Richard Hamilton’s Kent State isn’t the most obvious print to have hanging above the mantlepiece.
On May 17, 1970, Ohio’s National Guard walked into Kent State University to quell a protest against the US government’s Cambodian Campaign which had intensified already bitter opposition to the Vietnam War.
Firing 67 rounds on the unarmed students, four died, nine were wounded and the footage of the aftermath made uncomfortable viewing the world over.
There were many responses to the incidents, but Hamilton’s was among the most iconic, taking blurry images of the dead bodies from a black and white television and turning them into a dozen screen prints. One of them is held by Leeds Art Gallery and despite the subject matter, whenever they open up their lending library to the public it’s often one of the first works of art to be selected.
“I know it’s strange, isn’t it?,” says the gallery’s Theodore Wilkins. “I don’t know what it is about that particular print, but people seem to be really attracted to it.
“Unlike hanging a print from Ikea or Habitat on your wall, these works are talking points and if nothing else if you saw Kent State hanging in a living room, you’d have to have a conversation about it.”
When The Picture Library was first launched in 1961, most other galleries were already running similar schemes giving members of the public temporary custodianship of prints and paintings in return for a small fee. However, over the subsequent decades most closed either due to lack of funding or public interest and the Leeds Art Gallery library is now the only one in the whole of Yorkshire.
“The original idea was to foster an interest in original British art make art accessible to everyone,” says Theodore. “It was seen as a progressive move and with Bradford and Sheffield already lending artworks, Leeds was a little behind the times. The scheme proved instantly popular – within a fortnight, 140 people had signed up and four weeks later there was a waiting list in excess of 120.
“However, times change and during the 1980s and 90s demand fell off and when galleries were looking to cut costs, the lending libraries were an easy thing to get rid of. Thankfully Leeds kept its scheme up and running and in the last few years it has really come into its own.
“I think it’s down to a combination of reasons – contemporary art in general has enjoyed a renaissance and people have a much greater interest in home interiors than perhaps they did in the past and are on the look out for unusual focal points.”
Throughout the year, The Picture Library holds a series of selection days where the public can choose from hundreds of works of art, including oils, watercolours, drawings, photographs and prints.
“I love the scheme, it’s something I can enjoy from both sides,” says Helen Peyton, the Yorkshire-based printmaker whose work features in the library. “In museums and galleries, I can spend hours wandering, but only minutes looking at each piece, but at home I can really study it. It’s easy to be inspired if there is an Ackroyd or Frink hanging in your home. It becomes a talking point, and people are always amazed to find out that you can borrow one of these paintings. The fact that my work is loaned and placed within people’s homes is an absolute privilege.”
Loaning a work costs £48 for 12 months and with the gallery covering the insurance, all that’s really required to take part in the scheme is proof of identity.
“Of course there is a risk, but we do everything possible to minimise that risk and we’ve not had many problems over the years,” says Theodore, who currently has one of Paul Huxley’s geometric designs on loan. “There’s that classic moment in Terms of Endearment when Shirley McLaine invites Jack Nicholson back to hers to look at a Renoir, which just so happens to be in the bedroom. While we can’t run to a Renoir, we can give people the opportunity to enjoy a Terry Forst or a Jacob Kramer. Sometimes you get a piece home and find it doesn’t really suit the space you had earmarked for it and a couple of times my partner hasn’t been enamoured by the work I’ve chosen, but the really great thing is that you can change your artwork as many times as you like without worrying about a hefty price tag.”
The next selection weekends will take place at The Picture Library on April 25 and 26 and July 25 and 26. For more details call 0113 247 8256 or visit www.leeds.gov.uk/artgallery.