Making Pills at Cheltenham Art Gallery.

(c) Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘Making Pills for the Saxons’ (1868) by Erskine Nicol (1825-1904)

I must admit to some confusion, on my part, over this painting – a situation that has been with me for years.  It started with my discovering this work in the Picture Store at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum soon after I took up post in 1973.  I now realise that titles given to paintings can be misleading – none more so than with this painting. Is this really a painting of an ancient Saxon workman? Did Saxons have pills? What is the point in painting someone making pills? I relegated it in my mind to the shelf ‘of no interest.’.  Having now returned to Cheltenham, after many years, I have become, hopefully, a little wiser and with time to re-evaluate my original assessment.

On looking at the painting again, with a more tolerant and observant eye, I found details which I had overlooked previously. It was the sight of a shot-gun and a pistol lying on the table which caught my attention. Whilst they are ‘historic’ items they do not seem ‘ancient’ – in fact they seemed to be probably of the period in which the artist lived and produced this work. Continuing my exploration of the work I noticed there appeared to be ball-bearings, or something similar, on the table. There is also a small bottle of some yellowish liquid and some smallish pieces of paper or card. Armed with this information I then tackled the enigma of the title ‘Making Pills for the Saxons’ – but how?                                                                                                                                                                                              Perhaps I should start with that word ‘Saxons’ – does it really refer to a person from Saxony or an historic Saxon invader?  No obvious way forward on this line of attack. As a long shot I decided to concentrate on the firearms – the shot-gun and the pistol. I know very little about firearms but the pistol did seem to be of early nineteenth century vintage. As to shot-guns, I only knew about them from living in rural Oxfordshire where ‘shoots’ were a regular part of everyday life, but I had never handled one. The one in the painting did seem rather ‘modern’, perhaps a clue might be here. I realised that the small things like ball-bearings, plus the other items, could be the ingredients for ‘shot’ – I was aware of both shot and cartridge cases.  It was clearly time to learn more about firearms of the nineteenth century.                                                                                                                                        After trawling through endless, and often boring, treatises on firearms and dealers lists I came across a reference which gave me a clue. In the early part of the nineteenth century several attempts were made, in Europe and in Britain, to improve the performance of the traditional flintlock firearm. As shooting ‘game’ became ever more fashionable the disadvantages of firing with a flintlock was energetically voiced – particularly the fact that it’s noise, plus flash and smoke, as it fired alerted the game, bird or beast, who immediately fled from the scene. Experiments began to be made into possible ways of improving percussion – and one successful alternative used a pin-fired mechanism which activated a chemical concoction which ‘fired’ a pellet or pellets.  One enterprising manufacturer decided to go ahead with this new firearm – and the name of the firm was ‘Saxon’! Here at last appeared to be the answer to my questions about the subject matter of this painting – here was a game-keeper making up the cartridges  containing the explosive and the bullets ready to be used by people using the modern shot-gun similar to that lying on the table.   Or have I got it terribly wrong?  Like Millais and ‘Bubbles’ advertising Pear’s Soap this might be an advertisement for the guns made by the firm ‘Saxon’.



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Cheltenham Art Gallery Works on Paper: No.1


J.M.W.Turner : watercolour and ink : ‘Cook’s Folly, Clifton.’ c1791.


Art gallery collections, particularly those in the provinces, are usually described and classified in terms of their oil and tempera paintings. There is nothing essentially wrong in that fact because a visitor entering an art gallery will be surrounded by such works, with many more, listed in catalogues, stored away.  What is less well-known, and often unknown and unlisted, are the huge numbers of what are known as ‘Works on Paper’ held by our art galleries. In this occasional series I shall be exploring this sort of work with particular reference to the collection held at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (The Wilson).

First of all – what is meant by ‘Works on Paper’?  Quite simply it is what the label says – art works on paper. The term covers a wide field in which the only common factor is that their ‘support’ is paper – also including such supports as vellum or card. Put simply, in terms of production, there are four major categories of work – drawings, watercolours, ‘paintings’ (by which is meant the use of opaque paint such as tempera, gouache, and sometimes oil), and prints.  This latter also has several sub-divisions recording the various forms of print-making – predominantly they are etchings, engravings, block-prints (eg. wood-cut, wood-engraving, lino-print), lithographs, and screen-prints.


R (Reggie) Stanley Dent, 1909-1991: The Hospital Bed : etching

Classifying and recording the subject matter of these works on paper can be very complicated. An oil painting can be fairly simply recorded as, for instance, ‘oil on canvas’ (o/c) with a record of the size of the canvas or panel. With works on paper this is not so easy. The size of the ‘support’, the piece of paper, needs to be recorded; then as to whether this is a ‘study’, a ‘design’, or a finished work. If it is a print the size of the impression (the ‘plate size’) also needs to be recorded. Sketchbooks are a particular problem as each page has to be recorded within the one overall record of the item.

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Freda Derrick : ‘Interior of a Blacksmith’s Shop’ : drawing

Storage of works on paper is a difficult problem. Inevitably the works come in a wide variety of sizes and require appropriate sized storage boxes and the fragility of such items requires careful handling and storing. Both the public exhibition and the storage of such works requires the careful control and monitoring of climatic conditions (dampness, dryness) and protection from damage by exposure to daylight and some artificial lighting. All of which makes the task of providing works for public display a difficult and time consuming process – and thus explains why, in art galleries to-day, there are so few opportunities for the general public to see the richness and importance of these collections.

