at Bedford Modern School.
Airship R101 was built at Cardington near Bedford. At 777ft, she was the largest airship in the world. On 4th October 1930, a crowd of over 3,000 watched her departure from Cardington for India. After experiencing difficulties in the air, she crashed at Beauvais in France, with a loss of 48 lives. This tragedy aroused huge national feeling: the funeral procession through London was watched by thousands and the bodies of the dead were then taken by special train to Bedford be laid to rest in a communal grave in Cardington cemetery. The two commemorative plaques depict the airship in flight. They were handcrafted by plumbing engineer J G MINNS from the copper sheeting left over from his plumbing work in the airship.
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On Wednesday 1st April 11am – 8.30pm