A Precious Diamond in the Spa

Published in The University of Warwick student newspaper, The Boar, in October 2012

More students from The University of Warwick need to discover the hidden treasures of the Leamington Spa Pump Rooms. When I talk to my friends and other students at Warwick, I am struck at how few people realise there is a fabulous art gallery, and even a library, in the heart of Leamington.

I first stumbled upon the place with my mum when we stopped off at the Pump Room’s café for a reviving slice of cake after a morning spent unpacking my mountain of stuff (mostly clothes and chocolate), all labeled ‘essential’ at the time, for the start of my second year at university.

The Royal Pump Rooms consist of a public library, tearooms, a museum detailing the local history of Leamington, and a permanent art gallery with a temporary art exhibition room.

There are about 2000 items in the permanent art collection, which are displayed in rotation. The large oil painting The Penitence of St Peter, Seventeenth Century by Phillippe de Champaigne (1602 – 1674), a leading 17th century religious and portrait painter, is considered one of the masterpieces of the collection. It demonstrates a technically brilliant use of light and shadow to define the folds of Peter’s clothes, and to capture his ponderous facial expression and careworn appearance as he concentrates upon reading his book in a devotional position. 

The works on display cover a great range in terms of scale, subject matter and artists, several of whom are (or were) local or linked to Leamington. For example there is a new acquisition, titled Houses in Portland Place, Leamington, by the landscape painter, war artist, critic and broadcaster, Stephen Bone (1904 – 1958). His style borders on Impressionism, depicting the  modern and colourful, but slightly run down houses in Leamington with anonymous individuals going about their lives peacefully. The streets do not seem to be as crowded as they are now!

I especially like Bone’s painting, Leamington 1940. Due to the manipulation of perspective and slanted angle of the composition we are positioned as a spectator looking out of an upstairs window peering down between the bare branches of a tree at a snowy family tableau. Although the scene looks chilly, it is an attractive reminder of how lovely Leamington can look in the snow.

The gallery also contains work by very famous artists, such as Orange Umber, 1960, by Terry Frost (1915 – 2003), who started painting when he was a prisoner of war in Germany 1943; and work by Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976). Lowry’s piece, The Mission Room, 1937, depicts one of his classic bleak working scenes, though the figures look more alive and distinctive than in some of his others I have seen.

Frost’s oil painting at the Pump Rooms is an unusual piece of his. It is not so brightly coloured as some of his other, especially later, work. He has used mixed media, creating a variety of textures, and making it appear radically different to his bold cut out pieces and prints which remain determinedly flat – I have to admit I would have walked past Orange Umber unaware of it being by Terry Frost, but it is refreshing to see a different side to his practice. Frost was born in Leamington, and each day on the way to the bus stop I pass the block of flats in which he lived, marked with a commemorative blue plaque. In 2003, he donated 31 prints to Leamington Art Gallery and Museum.

The gallery contains art from the 17th century up until the present day, including significant paintings from each period. This means that modern and older art are in close proximity to each other. For example, Anthony Whishaw’s enormous abstract acrylic painting, Green Landscape, 1981, is only a few meters from Hans Hysing’s oil painting Miss Reynolds, Sister of the Bishop of Lincoln, 1700 – 1720. This makes for an exciting and refreshing experience of looking round the gallery, allowing the viewer to compare and contrast works of many styles and techniques. Different coloured walls and mounted boards help mark out work from certain eras or group together particular themes, which retains coherence to the gallery space.

What is also refreshing and great to see is that there are many works by female artists. In particular the artist Lucy Kemp Welsh (1869 – 1958) stands out due to her impressive painting entitled Winter’s White Silence, c. 1923. It depicts shire horses pulling a hay cart through a snow-covered field with dramatic evening light. Welch was well known for her paintings of working horses, and was inspired by French Impressionists, which her experimentation of colour, texture, and visible brush strokes to capture the changing light clearly shows.

Currently, there is an exhibit about the history of the Olympics. Appropriately, it is called Going For Gold! and includes a great variety of sports kits (such as Great Britain’s kit from 1992), outfits, photographs and video installations. There are even two rowing boats spread over the far wall, and examples of archery bows and quivers.

The sports featured relate back to their emergence in Leamington, or to famous sports people related to Warwickshire. For example there is a video installation of Nigel Murray, born in Leamington in 1964. Murray was selected to play ‘boccia’ (a target ball sport belonging to the same family as bowls) at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games where he won a gold medal. I hadn’t heard of Boccia until going to this gallery, which shows it is still possible to become aware of new sports even after the Paralympics have ended!

One of the highlights in the gallery is the ‘Kinect Sports’ game where visitors can play digitalised volleyball against each other.

There are many exhibitions shown here throughout the year. The next is a very exciting sounding one called Through Our Hands, starting Friday 19th October. It will be an exhibition on quilting, designed to challenge old practices and display the intricate techniques and designs of quilts – many of which are created by the top international quilt artists and teachers.


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