Art show explores figurative painting

A new exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery takes a theatrical look at British figurative painting over the past century. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Milly Childers self-portrait
Milly Childers self-portrait

“There are some very surprising connections or juxtapositions,” says Sarah Brown, curator of exhibitions at Leeds Art Gallery of One Day Something Happens, the gallery’s latest show which opened last week. “There are Victorian artists next to contemporary artists – you get the sense of the pleasure and possibilities of paint.”

Curated by Jennifer Higgie, writer and co-editor of leading contemporary art magazine frieze, the exhibition is a personal take on the story of British figurative painting over the past century.

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Higgie, who studied painting herself, selected images from over 2,000 paintings held in the Arts Council Collection as well as from the rich store of artworks belonging to Leeds.

Grace Henrys Woman in a Shawl

The result is a compelling series of snapshots of life both past and present with the human figure at the centre of a unifying theme of performance, narrative and theatricality. The show includes works by acclaimed artists such as Walter Sickert, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Paula Rego as well as some more recent acquisitions from the Arts Council Collection with paintings from artists including Rose Wylie and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

“It’s been such an incredible privilege doing this,” says Higgie. “And I have discovered artists that I didn’t know. I looked at the works in the Arts Council catalogue, went to their storage rooms and visited a few different shows where pieces were out on loan. I would just look at the works and let things wash over me.”

The theme of theatricality in the show developed over a period of time. “The title of the show comes from a quote from Walter Sickert when describing how in the studio you wait for inspiration and then ‘one day something happens,” explains Higgie.

“Sickert was always very interested in the theatre and he went to music halls and painted performers and I noticed this theatrical theme coming through. I started off with a couple of hundred and then worked from there. It was a fairly gradual process of narrowing things down. It was very organic and not particularly formal – it is quite an idiosyncratic, emotional and personal choice.”

The Dispute by Georg Sauter, from the exhibition One Day, Something Happens at Leeds Art Gallery.

Higgie was also keen to reflect the fact that there are many more female artists than is often acknowledged in art history and the show contains a significant proportion of works by women, including some who have been overlooked for years.

One example is Woman in a Shawl, from the Leeds Collection, painted by Grace Henry. “She studied in Brussels and Paris and lived on Achill Island off the coast of Ireland for many years,” says Higgie. “She separated from her husband, who was also an artist, after thirty years of marriage and when he wrote his autobiography he didn’t mention her once. Her work has been neglected and she has been written out of art history.”

The theatrical theme is evident both literally – in works such as Box at the Lyceum Theatre by Walter Bayes, Two Musicians by Ceri Richards and Juliet and the Nurse by Sickert – and subliminally in paintings like Paula Rego’s Sleeping where in the foreground two figures sleep while behind them others are engaged in activity, The Dispute by Georg Sauter in which two women stand slightly apart from each other as their argument hangs in the air and Condor and the Mole by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye that captures two children on the beach mid-conversation.

• One Day, Something Happens is at Leeds Art Gallery until May 24.