Curating Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum’s WWII camouflage exhibition

leaflet-and-guideMy main focus as the Research Curator at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum was to research for and co-curate the gallery’s 2016 summer exhibition, ‘CONCEALMENT & DECEPTION: THE ART OF THE CAMOUFLEURS OF LEAMINGTON SPA 1939 – 1945’. This involved research trips to private collections, interviewing some of the artists’ family relatives (including writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside), and organising and writing for the accompanying exhibition catalogue. This project was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Art Fund (a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant).

‘A camoufleur is a person who designed and implemented military camouflage in one of the world wars of the twentieth century.’ (Wikipedia)

Concealment and Deception told the story of the camouflage establishment based in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, during World War 2 (1939 – 1945). The Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment was founded at the start of the war with Nazi Germany to develop camouflage for strategically important installations like factories, power stations and airfields. Later, in 1941, the CDCE was expanded to include a Naval Camouflage Section and renamed the Camouflage Directorate. The exhibition presented the work of the camouflage staff – often known as ‘camoufleurs’ – against the backdrop of life on the ‘Home Front’.

catalogue

Shots of the exhibition catalogue

Life in wartime Leamington Spa was dominated by the Home Front. This mobilisation of the civilian population to support the war effort included the rationing of food and clothes and precautions against air raids like the evening ‘blackout’. Everyone in Leamington Spa was affected, including pre-war residents and the influx of newcomers brought by the war, such as evacuees (some from nearby Coventry), workers directed to war work, soldiers of the Czech Free Army and the First Belgian Independent Brigade, and a unit of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens). The newcomers also included the often rather bohemian artists, designers and scientists employed as camoufleurs. This new temporary population, many of them young and with uncertain futures, brought an exotic vibrancy to the social life of what had previously been a sleepy midlands spa town.

At its peak the camouflage establishment employed over 230 staff, including several who went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation. They were based in a number of buildings which had been requisitioned for the war effort. The most important were the Regent Hotel on the Parade, which became the headquarters for the CDCE and the successor Camouflage Directorate; the Roller Skating Rink by the river Leam, which became the workshop for the civil camouflage team; and the municipal Art Gallery on Avenue Road, which was taken over by the Naval Camouflage Section.

Most of the work of the civil camouflage team concerned static features like factory buildings, power station cooling towers, airfield buildings, runways and roads. Camouflage officers often photographed or sketched the sites from the air and then used these images to develop schemes to either conceal the sites or create nearby decoys to divert attacking aircraft. Simple schemes might only require plans on paper, but more elaborate designs for important sites often included the production of three-dimensional scale models. These were tested in a ‘viewing room’ in the Skating Rink, where different lighting and atmospheric conditions could be artificially recreated. If the intention was concealment, the objective was to cause the sites to merge in with their surroundings and not produce tell-tale shadows from buildings. By contrast, a decoy site might involve creating dummy aerodromes, factories and buildings, with elaborate lighting schemes to entice night-time bombing raids. Naval camouflage offered greater challenges: vessels were usually moving against a constantly changing background and left a tell-tale wake and smoke from their funnels. The approach of the naval camoufleurs was to produce scale model of the subject based on plans published in the reference book Jane’s Fighting Ships. The model would then be painted in a design intended to either make the ship less visible or, if that was impractical, confuse a prospective attacker (often a submarine) as to its type, speed and direction. The camouflage had to be designed for the typical weather conditions in which the ship would be operating, for example those found in the North Atlantic, Arctic or Pacific. The camouflaged model was then tested in a large water tank in the Art Gallery, where the likely lighting, atmospheric and marine conditions were artificially recreated. Once approved, the design would be applied to the vessel when it was nest dockside for repairs.

A number of the artists also produced paintings, watercolours and drawings recording their colleagues at work, or showing the sites and ships they had camouflaged. Other pictures showed life in the wartime town, including the damage caused by Luftwaffe bombing raids. Some artists also became involved in the production of murals in Leamington Spa, notably for the British Restaurant at the back of the Town Hall, for the Regent Hotel, and for a local school. Many joined the local branch of the Artists International Association, an organisation of artists opposed to fascism which briefly flourished in Leamington Spa as a result of the concentration of camoufleurs. The friendships formed during the war influenced the later careers of many of the staff who had worked together in Leamington Spa.

The exhibition included an important group of paintings, watercolours and drawings loaned by the Imperial War Museum, complemented by others from Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, the Herbert Art Gallery (Coventry), the Henry Moore Institute Leeds, and from private collections. Artists featured include Mary Adshead, Dorothy Annan, Stephen Bone, Louis Duffy, Evelyn Dunbar, Eric Hall, Cedric Kennedy, Edwin La Dell, Colin Moss and James Yunge-Bateman.  Their work was displayed alongside clothing, equipment and documents relating to the Home Front in Leamington Spa.

