Curator's Choice: Yorkshire, female artists, Atkinson Grimshaw and mine closures

| 18 March 2014

Curator’s Choice: Jane Sellars on Art and Yorkshire, a major show which will explore the effect the county has had on some of the greatest painters in history

A photo of a collage showing three people sitting on a city street against a brick wall
David Hockney, Ponden Hall (Thrushcross Grange), Haworth, Yorkshire (January 1983). Photographic collage© David Hockney
“Art and Yorkshire are two of the main ingredients of my life; I am an art curator and writer and I was born in Yorkshire.

I live here still, and although I will admit to a protracted love affair with Liverpool, where I lived and worked throughout the 1980s, and a long-running flirtation with Italy, it is Yorkshire that runs in my blood.

This is the personal history that gave me the ambition to curate this exhibition and write a book about art and Yorkshire.

I grew up in Tadcaster on the banks of the River Wharfe – a town famed for its breweries, where the smell of hops lingered in the air and public houses lined the High Street from end to end.

Living where we did, midway between Leeds and York, we had access to the rich and diverse choice of towns, cities and landscapes that make Yorkshire so appealing to artists.

A photo of a woman in profile wearing a suit jacket sitting in a well-lit study
Jane Sellars' first love is Yorkshire© Courtesy Mercer Art Gallery
As a child, tramping across the North Yorkshire moors or wandering dreamily around Fountains Abbey, I did not, of course, make any connection with the paintings that I would come to know later on when I studied history of art.

But the memories of those days and the physical connection with nature stayed with me in many ways that have informed my view of the painting.

Wharfedale was our true stomping ground. Not so far away from here is Almscliffe Crag, an extraordinary promontory of millstone grit rock set in the sweep of lower Wharfedale and one of my most coveted destinations.

Surprisingly for someone so non-athletic, I was the only Sellars girl who had any aptitude for rock-climbing. I had my father’s attention for once, and my other two sisters straggled on behind as I clambered to the top for a truly breathtaking view.

What I did not know then was that the dramatic presence of the crag in the soft valley setting had caught the eye of England’s greatest landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, in the early 19th century.

Unwittingly, I was walking in the footsteps of Turner, as he had tramped around the valley, sketchbook in hand. Over a period of 25 years, Turner had been a regular visitor to nearby Farnley Hall, home of the Horton Fawkes family, where he made watercolours of the house and its Wharfedale surroundings.

Thomas Girtin, Turner’s dazzling contemporary, had also walked this way. When the Victorian writer and art critic John Ruskin visited Farnley in 1884 he wrote, ‘Farnley is a unique place, there is nothing like it in the world – a place where a great genius has been loved and appreciated, who did all his best work for that place, where it is treasured up like a monument in a shrine.’

An image of an extremely colourful abstract painting of a living room full of objects
David Hockney, Montcalm Interior at Seven O'Clock (1988). Oil on canvas© David Hockney
What I did not know then was that I was destined to become almost as familiar with the stately homes of Yorkshire as Turner had been.

I launched my career with a tough couple of years teaching in a comprehensive school in Hull, which introduced me, and my sixth formers, to the Ferens Art Gallery.

I would talk to the group about a handful of the major works – then once they were settled down with their sketchbooks I would sneak away to indulge my secret passion for Edwardian sentimentality and spend a few minutes in front of Fred Elwell’s The First Born.

Elwell was one of those British – nay, Yorkshire – artists who you never hear about when you study art history, but they become your daily bread once you work in a public art gallery.

After Lincoln College of Art, Elwell had a continental training in both Antwerp and Paris – hence the Impressionistic effects of the light filtering into the cottage bedroom and the intimacy of the domestic interior.

The touching painting of a young man arriving to see his wife and child, tenderly laying down a bunch of primroses on the counterpane, was painted in 1913 and purchased by Hull the same year. There is a greater poignancy about the work; just a year later the First World War was to erupt, taking many like this young man away from their wives and children forever.

At the Walker I found my own calling: the research and promotion of women artists, those strange creatures whom art historians seemed not to have noticed for a couple of hundred years.

I came across the Walker’s wealth of women’s art not by looking at what was on the gallery walls, but in my explorations of the picture stores in the basement of the building.

In 1990 I entered the world of the Brontë sisters when I went to Haworth to be the director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

I knew that Branwell Brontë had made an unsuccessful attempt at a career as a portrait painter in Bradford in the 1830s, but I was relieved to discover that the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, had also been artists as well as writers, with a large collection of paintings and drawings at the Parsonage and other works scattered around the world. The art of the Brontës became my next project.

Leeds is the first city that I got to know as a child; later as a post-graduate student I worked as a volunteer at Leeds Art Gallery, Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall. It wasa rich and varied work experience.

An image of a painting showing a moonlit scene of a boat moving towards a bay
Atkinson Grimshaw, Scarborough Lights (1875). Oil on canvas© Scarborough Museums Trust
Working in Leeds Art Gallery was when I first got to know Atkinson Grimshaw, the painter of moonlight. Atkinson Grimshaw is an artist whose success in his lifetime as a provincial painter of moonlit urban scenes and landscapes died with him in 1893.

Indeed, he barely made it into the history books until the reputations of Victorian painters began to be restored in the early 1960s. Grimshaw was born in Leeds, hence the city’s large collection of his paintings.

In the 1970s, when I worked in Leeds Art Gallery, I lived in Headingley in Leeds in a flat in a big house behind a high stone wall, surrounded by trees. As far as I was concerned, I lived in a Grimshaw painting, and the girl walking along a moonlit road could be me.

