These riches are necessarily kept under wraps due to availability of exhibition space and sometimes because the artworks are fragile and prolonged exposure to light might cause them to deteriorate more quickly. However, art curators are all about learning ever more about the collections they nurture and conserve, and they like nothing better than finding new ways for more people to access the wonders in these collections.
That’s why Layla Bloom, curator of the University of Leeds Gallery, is excited. Just as the digitising of all of the paintings in public galleries across the nation meant they could be available to us all to view online (at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings), the impending online availability of her gallery’s art works on paper – which should be on the web by this autumn, means that even if most of the treasures rarely see the light of day, we will be able to find out about them at a few clicks of the mouse. Or even make an appointment to view them in person.
In the meantime, a new exhibition at the Stanley and Audrey Burton gallery in the University’s Parkinson Building unveils 70 works that represent the collection of around 2,000 drawings, etchings, linocuts and other works on paper which the University holds in its vaults.
Picking seldom-seen works, those with particular stories attached to them and the odd mystery piece has been a difficult job for Bloom, as so many of them have a fascinating history. Much of the collection has been gifted or bequeathed to the University since its inception more than a century ago, although the gallery itself only opened in 1970.
Among the show’s surrealist pieces is Henry Moore’s watercolour and chalk Figures in a Setting, which sits alongside fascinating prints from the Cobra group of European artists. Arranged by themes – landscapes, abstracts and portraiture – Bloom has brought out the tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it etching Prisoner in Chains by Goya, from his 1863 Disasters of War series. A sad-eyed Stanley Spencer self-portrait (sporting his not-so-attractive wedding hat) shares the space with the marvellous 1939 Sybil Andrews wood engraving Gypsies.
“We often show work from elsewhere, but it’s great for once to bring this stunning group of works out,” says Bloom. “Many have compellng stories attached to them, and a few are a mystery – pieces that were gifts and hung around the University’s corridors for a long time but we don’t have any documentation for.”
Among those whose provenance is known are examples by artists who are important for the region, such as Jacob Kramer, Terry Frost and Patrick Heron (his Untitled, gouache is stunning), but there are also pieces by internationally-renowned artists, including Camille Pissarro, Robert Motherwell and even a tiny Pablo Picasso. The gallery is providing hard-copy information on the story behind each work (the other element of this paper trail) as well as talks and other events around the show.
Paper Trails: Treasures on Paper from the University Art Collection is at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds until July 28. Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, admission free.