Oxford (again) and Modern Drawing

Frantic. That is how modern living can be described. Last Saturday we were in Oxford showing off the Pitt Rivers Museum to Ellie, and finding a good seat for the World Cup Quarter final. Then all the business of a week in retirement, not to mention exit from said competition and here I am back in Oxford again. This time at Modern Art Oxford, for a rare drawing exhibition.

Drawing as an art form had a very difficult twentieth century when attempts were made by art schools to render it obsolete. Luckily we have all come to our senses and drawing is back. Not just the renaissance and historical drawings that the Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam and British Museum are famous for (not to mention the Royal Collection at Windsor) but modern and post modern gems.

The latest exhibition at Modern Art Oxford,  A Slice Through the World “updates and challenges some of the ideas tested during an important moment in Oxford art history, namely the international group show”; Drawing 1972. There is so much to see here that shows the modern artists at their creative best, but not ignoring traditional ideas and materials. Aura- Natasha Ogunji opens the show with The proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017. Ink, graphite and thread on tracing paper display several levels in the artist’s mind and the lightness of the paper shimmers in the breeze within the gallery. Are the figure(s) gods above the abstract lava flows? Blue flows replacing the red of molten rock and are the threads part of the human figures or part of the lava flow? Take your time to take in the messages. Leave the frantic world outside.

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Aura-Natasha Ogunji, The Proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017.

Laid out on trestle tables like an exam room (Oxford) are 100 pages of an atlas of Europe, pages blacked out with graphite, except for single white spots denoting each settlement. Are we being asked to look at our busy continent as if we would view the night sky. There are no borders here, no history, no prejudices, no conflict – just that tranquility and intrigue we enjoy when we look at the stars on a stlll moonless night. And yet there is the blackness of the sea which like space is the emptiness that is necessary to define the boundaries.

There are, of course, traditional pencil on paper figurative work and the best of these can be found in the Piper Room. The theme here is that the artist has adopted other media, mainly photography, and created their own forms. Most importantly the moment has been celebrated by the artist rather than simply copying the event in film. Look closely at Nidhul Chamekh’s Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016, made from burned bread and charcoal on canvas. The original photos were of Fadhel Sassi, a Tunisian professor being assassinated During the bread riots of 1984. Where there was no movement in the original, Chamekh has subtly reframed them and reorganised them to tell his story. Grim as it is it is important for journalists to record the event and for the artist to prick our consciousness  the spiritual meaning.

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Nidhul Chamekh, Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016

Next door is Barbara Walkers brilliant graphite on embossed paper, Untiltled, 2018 with its relevance to this years commemoration. The medium allows for the military actions of the black soldiers, marginalised by history to receive a special presence, juxtaposed with the embossed removal of their white colleagues. 

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Barbara Walker, Untitled 2018

To me there are three types of drawing to see at exhibitions. There are the preparatory sketches necessary in the development of paintings and sculpture. There are the drawings and cartoons that have been created through history which, due to the fame of the artist and his other works, have become works of art in their own right. Then there are those drawings that are created to stand alone and individual. This exhibition at Oxford is a celebration of these in the modern era. Set in the calmness of this wonderful inner city space these works invite a reverence that is not unlike a medieval cathedral. Don’t rush through but take time and the spirit of these works will reveal themselves to you. What you see in a drawing is more of the artist’s mind than probably any other art form.

They are of course a few high energy works. Look for Disgrace I, II, III & IV, 2009, where Kate Davis, while acknowledging Amedeo Modigliano’s vacuous female nudes, has also chosen to confuse your senses with her own image. She has taken / appropriated some of Modigliani’s drawings from a monograph and superimposed lines and marks which she traced around her own body. While your first impression is one of desecration you start to see the intermingling of the bodies and some substitution, and again what she is saying with the strength and emotion lost in other media.

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Kate Davis, Disgrace, 2009

You may gather from all this that I believe in drawing as the primary elemental artform , even the essence of art going back to the caves and the starting point for everything else. Enjoy the great drawings of the renaissance of course but also come here for raw beauty and emotional consciousness.

A Slice Through the World is at Modern Art Oxford until 9th September

Southampton

I handed in my final essay this week which is a great relief. Having enjoyed the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright* and the sculptural beauty of Barbara Hepworth I think I need a little time with some two dimensional art. And what better place than Southampton. Just a few minutes from the station is the civic and cultural centre with its City Art Gallery, Sea City Museum and Solent University’s John Hansard Gallery.

The City Art Gallery first. Bridget on the course recommended the Gallery, maybe because she lives here. The main gallery is on the first floor, a long room with a very eclectic mix of mainly nineteenth and twentieth century paintings. There are the Camden Town Group here, the London Group, Graham Sutherland and some interesting work from Cornwall, together with some very fine small bronzes by Epstein, Rodin and Degas. All in all, I thought that was a quaint little provincial collection – where next?

But then I ventured into the side galleries. An early Italian room houses a superb altarpiece by Allegretto Nuzi (1315-1373), and there is an intriguing room with a series of gouache preparatory paintings on the subject of Perseus by Edward Burne Jones (1875-1885). The final work, commissioned by the Prime Minister, Balfour, was never completed so these preparatory paintings are the only full series. It is the story of Perseus’s defeat of the gorgon Medusa and his rescue of Andromeda from the sea monster. Burne-Jones is an acquired taste but a must see nonetheless.

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Perseus and the Sea Nymphs, Edward Burne Jones (1877), Southampton City Art Gallery

A very interesting twist on displaying popular lively work was to ask various members of Southampton Football Club to pick their favourites. I was particularly taken by  a remake of Ford Madox Brown’s, The Work, chosen by James Searle, the Internal Communications Manager. Painted in almost the same spot in Hampstead by David Redfern in 1977, the machinery is added but all the old favourites are present, the “honest labourer, the idler, the unemployed, those employing mental labour.”

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Work, David Redfern (1977)

In another Gallery was a special exhibition by George Shaw entitled ‘My Back to Nature” – a pun on his creating the work in the studio. The theme is what happens in the artist’s local woods – a lot of growing up, initiation and a few unsavoury goings on to delight the eye. I first saw  the artists work at the Royal Academy in 2011, and was astonished by the use of ‘Humbrol’ modellers paint in serious art. The subject matter then was derelict scenes on  a Coventry housing estate and the woods of this exhibition are adjoining the estate. This new exhibition, commissioned by the National Gallery is touring the country.

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The Rude Screen (2015), George Shaw, from My Back to Nature (National Gallery 2016)

The final gallery was showing the work of Kelly Richardson an advocate for reminding us how far we have gone in the human destruction of the planet. Her ‘Pillars of Dawn’ are digital painted bare monochromatic trees in the unnatural light of dawn – or is it dusk? I have added Orion Tide (2013) on the main banner as an image that particularly took me. The audio visual video presentation showed launching pillars of fire from a desert landscape. Are they rockets, escaping space craft or simply what they appear to be, plumes of flame?

On the doorstep is Sea City with its exhibitions of The Titanic and Southampton Football Club (again) and the John Hansard Gallery with an Artist Room special on Gerard Richter. More of these another time.

My Back to Nature is at the Southampton City Gallery until1st September.

Pillars of Dawn is at the Southampton City Gallery until 6th October.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a great American Architect who just happened, also, to be one of Paul Simon’s pen names for Art Garfunkel.

Solid Light Works at Wakefield

I was in Leeds again this week meeting my tutor to discuss my research project (an unlikely mixing of the minds of architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth). Having discussed where the project is going we decided to make another visit to the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery to see some archives and view the galleries. Having posted on the sculptor quite recently Hepworth at Henley-on-Thames  I thought it would be a good idea to see the Anthony McCall exhibition: Solid Light Works, which was being shown there.

McCall is a most interesting person working in a very specialist conceptual area of art. Born in England and educated at Bromley Art College he specialised in geometry, film and the effects of light. He moved to NewYork in 1973 and has resided there since, having had solo exhibitions in all the major galleries across the globe and many retrospectives. Now 72, his Hepworth Wakefield show brings to the fore all his youthful enthusiasm particularly in his sketchbook drawings and light projections.

 

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One of the many sketchbooks on display of Anthony McCall’s geometric drawings.

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Leaving (with two minute silence), Anthony McCall, 2006.

The wealth of drawings reveal McCall’s wonderful understanding of the geometry of light. His application is very minimalistic emphasised by his iconic Leaving (with Two Minute Silence) from 2006, and the performance piece, Five Minute Drawing, with its accompanying video. Here the artist scribes an arc and straight line with paper, string and charcoal.

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Five minute drawing, Anthony McCall,

The highlights of this show, however, are the transformation of the drawings into the spectator space using monochromatic white light projected into a smoke filled void. There are two of the gallery’s spaces dedicated to these. The spectator is guided into the matt black hazy room before emerging into the projection area. The experience is exhilarating as you find yourself moving about the space influencing the direction of the art, as the show itself transforms through time. Maybe the spirit of Isaac Newton or Euclid himself is in the room with you as the constraints of space, light and time seems to disappear and you feel the strength of the geometry and the piecing light rays playing with your senses. Still photography really doesn’t capture the fullness of these projections, working on all the senses.

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Endless vistas of  skies and seas that melt and merge, Anthony McCall.

There is much here to see and value;  the inspiration that is Anthony McCall is brought to this  award winning gallery, especially if you, (like me) enjoy the wonder that is geometry.

Solid Light Works is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 3rd June and is a must see.

A Trip to the Barber

Recently I visited the Barber Institute at Birmingham University. Easy to get to – train to University and keep walking. I went to see an exhibition entitled Rhythm of Light, a celebration of the so called Scottish Colorists. These are a group of turn of the (20th) century Scottish artists who discovered light and colour in Paris and the South of France. I enjoyed the exhibition but to be honest having enjoyed the works of S J Peploe and J D Ferguson for years I found the curation somewhat tame. Some of the work of these two artists in Edinburgh and Perth is simply stunning so while the exhibition was good and has been well received it wasn’t for me this time. 

It was ironic that probably the best Fergusson in the building was His 1902 Portrait of Jean Maconochie in the permanent collection. Well I suppose it’s a matter of taste. 

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J D Fergusson,  Jean Maconochie, 1902, The Barber Institute, Birmingham.

However I did spend a little time in front of one picture in the permanent collection which made me ponder on a few things. There is a painting of The Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist. The title notes attributes the picture to Sandro Botticelli, around 1480. My first thoughts was how wonderful it was that this painting was still here hanging in Birmingham over 500 years after it was created. I pondered further on the events around Birmingham and Florence all those years ago. Both experiencing royal civil wars, both about to see great dynastic changes which would eventually challenge the heart of religious doctrine of the day. 

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Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, The Barber Instiute, Birmingham

But then I thought – Botticelli – that’s interesting – How strong is the attribution? Is it an autograph work? Is it with collaboration? Is it a factory work? Well the notes accepts that Botticelli had a very successful studio but claims the very fine work makes it the master. So what does my “complete Works” at home tell me. Well it becomes very interesting. It turns out that Botticelli painted this scene several times and my oracle claims the original of this painting is in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzio Pitti in Florence and is attributed by all the experts. A reverse copy exists in Paris and is partially attributed. The Birmingham painting is a second reverse copy with the same dimensions as the Paris version and the same partial attribution. So I now know how busy these studios were back in the fourteen hundreds – step back Andy Warhol!

