Art of a bargain buy

Leeds Art Gallery Curator Nigel Walsh
Leeds Art Gallery Curator Nigel Walsh
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For a few quid some shrewd heads have acquired art works now worth millions. Stephen McClarence reports.

Henry Moore’s drawing Air Raid Shelter – Two Seated Women was an indisputable snip at £15, just a quid more than a ticket for the Royal Academy’s present Hockney exhibition. Yes, as Yorkshire folk (for the most part) the members of the Leeds Art Fund have always had a keen eye for a bargain.

Apart from the Renoir, all this was pretty much “modern art” when they bought it – as Nigel Walsh, Leeds Art Gallery’s curator of contemporary art, acknowledges.

“Without the fund, the collection wouldn’t have the same shape,” he says. “They instilled in the minds of politicians that they ought to give the gallery money to buy things. And they did. We’re now thought to have the best collection of 20th century British art outside London.”

Marking their 100 years, a centenary exhibition, Art in Our Time, opens this weekend at Leeds Art Gallery showing the 430 works they’ve helped to acquire for the city’s collections.

The gallery had a curious early history. It was built without much art to put in it, or much money to buy any. So the 400-member fund, one of Britain’s oldest “friends” organisations, played a crucial role in stocking the gallery. The industrialists, businessmen and academics who paid their subscriptions helped shaped the city’s cultural life, with a legacy also regularly displayed at Lotherton Hall and Temple Newsam.

Walsh is keen to show me a room packed with pieces from the early days, echoing the way they would have been exhibited when the gallery opened in 1888. The pictures range from the glorious – a Cotman landscape, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott – to the frankly populist – the Light Brigade charging, Britannia slaying a Bengal tiger as retribution for the atrocities of the Indian Mutiny.

“Many of the paintings in this room have an improving message that the patrons of the time thought would be of benefit to the gallery’s audiences,” says Walsh.

None is more “improving” than General Gordon’s Last Stand by the Irish artist George W Joy. Its powerful vision of the soldier’s final moments at Khartoum shows him as an imperious figure rising above the blood and death around him. It’s proudly patriotic (shamelessly jingoistic, anti-imperialists would say), with the artist setting out, as he later wrote, “to awaken the conscience of the nation”.

Standing provocatively in front of it, however, is a modern take on that conscience-awakening, a radical piece commissioned two years ago with help from the Art Fund.

The work, This is General Gordon, is a sort-of statue of the soldier made from brightly painted wooden boxes with a red plastic bucket as his helmet and a Black and Decker Workmate as his plinth. The artist Patrick Brill – who exhibits under the soubriquet Bob & Roberta Smith – has added a political-personal commentary that winds its dizzying way round and down the piece like a helter-skelter.

It links the picture’s imperialism to Iraq, then poignantly describes how, after first seeing it here in Leeds, Brill went on to York to visit his mother, “who has problems with her memory... I told her of my ambition to make a sculpture of General Gordon. She said: ‘I have forgotten. Was there a past?’”

Not necessarily the sort of thing you expect to find in a room like this, I suggest to Nigel Walsh. A bit subversive? “Yes, I think it is,” he says. “We did have one complaint about it. For some people this room is sacrosanct as a 19th century room. People can be disturbed by a modern intrusion. But these things were contemporary when they were first shown here. It’s a dialogue between past and present.”

The Leeds Art Fund – known until recently as the Leeds Art Collections Fund – has always been interested in such unexpected pieces. As well as Goya etchings, Turner watercolours and Millet lithographs, its early purchases included Charles Nevinson’s Seachlights, the beams radiating in the night sky, and a landscape by Lucien Pissarro dominated by a railway line and four-square bridge.

As the fund’s first Annual Report observed: “It is an instance of the true artist’s power to discern rare beauty in a situation unpromising to the layman: the railway embankment of the Great Western Main Line at Acton.”

The fund’s committee never seems to have toed a predictable line. It didn’t think twice about bartering a picture for a “superior” one – a Sickert was part-exchanged for a Bonnard.

The great visionary in the early days was Sir Michael Sadler, vice-chancellor of Leeds University and a major collector of modern art. “He had four Gauguins, two or three Kandinskys, a Cezanne – unbelievable!” says Ben Read, fund chairman, when we meet in the gallery’s grand palms-and-pillars cafe under the august gaze of Scott, Burns, Homer, Goethe and Macaulay.

Sadler gave 50 works to Leeds (and to Barnsley, his home town) in a way typical of early fund members.

“It may sound naive to us is this cynical age, but they wanted to benefit the public and to bring art to the people of Leeds,” says Read, senior visiting research fellow in Fine Art at Leeds University.

“One has met collectors who were keener on their own esteem, but that wasn’t the case with the fund members.”

Vast bequests are rarer these days and the fund tends to operate, he says, by providing money “to set the ball rolling”. He had personal involvement in that process with Rodin’s Age of Bronze, the life-sized figure of a young man (either smitten by inspiration or swooningly effete, take your choice) that greets visitors to the Leeds gallery.

It had been commissioned by the Becketts, the Leeds banking family, who kept it in the garden of their North Yorkshire home and it has been left with its weathered greeny patina “because it was part of its unique history”.

As for the fund’s change of name: “The word ‘Collections’ has been dropped within the last six months.

“I think a lot of people thought it wasn’t quite sexy enough. It sounded a bit old-fashioned.”

And, as we know, the Leeds Art Fund is nothing if not contemporary.

Art in Our Time is at Leeds Art Gallery (0113 247 8256; until August 26. Free admission.

Ambitious art proved too grim up north

The inside of Leeds Town Hall would have looked very different if Sir Michael Sadler had had his way. As the Art Fund’s centenary exhibition shows, he proposed commissioning, in 1920, a series of murals by leading young artists, including Stanley Spencer, Paul and John Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Jacob Kramer. “The brief was to be about the city, its people and its industry,” says Nigel Walsh. In the event, industry became the key element. Sadler had been hugely influenced by John Ruskin’s ideas about nature, but his own outlook was more radical. Ruskin, he said in a 1913 lecture, “failed to see that for us moderns strength and power show themselves in the great arms of travelling cranes, in the gossamer beauty of scaffolding, in the gaunt severity of Lancashire mill sheds and the intense and silent power of dynamos and turbines”.

The commissioned artists echoed these thoughts, filling their draft designs with factory chimneys, snaking terraces, canals, quarries, slag heaps, warehouses and coal trains. Wadsworth evoked an apocalypse of smoke and industrial waste; Kramer showed bent miners toiling at the coal face; Spencer made do with washing lines.

But it was all a bit too dark and grim for some. When the Yorkshire Post printed the designs, many readers were hostile. “The Yorkshire Post itself was very supportive in general,” says Walsh. “But they thought that some of the designs were too advanced for popular taste.” The project was duly shelved.