Terry Frost

Terry Frost, 1915-2003: ‘Red and Black’ : screenprint

I believe, very firmly, that works on paper are highly important and informative – not an inferior species. From the social history point of view such works provide invaluable information about life – people, places and things, including working practices of the past. From an art historian’s and Curator’s perspective they can provide invaluable clues as to the background to finished masterpieces or abandoned projects.

My own introduction to the importance and marvels of works on paper was through my art master at school who introduced me to some volumes of reproductions of drawings and sketches by Claude Lorrain.  In practical terms I learnt the craft of drawing as an art student and art history student – first at Ipswich Art School and then at the Fine Art Department of Kings College, Durham University (now the University of Newcastle). I became acutely aware of both the difficulties and the magic of sketching, drawing, and print-making.  As a young art gallery curator I soon became aware of the rich collection held by Bradford City Art Gallery (Cartwright Hall) and the treasures of Print Rooms (not confined to prints ) at other art galleries such as Leeds and Birmingham and, particularly, that at the British Museum. Subsequently I moved to Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum – to which I have now returned, on a Volunteer basis – and whose collection of works on paper I will discuss in this occasional series of blogs using, in the main, illustrations of works in the Cheltenham collection.

David Addison.

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Discovering Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum : No.2.

An Intriguing Spectacle.


As I was exploring, and thoroughly enjoying, the Paper Store at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (The Wilson) I came across an intriguing item which resonated with a problem I have with my eye-sight. It is nothing too serious but very irritating at times – basically it is that I find it difficult at times to cope with ‘glare’ when outside and particularly on sunny days.  My spectacles are of the usual sort which cannot cope with glare from the top and the side.  I have thought about letting my eyebrows grow in attempt to cut out the glare from above – I can see now why Denis Healey, the former Labour politician, had such a luxurious growth of eyebrow hair. I get some relief from a wide-brimmed sun-hat (bought at Lords on one of my few visits to a cricket match) but attempting to sit back with such a hat proves impossible. My latest resort is something I find horrific and vowed never to wear – a baseball cap!!!                                                                                                        The problem of glare from the side, which I had begun to think was insurmountable, was, in a visit to the Paper Store, solved by something that Cheltenham had solved in the nineteenth century!  In one of the cases, displayed amongst various intriguing items relating to historic Cheltenham pharmacists and opticians, was the answer! It was a pair of spectacles with blue tinted lenses (similar to the one in the illustration above) which had, affixed, side pieces of a similar hue. EUREKA!!  Here was history revealing that, in spite of our advanced research and technology, our forebears often had the answer to modern problems.  But where, in our sophisticated technological age, can we obtain such spectacles?

But that still leaves the problem of glare from above. I am reluctant to grow Denis Healey eyebrows – and my wife is dead against it.  So I am condemned to wearing a frightful baseball cap.  The Paper Store did not provide a solution – at least this time. Perhaps the relevant curatorial staff could look into the problem which I am sure was solved by our Victorian forebears.

David Addison.


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Discovering Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum : No.1.

Return, and discovery of the PAPER STORE.
Apologies to my readers for my lengthy absence.  No – I have not died or otherwise expired!
The past year and a half have been somewhat fraught as I started the long process of leaving my parish duties and my regular teaching at the Ashmolean Museum. For a year Mary and I moved to London to take on full-time Nanny/Grandparents duties. That period has now ended and we have moved to Cheltenham – somewhere I know quite well having been Director of the Art Gallery and Museum for several years and occasionally returning to do some cataloging and curating of small exhibitions. I can now concentrate again on my art history research and teaching, re- connecting with the Art Gallery and Museum.
For me our London year enabled me to work on my ‘Addison Archive’ now housed at the National Gallery. As I have mentioned from time to time in previous blogs that research is concerned with nineteenth century picture collecting in Bristol and Gloucestershire and cataloging and exploring the Northwick collection. Whilst continuing that research, and hopefully writing up my findings, I can now return to my curatorial/educational roots here at the Art Gallery and Museum (now renamed ‘The Wilson’). My blogs will largely be concerned with introducing the important collections of Works on Paper held by Cheltenham – straying from time to time into other aspects of the collections as well as the occasional foray into Cheltenham’s Lord Northwick and provincial picture collecting.

Picture Store

My first new forays into the Art Gallery and Museum led me to an exciting discovery – the apparently oddly named ‘Paper Store’. I must confess when I saw the name I thought it was probably a commercial venture selling upmarket wrapping paper and the like – but curiosity led me through the labyrinth to discover something remarkable and exciting. Being of ancient vintage it reminded me of ‘Print Rooms’ in galleries and museums in places like Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford, and the British Museum. Here I found the pleasure of those places brought excitingly up to date here at Cheltenham. Dedicated to bringing out on display, on a regular and changing basis, exhibitions in superbe modern display cases complemented by cross-discipline artefacts and supported by drawers of related material. I was able to explore the role of the theatre in Cheltenham, various aspects of Cheltenham’s social history, and exciting glimpses of some of the important and extensive collections of works on paper and ephemera. My heart leapt with excitement and enthusiasm. This is a gallery not to be missed and to be visited regularly – a jewel in the rich crown of Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum.

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