The project drew on over two decades of research carried out locally and nationally to piece together the story of Leamington Spa’s extraordinary but little known contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. The title of the exhibition and the published catalogue echoes that of the government body set up during the war to oversee camouflage: the ‘Committee on Concealment and Deception’.

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We received good local press coverage, including the features below:

observer-review

observer-feature

The exhibition also received coverage in some of the hometowns of the camouflage artists, like the article below, which featured camoufleur Colin Moss:

anglian-times-review

Colin Moss’ grandson visited the exhibition with his family, and started a Facebook page about his artist grandfather.

The writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside also mentioned the exhibition in several of her magazine columns. She is the daughter of Christopher Ironside, one of the camouflage artists, who went on to become the designer of the UK’s first decimal coins. Below she mentions the exhibition at the beginning of her column in The Spectator:

Virginia ironside also included her experience of coming to see the exhibition and explore her old hometown Leamington Spa in her article for The Oldie:

ironside-review

Local artists were inspired by the exhibition, producing camouflage-themed yarn bombing on the columns outside the Pump Rooms, which contains Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum:

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Article in Art Space, local Leamington Spa magazine

For the summer 2016 issue of ‘Art Space’, a local magazine in Leamington Spa, I wrote a short history about the art gallery and museum and its collection of paintings. It covers key bequests, individual artworks (including the oldest painting in the collection), collecting strategies, and current exhibitions.

Art Space 1Art space 2

 

 

 

How to make the most out of a visit to an art gallery

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‘Impressionist Exhibition’ etching by my grandmother, Jennifer Beales (nee Caplan)

I’ve written an article about how to make the most out of a visit to an art gallery for Art UK’s new website. It includes eleven tips and also offers a fun challenge to readers, helping people to feel more comfortable with being in an art gallery environment and looking at art.

 

It is primarily aimed at people who may find the experience overwhelming, but can hopefully also give more regular gallery goers some fresh ideas for engaging with art.

A link to the article on Art UK is here.

If you fancy getting involved and sharing your recent experiences of being in an art gallery or your thoughts on particular artworks you see there, please let me and Art UK know by tweeting with the hashtag #visit_art

 

 

 

17th-century Netherlandish paintings at Leamington Spa

My role as the Research Curator at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum involves researching into aspects of the permanent collection and interpreting it for different visitors. Recently, the gallery has had an unusual acquisition of twelve 17th-century Netherlandish paintings, which are all on permanent display. I have been studying them in order to create a handout for visitors and give a talk as part of the gallery’s weekly ‘Friday Focus’ events. My 8 page handout is below:

wall handout - final copy

Continue reading

Writing for The Friends of The Wilson Newsletter

Front cover of the Autumn NewsletterThe Wilson Newsletter is a publication produced for (and largely by) The Friends of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum. When the editor invited me to write a ‘What’s On’ article for the Autumn 2015 issue, I was pleased to have the opportunity to be involved. It enable me to write about and reflect upon a temporary exhibition in The Friends Gallery, entitled ‘Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space’, which I had assisted the curator of fine art with in terms of research and display. A copy of the text is below.

My article in the Autumn issue of the Newsletter

Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space

The Friends Gallery has an area for dynamic temporary displays, the latest being Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space, which opened in July and runs until 8 November. This is an intimate and intriguing exhibition, celebrating a selection of portraits from The Wilson’s collection. It presents oil paintings from the 17th to the 20th century, and includes two works from the founding collection, donated by the Baron de Ferrieres in 1898.

The paintings have shared themes of privacy and contemplation, hinting at the emotional lives of the people portrayed. Thus, the interior spaces that exist in these works are not just the physical spaces that the figures inhabit, but are also the spaces that belong to their minds. This focus on interiority is reflected in the solitary activities depicted, such as reading in Hendrick Cornelisz. van Vliet’s painting A Woman Reading, about 1630-1650. It is also enhanced through the sensitive use of personal or even spiritual places, such as the cosy domestic sitting room in The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, Seated Reading, about 1935, by Gerald Gardiner, or the interior of the church in Malvern Abbey, Worcestershire, 1892, by Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson.

Parallels can be made between some of these ideas and those of contemporary artist, Bill Viola (b. 1951). In Viola’s film pieces, private moments, devotion and the passing of time are common themes. Viola’s work can be seen on display in the third floor gallery of The Wilson from 3 October 2015 – 7 February 2016 as part of ARTIST ROOMS On Tour.

