Art that’s defined by Yorkshire

Jane Sellers, curator at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Jane Sellers, curator at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
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Yvette Huddleston sees how the county has provided inspiration for generations of artists at a new exhibition.

‘How do you define what is Yorkshire art?” asks Jane Sellars, curator at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate, whose latest exhibition Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney opens next week.

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Part of the Yorkshire Festival 2014, the cultural festival leading up to the Tour de France’s Grand Départ, it features more than 100 paintings, photographs and sculptures and for Sellars it has been very much a labour of love.

“This kind of exhibition takes a long time to plan,” she says. “We have a policy here that we can manage one big blockbuster exhibition every three years – the last one was the Atkinson Grimshaw one in 2011 – and then everyone says what are you going to do next and we have to start thinking of another big idea for the future.”

As luck would have it, Sellars was asked to write a book about art and Yorkshire and the publishers gave her complete control over how to interpret that. “Once I started thinking about it, I thought that I would like to do an exhibition as well,” she says. “As it turns out there are lots of things in the exhibition that are not in the book, so they are two distinct things but interconnected.”

Sellars began to consider which themes to include and decided on landscape, coastline, the sea and Yorkshire people. “The subtitle is ‘from Turner to Hockney’ because they are the names everyone will be familiar with,” she says. “But when you think about it Turner wasn’t a Yorkshireman – he came here because of the landscape – and Hockney was born in Yorkshire but left as soon as he could.

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“So, I looked for artists who were in some way defined by Yorkshire.” The resulting collection highlights Yorkshire’s influence on some of the world’s greatest artists and includes work from the 19th and 20th-centuries, right up to the present day. It features not only art made in Yorkshire but work created by Yorkshire-born artists in diverse and contrasting locations.

Sellars herself was born in Yorkshire, grew up in Tadcaster and then studied history of art at Manchester University.

As a post-graduate student she worked as a volunteer at Leeds Art Gallery, Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall. Apart from 10 years working at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool she has spent most of her professional life as a curator working in Yorkshire museums and galleries – she has been at the Mercer for a decade now and was also director at the Brontë Parsonage museum for many years. “I know a lot about Yorkshire and the art held in the collections here,” she says. “I also knew that whatever I chose it would be my personal choice. There is an autobiographical thread running through the book and the exhibition. It’s inevitable that I am drawn to certain subjects, the moors around Haworth, for example, with those wild skies. Someone else would have chosen differently.”

She says that she wanted to bring together works and artists who she has always admired or with whom she has worked in the past. “I did aim to get as much as possible from public art galleries in the North of England but there are also a few from private collections that have not been seen before.” With an exhibition of such size and scope it has taken Sellars around two years to assemble all the work, including time spent planning, negotiating with galleries and private collectors and travelling around the country viewing pieces. And she wasn’t timid about who to approach. “I thought I might as well start at the top – I asked the British Museum for all their best Turners and they said no,” she says, laughing.

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“But I think I have ended up with a really diverse collection. It definitely does have a touch of me in it. For example, there is one section called ‘Brontë Country’ and that includes pieces ranging from drawings by the Brontës themselves to a whole series of prints by Paula Rego inspired by Jane Eyre.” Also included in this section is work from poet and artist Adrian Henri who died in 2000. “He was writer in residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum when I was there in the early 1990s,” says Sellars. “He did some wonderful work writing poetry with groups of young people but he also sketched the graveyard in Haworth which then became a painting. In that section too, there is a wonderful David Hockney – one of his photo-collages. It is privately owned and it is set in Brontë country.”

Another strand called Landscape features work by Malham-based Katharine Holmes who is the third generation in her family to become an artist – her mother and grandmother were also artists – and who creates beautiful abstract images of her native Yorkshire Dales landscape across a range of media. There are some of Atkinson Grimshaw’s moody paintings of moonlit Victorian streets and work by contemporary Yorkshire-born artist Simon Palmer, now based back in his native Masham, whose paintings pay tribute to the landscapes and people of Northern England. One section covers industrial subjects and the city. “I have borrowed from a lot of great things from the National Coalmining Museum,” says Sellars. “There are some of Don McCullin’s photographs of miners in the 1960s. There is a drawing by Henry Moore of miners underground.” Some of Moore’s sculptural work, in the form of maquettes, also features in the exhibition as well as Barbara Hepworth pieces.

Representations of the Yorkshire coast and the sea include the famous Atkinson Grimshaw painting of Scarborough harbour and Mark Senior’s portrayal of Runswick Bay. There is one picture in particular along this theme that evokes happy memories for Sellars. “There is a lovely sea picture of Robin Hood’s Bay where I used to go as a child,” she says. “It was painted by Ethel Walker – she died in 1951 but she had a cottage on the cliffs in Robin Hood’s Bay.” Sellars says that the most difficult section of the exhibition to select for was the one about Yorkshire’s people, because there were so many choices she could have made.”I was very fortunate in that the National Portrait Gallery were extremely generous to us and they agreed to lend all the ones I asked for. They have Tom Wood’s portrait of Alan Bennett, who has written a preface to the book which is absolutely brilliant.” Other writers whose portraits are in the exhibition include JB Priestley and Ted Hughes.

The rarely-seen Hockneys in the show, all from private collections, have been deliberately chosen to confound expectations. “I know people will assume that they will be seeing Yorkshire landscapes from his recent work,” says Sellars. “But I’ve selected mostly the California subjects because what I am doing is looking at Hockney living and painting in another landscape. So there should be some surprises in there.”

Sellars is planning to create unexpected juxtapositions of artists, placing the historical alongside the contemporary and little known works set beside great works of British art history.

“It’s going to be really exciting when everything finally comes together,” she says. “There are some familiar pieces and some lovely works by early 20th century painter Fred Elwell.

“He did portraits of ordinary people like The Landlady and The Barman and I am going to be putting those next to a portrait of Princess Mary.”

As for personal highlights, Sellars says she is “thrilled” about some of the Turners – including one of Knaresborough Castle that she has long sought to include in a show at the gallery – and she is grateful for “the incredible generosity” of the private collectors.

“And I love all the new work going on, such as Katharine Holmes’ emotive landscapes of the Dales, Myles Linley’s huge chalk drawings of Hull and Jake Attree’s paintings of York.

“Of course the great thing is that the exhibition ties in so perfectly with the Grand Départ – if you want to show all those extra visitors about art and Yorkshire, this is where they can find it.”

Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney, Mercer Gallery, Harrogate, April 12 to October 12. Admission Free. www.harrogate.gov.uk/mercerartgallery. The book Art and Yorkshire by Jane Sellars, which includes 150 illustrations of work included in the exhibition and complementary works, is published on April 12 by Great Northern Books and costs £20. www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk