The importance of Provincial Art Galleries.

Britain is fortunate in having a huge number of public art galleries spread throughout the country – a richness and availability which is the envy of the world. Foreign visitors invariably make such places a first port of call which often puts us Britain’s to shame! There is more to these institutions than you might think – and ignorance can lead to neglect and thence to loss. An area of art gallery activity which is currently under threat is scholarship and research. Provincial public art galleries have been one place where research has been done on local collectors and collections. Regrettably such research activity is being squeezed out of to-day’s art gallery activities as money becomes tight and the emphasis is increasingly on headline catching temporary exhibitions. This down-grading of important scholarly work done by local art galleries is a real problem.

The role of major regional art galleries was seen, ideally, as researching and encouraging artists from their region as well as bringing to the region, by adding to the permanent collection works by national and internationally important work from all periods, and with loan exhibitions of work not otherwise available to the general public. They also saw it as their duty to collect examples of local artists and encouraging local contemporary art. In addition to record information about local collectors. The task was daunting and not always achievable because of inadequate premises and lack of staff. Unlike their cultural companions the Libraries our Art Galleries were not made statutory when the ‘Enabling Acts’ of the late nineteenth century were implemented – although regarded as strongly desirable as part of the wider education of the general public. Nevertheless through local philanthropy and support a network of provincial art galleries developed from the late nineteenth century – towns often regarded it as essential to have an active art gallery and museum service, a sort of cultural flagship for the town, part of the education of their citizens.

The twentieth century saw a development of these provincial art galleries and museums with finance and staffing strengthened. The post World War Two period saw a further strengthening of their activities – particularly with the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain and of Regional Arts Councils and Area Museums Services. Unfortunately as the century progressed they were increasingly seen as soft targets for ‘financial savings’ and suffered from a series of actions which severely undermined their work – including the disbanding of the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Regional Arts Councils, and the Area Museums Services. We now have a situation where we are losing scholarly curatorial staff and replacing them with a new breed of ‘Curator’ who are, in effect, often simply entertainments managers staging expensive ‘blockbuster’ temporary exhibitions. It is now sometimes difficult to actually see the permanent collection of a local art gallery or contact a specialist.

Hopefully the tide will turn before it is too late and valuable records lost.

In some cases the Art Gallery shared their site with a Museum – and all were regarded as educational institutions, emphasised by Bristol which is sited next to the magnificent Wills Building of the University. The common factor with all our public, civic, art galleries is that they are free to enter – they are OUR collections provided for education and enjoyment. All of them take their role very seriously however hard pressed they may be and seek to cater for all – adults and children, experts and amateurs. All sorts of activities take place, from introductory talks and tours for adults to all sorts of activities for children and students of all ages.

This blog is an attempt to flag up the valuable educational and cultural work of our provincial art galleries – something for which the country should be proud and recognize. All our cities and many of our towns have a public art gallery and they should be recognised as a beacon for society and our nation – I have chosen a few as symbolic of our rich, and endangered, heritage and future.

Bristol City Art Gallery



Cheltenham Art GalleryCheltenham_Art_Gallery_&_Museum



Birmingham City Art Gallery




Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.




Manchester City Art Gallery.




Bolton Art Gallery




Harris Art Gallery, Preston.




York City Art Gallery.




Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

The Ferens Art Gallery



Cartwright Hall, Bradford.



David Addison. May 19th, 2015.

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Provincial Picture Collecting

Provincial Picture collecting – a neglected subject.


It is with a great sense of excitement that I welcome recent attention being paid to Art Dealers archives with the acceptance of two major collections – the first by the National Gallery in London of the Agnews archive and the second by the deposit of the Colnaghi archives at Waddesdon Manor. The Getty Provenance Index, based at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, is also working on the archives of other dealers, although the on-line index only appears to deal with picture-sales up to 1840.  Up until now the main concern of art historical research concerned with problems of provenance has been concerned with the picture sales of the major auction houses such as Christies – and of a relatively few ‘major’ collectors. The important thing about both Agnews and Colnaghi is that they dealt with collectors large and small – and through their hands went paintings from many collections in this country and abroad. Importantly they are a link between art collecting activity in the provinces and in London – a nineteenth century provincial auction might very well be linked with a London auction – or a major London based collector might be alerted by Agnews or Colnaghi to a provincial sale.

Ch's Auction 1808Microcosm_of_London_Plate_006_-_Auction_Room,_Christie's_(colour)


Christie’s Auction 1808

Both Agnews and Colnaghi are particularly important in relation to understanding picture collecting from the early nineteenth century onwards. With the demise of those firms there is a real danger that vitally important information relating to the provenances of paintings – of works passing through their hands over the past two hundred years – will be lost. It is to the great credit of those firms and those who intervened that their records have been deposited with research institutions in this country whose holdings are available to researchers.