New display at The Wilson: Interior Life

View of the new display, 'Interior Life', at The Wilson

View of the new display, ‘Interior Life’, at The Wilson

A new display has opened in the Friends Gallery at The Wilson. I currently work in the gallery’s Collections department and assisted the fine art curator with this show – researching potential themes and paintings from the collection to include, as well as writing one of the wall labels.

This temporary display explores recurring themes of privacy, meditation and solitude through a small selection of portrait paintings spanning more than 300 years from the 17th century to the 20th century. The concept of ‘interior space’ is more to do with the interior life of the sitter, subject and / or artist, and the emotions within their minds, rather than physical place.

Introductory panel to the display

Introductory panel to the display

The caption I wrote about the Hugh Byars painting included in this exhibition

The caption I wrote about the Hugh Byars painting included in this exhibition

Detail of gallery view, with painting by Hugh Byars to the far left.

Detail of gallery view, with painting by Hugh Byars to the far left.

Native American painter Nocona Burgess exhibits at Rainmaker Gallery

Native American Artist Nocona Burgess Visits Bristol for Solo Exhibition at Rainmaker Gallery. Below is the press release for this exhibition, which I wrote, and then co-edited with the director of the gallery.

“White Belly” acrylic on canvas by Nocona Burgess for Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol UK.

Nocona Burgess pushes American Indian portraiture forward with strikingly modern depictions of people from tribal Nations of the Southern Plains.

Powerful portraits of Native American Indians by Comanche artist Nocona Burgess will be presented at Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol, from 16 July to 30 September 2015. These paintings mix careful research, firsthand knowledge and raw passion. Through combining brightly coloured shapes with crisply outlined facial features and traditional dress, Burgess explores the cultural context, life story and identity of each sitter. In this way, the artist urges us to update our perceptions of Native people and consider the intriguing and often highly politicised place of Native American portraiture.

Nocona Burgess, his wife Danielle and his son Quahada, will visit Bristol for a two-week residency, resulting from an ongoing collaboration between Rainmaker Gallery and the American Museum in Britain. During this residency the artist will attend the exhibition opening; teach workshops on colour theory; and give talks about his art, his life and his legendary family history.


“Huuinu Waiipu – Timber Woman”, acrylic on canvas by Nocona Burgess (Comanche) for Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol UK.

Burgess is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma. He is the son of a former tribal chief and the great great grandson of one of the most revered Native American leaders, Chief Quanah Parker. Burgess grew up surrounded by art. His father went to art school to focus on drawing and painting, and his grandparents made quilts and beadwork from their own designs.

In 1989, Burgess fully developed his artistic talents at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, NM. He was fascinated by how more traditional forms of Native art evolve into contemporary movements. This fascination came to define his focus, leading him to reinterpret traditionally inspired portraits with his own modern slant. It is the notion of the modern Indian that he seeks in his work and recognises in himself.

By painting with vibrant pigments onto dark backgrounds Burgess has perfected a method that he describes as “painting outward”. This approach produces the richly contrasting colours of his distinctive canvases and gives his art a vivid depth. Burgess’ paintings inspire and educate through their unusual techniques and positive dialogues between past and present.

Painting for Burgess is a way of reaching out to others. He strives for an intimate connection with each subject, eager to know their characters. Through his paintings Burgess says thank you to his ancestors for their sacrifices in helping to make the contemporary Native identity what it is today.

Burgess’ paintings have received numerous awards and have been featured in many publications. He exhibits throughout the USA and beyond and this summer alone sees his paintings in Australia, England and America. They can also be found in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. His numerous collectors include the actor Johnny Depp.

Situated on the border of Redland and Westbury Park in North Bristol, Rainmaker Gallery is the UK showcase for the very best in contemporary Native North American Indian art and design. Founded in 1991 by Joanne Prince, to provide an authentic Native American Indian voice in the UK, Rainmaker promotes awareness, education and cultural exchange through artist talks, events and exhibitions. The gallery exhibits original paintings, drawings and fine art prints and carries a superb collection of high quality handmade American Indian jewellery, Zuni fetish carvings and Pendleton blankets.

The Art of Textiles: Thinking about Matisse

Henri Matisse, ‘Harmony in Red’, 1908. Oil on canvas, 180 x 220 cm.

Matisse collected textiles throughout his life and had generations of weavers in his family. He wanted his work to be decorative and for it to redefine the ‘decorative’ as a positive phenomenon. Painting women and their domestic interiors in a radical way provided him with just the opportunity to explore and expound this.