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Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, Galleria Palatina, Palazzio Pitti, Florence. (Note the reverse to the Birmingham version)

But then I thought – The Bible makes no mention of this meeting. Did the infant Baptist meet the Christ Child? There are numerous Renaissance and Baroque paintings devoted to this event. It arises from some of the apocryphal accounts of the Life of Christ abundant in the Middle Ages and refers to Jesus meeting his cousin on the holy family’s return from Egypt. These must have echoes of Luke recounting the unborn John recognising Christ in the womb (Luke 1:41).

But so to the painting – it is gorgeous. I hope my photograph does justice to the colours. It is difficult for me to judge on the level of restoration but the colours in egg tempera are just wonderful. And just look at the gold on The Madonna’s shawl. But most of all look at the faces. I am not sure if Italians have ever looked like Botticelli’s Madonna’s or Venus’s – but wow anyway. Most of all look at the Christ Child’s eyes. From a distance they look closed but get closer and you see just what a great artist Botticelli was – just open and clearly focussed on John. 

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Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist (Birmingham) – detail.

It is worth taking time with a painting and certainly worth it with a truly great painter like Botticelli to see how really good The Old Masters were.

The Rhythm of Light is on until 13th May and is seriously worth it but do take a few minutes with Botticelli. You will not regret it.

Hepworth at Henley-on-Thames

We recently had a lunch out with an American friend who decreed in the conversation that Henley-on-Thames was the destroyer of ambition. Whether this is true or not is a moot point but it certainly is a beautiful place to rest a while. The conversation came from my describing a very short time spent there recently. A beautiful sunny day; I could have languished by the river for hours but just had enough time for an hour at The River and Rowing Museum. This gem, designed by David Chipperfield, of course houses exhibits associated with rowing on the Thames but also contains galleries for other tastes. Currently there is a charming little walk through dedicated to Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. In times of so much superb children’s literature you forget what a delightful and thought-provoking tale of riverside heroes this is. Of course I did not go to the museum for Ratty, Toad and Mole. It was Finding Form, a view of Barbara Hepworth, The sculptor who did so much for British Modernism that drew me. The exhibition, curated by the museum’s Natalie Patel showed Hepworth, the worker of natural materials to great effect.

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The showpiece is Spring, 1966, a bronze cast including the two concepts so relevant to Hepworth – the hole and the string. The hole, which she discovered in 1928 and never left gives her the insight to the interior of form and it’s duality with the exterior. It is not simply a window but an emotional entrée. Likewise the strings which she employed from around 1937 onwards signify the tension in her work and maybe musicality, probably from some of her European Abstract artist associates of the thirties. Hepworth came late to casting as she had favoured carving natural materials in her early career. Spring is based on an elm carving of 1965, Oval form with Strings and Colour, 1965, in the Metropolitan in New York.  The Limestone carving, Bicentric Form, 1949, is exhibited representing both the figurative form and the menhirs, standing stones which became so familiar from her days in Cornwall. Being brought up in Yorkshire and residing for many years in St Ives her strong natural landscape always featured strongly in her work. These two feature among six works on loan from various UK galleries including the Tate. They feature all Hepworth’s sculptural methods. Painting and drawing were not major parts of Hepworth’s oeuvre of work but the exhibition does include two geometric drawings which inform the tension in her works.

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As a late developer in appreciating the full impact Barbara Hepworth had on British Art I now take every opportunity to visit her works. There is much to see at Henley and the Rowing Museum but for the short time available this exhibition is a must and is on until 3rd June 2018.

 

New Art Gallery, Walsall

I have been to The New Art Gallery in Walsall before and regard it as an oasis. The strength of the gallery is the Garman Ryan collection which covers two floors. Kathleen Garman was the wife of the great twentieth century sculptor Jacob Epstein. After his death in 1959 Garman started collecting art with her friend Sally Ryan, daughter of American entrepreneur Thomas Fortune Ryan. Together the two women collected over 400 pieces from Albrecht Drurer, through to nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary works. The collection was donated to the People of Walsall in 1973 and has the been part of the permanent collection in the gallery since 2000. Go to the Black Country and see Constables, Renoir, Cezanne, Modigliani  alongside Jacob Epstein sculptures, prints and paintings. With such a prestigious collection it is not surprising that Walsall has attracted exhibitions from some of the finest contemporary artists including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.

