Art? We know what we like...

PRIDE OF HULL: Rachael Mather and her partner, Alan Barrett, in front of Ulysses and the Sirens at the Ferens Art Gallery.  Picture: Terry Carrott.
PRIDE OF HULL: Rachael Mather and her partner, Alan Barrett, in front of Ulysses and the Sirens at the Ferens Art Gallery. Picture: Terry Carrott.
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HOW do you find Yorkshire’s favourite paintings? Galleries throughout the county appealed to the public to discover their top choices. Stephen McClarence reports.

Where’s the best place to meet on a first date? For Rachael Mather and Alan Barrett, there was no “under the Town Hall clock” . No “over a drink at the Old Grouse and Grumble”. Instead, Rachael, from Hull, suggested meeting in front of the vast, storm-tossed painting Ulysses and the Sirens in the city’s Ferens Art Gallery.

On the face of it, the picture, with its sensual-verging-on-erotic vision of naked young women tempting Homer’s beleaguered hero, could have been a tricky start to a relationship. But it worked. Ten years on, Rachael and Alan are still together, and her account of that first date has won her a prize – a print of the picture – in the Yorkshire’s Favourite Paintings project.

Gallery-goers and browsers on the project’s website were invited to nominate pictures from collections all over Yorkshire and explain why they liked them. Two hundred or so paintings – to be whittled down to 100 – had already been shortlisted by curators and focus-groups... understandably, as 30 galleries and museums were involved.

Ranging from major ones in Leeds, Sheffield, York, Bradford and Hull through to smaller ones in Brighouse, Richmond and Goole, they house an estimated 10,000 pictures. At any one time, though, 80 per cent are locked away in storerooms or are otherwise inaccessible.

Ulysses and the Sirens, by the Leeds-born artist Herbert Draper (1864 – 1920), got an impressive share of nom inations. “You feel as though you can put your hand in the water and feel it,” wrote one fan. “The Sirens are every man’s dream and simultaneously every man’s nightmare,” wrote another. “It’s the old adage – ‘Be careful what you wish for’.” And where would he display it if he had a print of it? “On the ceiling of my bedroom”.

In the event, Rachael, a management consultant and a volunteer at the Ferens, has hung her print on her staircase. The best part of her story is that, having suggested meeting in front of the picture, she and Alan discovered it wasn’t there. It was on loan and out of the country. But they found each other anyway.

“It’s a picture that envelops the viewer,” she says. “It’s quite sinister and dark because the Sirens, like mermaids, are trying to lure the men to their deaths. When children come round the gallery and see it, they sometimes talk about ‘naughty ladies’.” On cue, a young girl on a school visit from Grimsby glances at the picture and sums it up with: “It’s a bit rude.”

If pressed, Rachael will confess that she actually prefers Life Painting for Myself, an early semi-abstract by David Hockney. Hockney is currently big at the friendly, airy, strollable Ferens and as we talk, crowds are flocking to stand in awe in front huge work Bigger Trees Near Warter. “It’s very often the very large works that attract attention,” says Ferens curator Kirsten Simister.

The final 100 favourite paintings are now on display in galleries across Yorkshire, and on the project website. And what a fascinating reflection they are of public taste. Unsurprisingly, most aren’t the sort of pictures art connoisseurs might choose. Many people have opted for familiar canvases, or safe, reassuring, “painterly” ones.

Kirsten lists common criteria as “easily recognisable subjects, fairly colourful, happy and uplifting in mood, realistic, nostalgic, historical or traditional subjects... though people tend not to like historical portraits, particularly without context.”

Most of the galleries’ collections include more innovative and ambitious pictures by more famous and important artists, but that’s not always relevant. The Ferens has a world-famous Frans Hals portrait of a young woman. It has a fabulous collection of 20th century British art, taking in William Roberts, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Ben Nicholson. And there’s a celebrated self-portrait by Wyndham Lewis – daemonic, angular, challenging, eyes glinting alarmingly. None of those pictures made the top 10. But the Beverley artist Frederick William Elwell’s sentimental 1913 study of a sleeping woman cradling her new-born baby did.

The overall Hull poll-topper – “romping away”, as Kirsten puts it, with 58 votes – was The Lion at Home, an ultra-realistic big-cat study by the Victorian Rosa Bonheur.

“People come in to see pictures that made an impression on them as children and have almost become part of their identity,” says Kirsten. “Or it can come down to ‘Would I want to have that image over my fireplace?’ Even sometimes: ‘Would the colours tone with my bedroom wallpaper?’

“The challenge for us as curators when we were shortlisting works wasn’t to select our own favourites but to select the public’s favourites. The Wyndham Lewis self-portrait is an amazing picture. When I first saw it, I thought: ‘Wow! That painting’s here!’ But it only got one vote. It’s quite an unpleasant image for the general public, not an appealing work. I love it, but I wouldn’t want it at home.”

Similarly, when I visit Sheffield’s Graves Art Gallery to see their visitors’ “favourites”, I find that pictures by Turner, Matisse, Gauguin and Pissarro have been passed over in favour of plush portraits and pastoral landscapes.

To be fair, there are more radical, more edgy, choices here, including Patrick Caulfield’s bold, bright The Hermit (which won its nominee Gail Archibald a print which she plans to hang in her camper van). And there’s Derrick Greaves’s bleak 1953 vision of industrial Sheffield, with its factory chimneys, gaunt church towers, half-derelict factories and terraces stacked up hillsides. Grim and grimy, it’s a fine example of the Full Monty school of art.

Kirsten says part of the aim of the project is “to reach out to non-gallery-goers, people who might go on the website.”

Doesn’t that website risk making Yorkshire’s galleries redundant? With so many pictures so easily available on-line, why should anyone bother to make a journey to a gallery?

“Oh... to see the quality of the work, its scale, its context in the gallery, the texture of the materials, so many variables.

“There’s no comparison between looking at a work on a website and actually seeing it, standing in front of it.

“It’s a completely different experience to come into a building, rather than look at a postcard or an image on-screen. It’s a much more physical experience.”

As for the pictures that aren’t on show... Kirsten leads me to the Ferens’ storerooms, where a Scandinavian snow scene shares racks with a former Mayor of Hull (complete with pince-nez), a Stubbs horse and a John Bratby study of an outside toilet (a logical extension of Kitchen Sink).

Cuts in galleries’ budgets have affected their exhibiting policy.

With less funding for special exhibitions, their collections are becoming vital and the challenge, as Kirsten says, is to “find imaginative ways to use them”.

Maybe they need to recruit more people like Rachael Mather.

“I love art galleries,” she says. “It’s like having a wonderful sitting room with all these pictures to look at.”

Yorkshire’s Favourite Paintings: Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter is at the Ferens (tel 01482 613902; or visit until September 18.