Surprisingly, loose blue textile-inspired patterns dominate Matisse’s rich painting despite it being called Harmony in Red. They are expressive and organic, mirroring the rising shapes of the fruit bowl and its pot plant. It is as though they are growing out of the floor and claiming the table and walls. These patterns are wild and joyful, suggestive of potential creativity and spirit within the house. The trees framed to the left of the painting appear contained and groomed in comparison.

Despite the overall emphasis on pattern, the woman’s clothes are intriguingly plain. Her blue top compliments but in no way detracts from the blue designs. The angle of her bent head and stooped body leads the eye away from her and towards the patterns at the painting’s centre. She is very much a part of the still life and does not demand a stronger presence. Could she be a maid, or a careful mistress of the house?

In tension with the interior’s patterned promise of creativity, this subdued image of the woman could suggest that her housework – almost literally – consumes her. On the other hand, this blue harmony between her and her surroundings suggests she is at one with her home. In this way, Matisse is keen for us to see that decorative art can have a story and a weight to it. Like all genres of great artistic masterpieces, it shows you a tale just as much as it keeps you asking questions.

Matisse has been clever with this painting. It is heavily ornamented and yet not detailed, so verges towards the abstract. The table merges with the wall, the fruit seem like an extension of the random patterning and the chair is definitely missing a leg. Is it a window or a painting that occupies the left-hand side of the wall? The overall flatness and diminished perspective makes this a difficult question to answer. Pattern, colour and line come first.

The decorative is given a mind of its own; it is not about conforming, but about creativity, expression and the joy in pure colour and design. And let us not forget, the painting cries, that women have a positive – if often overlooked – place within the decorative and textiles businesses.

 

 

 

What’s in an image? – Marlene Dumas at the Tate

Tate Modern handout for their Marlene Dumas exhibitionMarlene Dumas, ‘Naomi’, 1995, oil on canvas, 130 x 110cm

The title Naomi doesn’t determine the identity of the face in the painting, but it does invite a certain intimacy with the viewer. Naomi. Is this Naomi Campbell, one of the supermodels of our century? If so, this is our chance to really see her up close and even to be offered her full, sensual lips. However, there could be scorn in her narrowed eyes, emphasised by the sharply arched eyebrows. She could be rising defiantly out of the shadows away from our mundane world, although, equally, they could be consuming her. Like many of Dumas’s paintings, it is not clear and we are left to experience this uncomfortable position of not knowing or being able to confidently react to an image, even an image of a person whose form we know so well.

The purposeful lack of clarity to many of Dumas’s paintings partly stems from the fact that she often paints from second hand images, particularly those from the media. This makes her work similar to the result of Chinese whispers; the subjects evolve every time they are captured and communicated through an image that is not their original. Does this allow Dumas – and the viewer – to think about the image rather than the person and the emotions that surround them? This would certainly allow for a more critical engagement with the work.

Naomi seems to be a disturbing cross between a fashion illustration, a fashion photograph and an abstract figurative painting. The conflation of these different types of visual communication suggests that this painting is as much about how we construct and present images, particularly those of women, as it is about what the images themselves represent. It does prompt us to consider what sort of image of ourselves we present to the world each day.

 

Tate Modern currently displays the most significant exhibition of Marlene Dumas’s work ever to be held in Europe, open until 10 May 2015.

 

 

Arboretum: The art of trees, the Arborealists and other artists

This review is published in Trebuchet Magazine

Shakespeare often used murky forests and prickly undergrowth in his plays as spaces where carnival and otherworldly events could be performed. These woods are liminal places, on the edge of civilisation, creative centres of critique. Similar to many of the Bard’s characters that take a trip to these woods, the viewer of this RWA exhibition is thrown into a magical world of organic transformation and thought-provoking negotiation. A bold sculpture comprised of several steel and bone white sycamores clearly sets the woodland scene. Its confidence and orderly appearance invites us in. Yet it is also quietly subversive by defying the conventional space of the art gallery and taking the inside outside. Its almost as if we can hear the crunch of leaves underfoot as we walk towards this sculpture, so powerful is its provocation of being a ‘real’ forest. This reminds us that trees, like all organic life, resist containment and frames. Fittingly, many of the paintings also included in this show are left raw and unframed, exposed to the elements – and artistic scrutiny.

Fiona Hingston’s  ‘Findings’

Fiona Hingston’s ‘Findings’

There is a curious mixture of styles, from the highly naturalistic, to the hyper-realistic, to those flirting with abstraction and those that are fully immersed within it. This conveys a clear sense of experimentation and exploration into which styles are suitable for contemporary portrayals of a long-examined subject. Fiona Hingston’s piece called ‘Findings’ display found natural objects from the floors of Biddlecomb Wood in the style of a Modernist grid. This rings strange with the natural materials and subject matter, making us question how we make sense of our surroundings.  Continue reading