The melancholy of Grimshaw’s paintings appealed to me, fitting in with my love of Gothic novels and romantic poetry. This subjective view of an artist’s work was eventually knocked out of me by years of research and curatorship.

Later I learnt that Grimshaw’s shadowy lanes are generic views accumulated from his knowledge and observations of the city’s streets; that his life was troubled by grief and financial worries.

But whenever I look at his paintings, particularly Silver Moonlight, which I know so well because it is in the collection of the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate where I am currently the curator, my instinct is to be drawn into a sense of a Yorkshire city that persists to this day.

Grimshaw is one of the many artists I have chosen for this exhibition, all of who, for me, have that same very special sense of Yorkshire.”

Peter Watson (born 1952), New Stubbin Pit (1977, National Coal Mining Museum for England)

An image of a landscape painting of a mill within the fields of northern England
Peter Watson, New Stubbin Colliery (1977). Acrylic on board© Peter Watson, on loan courtesy of Trustees of the National Coal Mining Museum for England
“The National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield, is a proud but poignant repository for the art and artefacts of a now obsolete Yorkshire mining history.

The collection includes paintings by Peter Watson, who had no connections with the coal industry but was fascinated by the potential of the industrial landscape.

He was commissioned in the 1970s by the South Yorkshire Coal Board to make an artistic record of the pits fated to close, thus shattering the local communities.

The artist recalled, ‘I was just given completely free rein, there was no health and safety, I would just turn up and be told to help myself, clambering over rail lines and slag heaps.

‘At times I would turn up at mines where the manager didn’t even know the pit was going to close. I felt like the grim reaper.’

Watson’s painting of New Stubbin Pit, 1977, near Rawmarsh, Rotherham, depicts the mine the year before it closed, surrounded by cornfields – once more bringing industry and countryside together.”

John Piper (1903-1992), Halifax no 2 (circa 1961, Calderdale MBC Museums)

An image of a dark blue or green painting of trees within an urban setting
John Piper, Halifax No 2 (circa 1961). Oil on board© Reproduced with kind permission of artist's family / Bridgeman Art Library
“Halifax is one of the most dramatic-looking industrial towns of West Yorkshire, set in a huge bowl of a valley.

Many artists have depicted Halifax in many different ways. John Piper produced two of the most striking views of the place in a pair of large-scale canvases, Halifax no 1 and Halifax no 2 in 1961.

Piper was in a way a documenter of the country, but his abstract style cast images of places in a highly distinctive way.

In the Second World War he was commissioned to record bomb damage in the cities of England, such as Coventry and Bristol, which he did with drama and astonishing colour combinations.

A great friend of Sir Osbert Sitwell, Piper made many visits to Renishaw Hall near Sheffield, where he painted numerous views of the house and its surroundings.

Piper enjoyed being the artist guest at stately homes and he made paintings of other great houses in Yorkshire, such as Castle Howard near York and Harewood House, Leeds. But he did not ignore the cities, including Leeds and Sheffield on his journeys.

Piper’s view of Halifax has the appearance and vivacity of a firework display; he looks down from afar into the nighttime valley bowl and captures the glare of street lights, the black silhouette of a church and the inevitable bulk of the mill buildings.”

Joash Woodrow (1927-2006), Crown Place, Harrogate (circa 1980, Bridgeman Art Library)

An image of an abstract, dark blue murky painting of various buildings
Joash Woodrow, Crown Place, Harrogate (circa 1975). Oil on board© John Piper Estate / Calderdale Museums and Arts
“Joash Woodrow was a forgotten Jewish painter who was rediscovered by chance in 2001 when he became too ill to cope alone in his small Leeds
house where he had lived for over 20 years.

The house was filled with 750 works on canvas and 4,000 works on paper, the product of a lifetime of constant, solitary artistic production.

Rescued by Leeds artist Christopher P Wood and art dealer Andrew Stewart, the works identified Woodrow as one of the most significant artistic figures in postwar British art.

Woodrow was the seventh of nine children in a poor but cultured Jewish family that had escaped the pogroms in eastern Poland of the early 1900s.

Joash trained at Leeds School of Art and in 1950 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where he was a contemporary of John Bratby, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

His intense shyness meant that he could not cope with the competitive atmosphere in London and in 1953 he suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to Leeds and never stopped making art until ill health overcame him.

European art was his inspiration and his small landscapes and portraits of the 1950s, dark with streaks of colour, bore the influence of Rouault. But it was a number of visits to the Picasso exhibition at the Tate in 1960 that had the greatest impact on Woodrow’s art.

Picasso gave him an insight into his Jewish heritage, and the realisation that the roots of his art lay not in England but in Europe.

Looking further afield he found a fierce expressionism in the work of Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and the Cobra group, and Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut circle.

Texture and mark making came to the fore, giving Woodrow the extraordinary energy to paint with intense activity for three decades. Paintings became huge and drawings emerged at a furious rate, made outdoors on his tours of north Leeds and neighbouring places, including Harrogate.

He turned his back on the art world and painted for himself alone. When he became incapacitated and went to live in sheltered housing he lost all interest in his work, including his later life fame, and died aged 78 in 2006.”

  • Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate from April 12 – October 12 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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The Mercer Art Gallery is a wonderful and unusual gallery, and the curator there does a great job. Harrogate is very lucky to have an Art Collection that is utilised with real vision for the benefit of the Community. Lots of varied exhibitions that change regularly, and a good mix of old and contemporary Art. It's free to visit too!
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