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Amadeus Modigliani, Caryatid, 1913

As part of the Artists Rooms Tour (sponsored by The National Galleries of Scotland and The Tate) the gallery is showing works by Vija Clemons. The American Latvian artist includes drawings and prints of the natural world, such as the stars, the surface of the oceans and expanses of deserts. Her display is part of a wider  Wilderness exhibition showing extremes of the natural world. The exhibition is also showing Esther Johnson’s short film about a community living on the disappearing Yorkshire coast at Holderness.

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Vija Clemons, December 1984

My reason for going on this occasion was to see Lionheart by Mike Nelson. Obviously not everyone’s cup of tea the installation consists of found objects depicting a drifters hut. The objects were all found along the old human trade routes of Eastern Europe which had been closed during the Soviet regime but are reopening with migrating peoples again. The work was first installed in Bremen in 1999, and was selected to represent Great Britain in the Venice Biennale of 2011.

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Mike Nelson, Lionheart, 1997-2018

On the Ground floor is The National Gallery’s Masterpiece Tour 2018 centred on Hans Holbein the Youngers’s 1526 painting of Lady Anne Lovell, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

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There are five floors of great paintings and sculpture to see at Walsall but I also like the architecture of Caruso St John’s new building opened in 2000. Praised by RIBA as almost flawless and vilified by Theodore Dalrymple as a “giant sauna on the inside and grain silo on the outside”. You can be the judge but must go there to see it. Like all centres of areas of urban regeneration, time will be the judge but for now we must thank Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan for making their collection so accessible.

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View from second floor to Town Canal Basin

The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour ends on 22nd April

Wilderness and Artists Rooms ends on 6th May

Lionheart ends on 3rd June

 

 

 

 

Hannah Ryggen – Woven Histories

 

Tapestry must be one of the most intimate of all art forms and Hannah Ryggen, one of its most intimate of exponents. Born in Malmo in 1894 she settled into subsistence farming in Norway with her painter husband, Hans. Although trained as a painter in oils she turned to tapestry becoming closer to the rural farming class. From these earthly roots and reading of Dagbladet , the culturally radical journal, she produced works to represent some of the most profound events of the twentieth century.

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6th October 1942 (1943), Hannah Rhyggen

Her works are currently on display at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art.* The show opens with a triptych narrative of her farming life, We and our Animals (1934), appearing three times feeding their hens, cattle and in a domestic setting. The pace quickens with the brilliant anti-fascist Ethiopia (1937) shown at the same World Fair alongside Picasso’s Guernica in 1937; her depiction of, the speared, Mussolini was censored out. The exhibition has two highly critical tapestries of Norway’s Second World War position and objections to its role in nuclear armament and NATO, the anti Nazi  6th October 1942 (1943) and Jul Kvale (1956). There are more powerful statements on nuclear war and a very clever attack on the USA’s involvement in Vietnam depicting Lyndon Johnson’s casual cruelty to his pet dog.

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Ethiopia (1937), Hannah Rhyggen

Interspersed with her political comment are some beautiful works of a more personal flavour. She appears in A Free One (1948), a statement of the eniquity of wealth and poverty, and one of her late works, Fishing in a sea of debt (1956). Her themes of personal love are coloured with rich reds, where in her words ‘she lets loose with explosive effect’.

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Mothers World (1947) Hanna Rhyggen

What gives Ryggen’s tapestry’s such intimate power is her involvement with the whole process from spinning the yarn from local wool, dyeing with colour from the immediate countryside and manufacture on a hand made loom in her farmhouse kitchen. The exhibition is completed with a very personal 30 minute film with Ryggen explaining her philosophy and describing various tapestries.

