Walking through the Ferens Art Gallery, it’s not immediately obvious where the money has been spent. Closed for 16 months while a £5m restoration project – the biggest in its history – was completed, the walls have been given a lick of paint, the works of art rehung and the cafe and gift shop have received a makeover. However, much of the work has taken place where visitors can’t see.
The gallery now boasts new humidity controls, the roof needed major structural repairs and a new lighting system has been put in place. On paper, it might not be as exciting as building a new exhibition space, but together they should help lift the Ferens to the next level as Hull looks to capitalise on its year as UK City of Culture.
“Sometimes it’s the simple things which make the biggest difference,” says curator Kirsten Simister, standing in the gallery dedicated to Dutch artists. “We cleaned the skylights and suddenly we have all this natural light flooding in, to such an extent people think we’ve had new windows put in.
“None of this work would have happened without the UK City of Culture status. Our collection has always been impressive, but the work we have done will hopefully allow us to attract more work on loan and it does really feel that Hull is on the brink of something special.”
1 Christ between Saints Paul and Peter – Lorenzetti: It might not be the biggest painting in the Ferens collection, but it’s undoubtedly the star attraction. This fragment of an altarpiece was painted by Lorenzetti around 1320 and was heading abroad until the Government slapped an export order on it. So began an impressive fundraising campaign led by the Ferens, which, thanks in no small part to a £200,000 Art Fund grant and £758,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, saved the work for the nation. When it was unveiled this month at the gallery reopening, the result of a four-year conservation project was clear to see and it is now being displayed alongside other early 14th century works on loan from the National Gallery.
2 Unknown woman – Frans Hals: The Ferens boasts an entire gallery dedicated to the Netherlands which reinforces the city’s maritime links to Rotterdam. One of the most important pieces in the collection is this work by Frans Hals, who was a portrait painter in the first half of the 17th century, a period known as the Dutch Golden Age. While The Laughing Cavalier might be his best known work, this painting of an unknown woman is regarded as one of his finest and is typical of his later work, which is much more subtle in its approach. Sadly many of Hals’ works have disappeared over the decades, making this work even more important.
3 Maria from Sterne – Joseph Wright: One of the newest additions to the Ferens collection, this 18th century painting by renowned portrait artist Joseph Wright was donated to the gallery last year. The work was bequeathed by the late Ian Askew whose grandfathers were pivotal figures in Hull. This is the first of Wright’s works to enter Hull’s collection and the gallery first learnt of Mr Askew’s intentions 30 years ago when he contacted the then curator, John Bradshaw, to say he wished to gift the painting to the city. As he pointed out, it was the kind of painting the gallery wouldn’t have the funds to acquire at auction and is proof that good things do come to those who wait.
4 Miss Ivy Lilian Close – Arthur Hacker: The cult of celebrity is nothing new. When Ivy Close was 18 years old she won Britain’s first international beauty contest hosted by The Daily Mirror. As well as being named the “most beautiful woman in the world”, one of her prizes was to have this portrait painted and exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Summer Show. Born in Stockton-on-Tees, she went on to become an actor in many silent films, working with the likes of Oliver Hardy and the family’s showbusiness connections continue – her great-grandson Gareth Neame, who recently paid for the painting to be conserved, was the producer on Downton Abbey.
5 Self-portrait – Percy Wyndham Lewis: In this iconic self-portrait, Percy Wyndham Lewis depicts himself as a character he called Tyro. It is one of a group of similarly titled portraits which he exhibited in 1921 and the garish colour and facial distortions are in keeping with the rebel image he wished to convey. Lewis was a central figure in the Vorticist movement which used semi-abstract forms to react against the mechanisation of modern life. As well as being an influential artist, he was a novelist, critic and magazine founder and influenced the modern art world more than he ever knew.
6 Mr Great Heart – Peter Howson: Howson is regarded as one of Britain’s most important contemporary artists and was the country’s most recent Official War Artist. After dropping out of Glasgow School of Art in 1997, he spent a short time in the Army and then worked as a warehouseman and bouncer, living in a gym where he met the boxers, dossers, squaddies and drinkers who populate so much of his work. This particular painting has a further Hull connection as it was used as the cover of the Beautiful South album Quench.