The Jerwood Gallery reveals its collection in celebratory show of British painting

By Richard Moss | 15 February 2014

Just over two years after it first opened its doors The Jerwood Gallery reveals the splendour of its collection in a major exhibition

a painting of a woman with cropped hair reclining on a beach with one breast exposed
Christopher Wood, The Bather.© Jerwood Foundation
Peter Lanyon, Craigie Aitchinson, L.S. Lowry, Frank Brangwyn, Euen Uglow… the Jerwood collection is nothing if not eclectic. But as this first public airing shows, its strength lies not only in diversity but in the way it offers a snapshot of 20th and 21st century British taste in art.

The joy here is chancing upon rarely seen works by a favourite artist; perhaps an early study by John Craxton, a figurative oil by Keith Vaughan, an abstract landscape by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham or a quintessentially neo-Romantic tree form by Michael Ayrton.  

And aside from a vast wall of portraits, the Jerwood mixes and matches these little-seen classics, with everything from stunning abstracts by the likes of St Ives artist Paul Fieler to the “kitchen sink” still lifes of John Bratby jostling for your attention.

Another signature piece, and an early acquisition, is Christopher Wood’s the Bather; a highly appealing painting with a playful mix of figurative naughtiness and androgyny set against a seascape with a phallic lighthouse, inky sea and brooding sky.

Wood’s tragic back story fills in the rest. A great painter of the 1920s he became addicted to opium during his time rubbing shoulders with the greats in Paris eventually perishing in 1930 beneath the wheels of a train at Salisbury Station.

Nearby sits a Craigie Aitchinson crucifixion painting. One of two in the collection, Aichinson’s raw, tortured images saw him win the first Jerwood painting prize in 1994, but as the Jerwood Foundation's Director Alan Grieve later recalled, the mercurial artist had to be “hauled out of a local pub” in order to receive the honour.

An abstract painting with three oval shapes coloured in greys and blacks
Basil Beattie, Over and Beyond, Small Janus Series 2009.© The artist
Before he turned his talents to collecting, philanthropy and the patronage of the arts John Jerwood made his money through cultivated pearls. With his business partner Grieve, who after Jerwood’s death in 1991 has guided the foundation, they began collecting art.

Setting out to score “something to put on the wall of the office”, they made a pretty good start, snapping up a beautiful Frank Brangwyn view of Ditchling.

But after the first few purchases Grieve decided to get a bit of advice from Peter Wakefield, the Director of the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund) and a key British collection of twentieth century painting really began to take shape.

Nevertheless, it is, as Curator Victoria Howarth explains, "very much Alan’s taste”.

“It’s a personal collection - which I think is its strength," she adds. "There are many different styles within it, so we’re not bound by any chronology.”

With new paintings coming via the Jerwood Painting Prize, the collection is evolving to support contemporary painters, yet at its heart it remains a classically conservative collection of British masterworks of domestic scenes, small-scale landscapes and portraiture.

Anyone who has visited the Jerwood over the last two years will recognise how this collection offers a “tangible link” to the curated exhibition programme and it has led to some exciting recent acquisitions of paintings by Basil Beattie, Jeffery Camp and Rose Wylie. But the hand of Jerwood and Grieve looms large over many of these stunning canvasses.

There are a number of hooks here – try the cool Rothko-like fields of dark colour in Callum Innes or the bustling 1930s Modernism of William Roberts. A simple industrial scene by Lowry gives way to a Terry Frost. Ascend the stairway, past an absorbing exhibition exploring the work of Marlow Moss, and you’re greeted by a quartet of cool interiors by Patrick Caulfield. 

It’s all very British but it’s also a collection that embraces diversity and change. The vast, loosely painted double canvass of Rose Wiley, which sits at the bottom of the central hallway, seems to hint at a new direction now the collection has a spirited gallery space to house it.

“We don’t drive the acquisitions but when we worked with Basil Beattie and Rose Wiley it was a no brainer that we should acquire the works,” says Jerwood’s dynamic Gallery Director Liz Gilmore.

“We try to recommend work but at the same the collection is still driven by Alan’s tastes. But what we do here with it, it’s all to play for.

“I think any collection usually starts with an individual. You can almost see the sight lines of what it was about them and then it morphs, it becomes the core and the programming takes it in another direction.”

Two years on from the Jerwood’s opening they have delivered the exhibition that many visitors and Jerwood members have been clamouring for; a celebratory romp through a constantly evolving collection of British art.

The exhibition, which runs until April 21 2014 is accompanied by a small display of paintings by Alfred Wallis, lent by Kettle's Yard.

Click in the picture below to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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