*Unfortunately the exhibition closes at Oxford on Sunday.

Dantzig Gallery Woodstock

From 26 January – 4 February Dantzig Gallery is Hosting 600 Years of Art History, a unique exhibition co-curated by Dantzig Director Dave Davies, and Oxford University art historian Monica Tonella.
Their long-term goal is to kickstart a project which will see similar exhibitions taking place around the globe. It is hoped that, in doing so, the experience of art can be provided in communities who have no access to galleries.
Tonella enthuses, “this exhibition spans six centuries of art, starting with work made in Siena in the Renaissance and stretching through time to pictures made by Andy Warhol in the 1960s.
“But the exhibition is not so much about the paintings we have included as it is about history, and about the development of art through the ages. At its heart, this display aims to set out the foundations through which future generations can engage with art.”
The exhibition was launched with a reception with special guests Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, and BBC television presenter and art historian Dr Janina Ramirez.

A sample of the exhibition is Jan Frans van Bloemanks Italian Landscape of 1735

Van Bloeman, a Flemish landscape artist, who mainly worked in Italy, depicts here a rural scene of a deep steep sided gorge. In the foreground a stone arch crosses the gorge with groups of people. There are two passing on the right bank and a group taking in the view on the bridge. There are rocky outcrops above the dense wooded landscape and the unity of the view is completed by the columnar ghostlike mountains in the distance. Van Bloeman’s style is clearly influenced by Claude Lorrain from a generation before where he transposes the landed estates of the Roman patrician class into a form of Arcadia.

Leonor Antunes at the Whitechapel

The exposed brick work on the walls and the linoleum floor design appropriated from a drawing by Mary Martin all envelope a warm exhibition. The title The Frisson of the Togetherness is derived from architects Alison and Christine Smithson’s description of young people’s social allegiance. There is much here to evoke the 1956 This is Tomorrow exhibition at The Whitechapel. The Smithsons were there as was the Hungarian, Erno Goldfinger, who’s influence pervades these works; The tensioned rope bannisters evoke Goldfingers house in Hampstead as do the window louvres in 2 Willow Road. The clean lines are created by jute, rope, brass and teak. There is much modern feminist work here and in the side gallery are small craft works such as a rug by Mary Martin, glasswork by Nanna Ditzel, and jewellery by Lucia Nogueira.

It is always a delight coming to The Whitechapel and this warm architectural exhibition is no exception with its inclusive social togetherness.

Leeds Art Gallery

The recently refurbished Gallery in the centre of Leeds made a very enjoyable visit last week. It is the home of the best public collection of twentieth century art in the UK outside London, recognised as a collection of National Importance. It was a pity that the Ziff Gallery, home of the nineteenth century work was closed which meant that I missed one of my favourite pre Raphaelite artist, Evelyn De Morgan’s Valley of the Shadows. The twentieth century collection is very well presented however with a number of Jacob Kramer paintings including The Day of Atonement and The Rite of Spring (see painting of the day) and Praxitella by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1921). There is, as expected sculpture from Henry Moore, Mother and Child, Barbara Hepworth, Hieroglyph, and Anthony Gormley, The Leeds Brick Man (1986). Among the temporary displays are a polycarbonate and cast polyurethane rubber sculpture, Arena,(2000) by Alison Wilding and as part of the national “Artist Rooms” project an exhibition devoted to Joseph Beuys. Highlight for me is the portrait wall with work by many of the iconic twentieth century portraitists including Gwen John and Francis Bacon. Adjoing the gallery are the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Library with a terrific section devoted to art History.

As regards the day out the gallery is easy to access in the City centre, surrounded by great cafes and restaurants and the gallery’s own ‘Tiled Wall Café’ is itself a delight; a spot where the original neo-classical architecture is allowed freedom. Leeds is of course well served by motorways but I went by train where the station, with trains from all over the country is virtually in the city centre.