Saturday, 22 July 2017

A Room of One's Own (Exhibition Review)

This small, unexpectedly powerful exhibition of works (mostly paintings from the Williamson’s collection) draws its title from an essay by Virginia Woolf. All works have been purchased or donated between 1913 and 2015. Initially, a large painting by Richard Young startled me. Large Interior – a composite oil painting comprising four panels that together make an approximate square – glowed in a Sickertesque manner. Subdued pinks and a dirty yellow-green came first, then the recognition of a chair set back in the top left and an old fireplace surrounded by a host of chaotically placed books and other objects piled towards the corner of a cluttered room.

After a while I noticed a painting within a painting: sitting atop of the fireplace and barely distinguishable from the surrounding walls. The mood is dusty, poignant in an underplayed way, but nevertheless loaded with a sense of what has been. It reminded me of lines from a poem, The New House, by Edward Thomas.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learned how the wind would sound
After these things should be

Young’s ability to destabilise a composition in a controlled manner through subtle angular juxtapositions and intersections, combined with an enjoyment of muted colour and a truncated tonal range, draw heavily from the lessons of Sickert. And yet, irrespective of origin or influence, the painting broods. Look hard and there is an image of a face, presumably a photograph of a loved one. Nearby, scrawled on a piece of sheet music is the word 'Requium.

Oddly, but perhaps through necessity (presumably the work is too large to move), Thomas Sydney Cooper’s monumental Waterloo, in the region of 13 x 10 feet (though this is probably an underestimate) retains centre stage in an exhibition of 20 intimate interiors. Included, are two paintings by Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister): Interior with Duncan Grant and Interior with a House Maid. Both carry with them a pronounced feel for the air that circulates, or else stagnates, within a room. More than frozen moments, these paintings seem more about observance—the act of seeing and subsequently reconstructing the moment. With this comes an air of privilege, certainly in terms of the relative comfort of the settings, but more so in respect of the position of the absent watcher/painter permitted to take all of this in.

Other highlights from the exhibition include the deceptively simple Interior by Ethel Martin Frimston, which in spite of its subject matter (window, table, flowers, mirror) retains a considerable freshness, perhaps to do with the fluidity of her technique and the skill with which paint has been applied in the service of a well-composed picture. Next to this, Thomas Burke’s From My Study Window depicts a well-dressed woman looking through a large, heavily framed window towards the buildings opposite. It is rather eerie and to somewhat reminiscent of Freud’s early work, Interior at Paddington, painted a decade later. Though the work seems technically a little awkward – strange cropping and a rather dry use of paint – it nevertheless commands attention. The more I looked the more I liked. There is a familiarity with many of these works, which is no doubt central to the concept of the exhibition, and to its success.

William Turner’s The Night Before the Cup Tie shows a middle aged to elderly woman ironing a football kit in a rather humble kitchen sink-like setting. A sense of care, and of an absorption in a meaningful task, permeates the work. Philip Wilson Steer’s School Girl Standing by a Door is incredibly present. Sharp, crisp and fluid, in spite of its gloom, there are strong reminders of the artist’s debt to Manet and Whistler. Of the more recent contributions, Anniversary by David Pugh Evans, An Empty Room and an Old Belief by Peter Bibby and Hallway by Mavis Blackburn are particularly notable, attesting in various ways to a room’s capacity to both reflect and determine the nature of that which takes place within its confines.

In all, this is impressive display of intimate, quotidian spaces. Sickert’s influence looms large, as indeed it did over British painting for two thirds of the twentieth century, until Hockney and company set out to cheer it up. Still, for those willing to lend this grouping of quiet works their time,and to seek out something less immediate, there are surprising rewards to be found.
The exhibition runs until November 20th.

Tom Palin, 2016

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