National Gallery, London

Windmill Farm, Waddesdon Manor,

Waddesdon Manor, Windmill Hill Research Centre 

A major concern of mine is the study of picture collecting in the provinces – my contention being that the nature, extent and culture of picture collecting in Britain can only be understood by exploring and recording the minor as well as major collectors and collecting activity – and the records of Agnews and Colnaghi are vital to that search. Beyond that it is important to research dealers and auction houses in the country as a whole, not just London. To this end important information is often only found in the columns of local newspapers and in provincial exhibitions.  For myself I have concentrated on Bristol and Gloucestershire in the early to mid-nineteenth century. I have come across isolated examples of similar research, and publication, done in the past – notably C.P.Darcy’s ‘The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Lancashire, 1760-1860’, published by the Chetham Society in 1976, and ‘The Rise of English Provincial Art’ by Trevor Fawcett published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1974. There are other publications which have been concerned with exploring the place of a rising middle class in major industrial provincial centres – often using as source material  provincial art societies and their exhibitions – which also go some way into the subject of provincial art collecting. But there is much to do throughout the country if we are to begin to understand the importance of picture collecting, by collectors large and small in Britain, in the cultural and social history of Britain.

David Addison. May 18th 2015.

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The last couple of months have been somewhat hectic with my Art Appreciation talks at the Ashmolean. I did a four afternoon session on Italian Renaissance paintings, followed immediately by four weeks on ‘The Great Outdoors’ – then a week later a Study Afternoon on the current Henry Moore & Francis Bacon exhibition (which I titled ‘Unlikely Twins’) and lastly a full afternoon ‘Tea-Lecture’ on the artist William Rothenstein.  So let’s unpack all that!

It is important to remember that, apart from the big lectures, my aim is to work in the Ashmolean galleries talking about, discussing, exploring, and arguing about, the works in the Ashmolean collection – hence ‘Art Appreciation’ rather than ‘Art History’.

Italian Renaissance Painting

In this series of ‘explorations’ we talked about how the works were produced, the role of the skilled artisan (the ‘artist’), the place and role of the Patron, the intended physical siting of the work, and the social and cultural context. In this latter respect it became clear that the context of early Italian painting was essentially ‘religious’ – and a particular work proved a rich point of exploration – that work is ‘The Birth of the Virgin Mary’ by an anonymous artist of the 14th century.

Birth of Mary

The Birth of the Virgin Mary : Master of the Ashmolean Predella : Italian 14th cent : Ashmolean

What emerged were a number of interesting points. Firstly, that this was tempera paint on panel, as opposed to oil paint on canvas of later Italian work. Secondly, that this was a panel from a large altar-piece – and that many art galleries throughout the world also have such parts of an altar-piece, cast aside when later centuries found them not to their liking. Thirdly, that what appeared to be a biblical story is in fact no such thing, but draws upon the popular, and Church approved, late medieval book ‘The Golden Legend’ where much of our ‘history’ of saints as well as biblical figures derives.  Our forays into later Italian Renaissance painting led to an appreciation of a changing society, where things of this world became more important, that patronage was no longer confined to the Church, and that the discovery of oil-paint enabled larger paintings to be produced on canvas which was much lighter than a wooden panel.

The Great Outdoors

This series of afternoons explored what was meant by, literally, outside the door – and therefore it was not a series that concentrated just on landscape.  The development of landscape painting was, of course, important – such figures as the Dutch 17th century Ruisdael family – or the Welsh late 18th century painter Thomas Jones, and on to the work of people like Turner and the French School of Corot to the Pissarro family. But courtyard, farmyard, and urban scenes were also analysed and discussed.


A Draw-Well with Cattle before Beverwijk Church : Salomon van Ruysdael : Dutch 17th cent : Ashmolean


A View of Dolo on the Brenta Canal : Canaletto : Italian 18th cent : Ashmolean


Queen’s Grove, St John’s Wood : Robert Bevan : British early 20th cent : Ashmolean

‘Unlikely Twins’

After a brief discussion of the British art scene after the second world war we spent our time in the Bacon/Moore exhibition – discussing and exploring influences, similarities and dissimilarities, and the way each tackled the human form.


Henry Moore : Three Piece Recloning Figure No 1 : 1961/2 : Yorkshire Sculpture Park


Henry Moore : Pink and Green Sleepers : 1941 : Tate Gallery

Seated Figure 1961 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Francis Bacon : Seated Figure : 1961 : Tate Gallery

DACS; (c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Francis Bacon : Lying Figure No 1 : 1959 : Leicester

William Rothenstein

This afternoon talk followed on from one earlier in the year I gave on the origins and influence of the Slade School of Fine Art. William Rothenstein, a product of the Slade in the late 19th century, went on to become a major and influential figure in the art world – from his contacts in France with such people as Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec , and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. We followed William Rothenstein’s career from being the son of a wealthy Jewish textile family in Bradford, through the Slade/Paris years, to being a founder member of the, then, progressive New English Art Club – along the way wooing his friends at Oxford with his wit, his enthusiasm, and his ability with portraiture, and on to being a War Artist and then the reforming Principal of the Royal College of Art. Discovering along the way his firm roots with his wife, Alice Knewstub, and his family, John and Michael, plus the haven of peace they found in their home in the South Cotswolds, Iles Farm at Far Oakridge.

Bridgeman; (c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Rothenstein : Self-Portrait : 1890 : Sheffield

Mother & Child, Candlelight 1909 Cheltenham

William Rothenstein : Mother & Child, Candlelight : 1909 : Cheltenham AG&M

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Which Penley artist?

The PENLEY artists.
Attributing the work of minor artists, particularly British nineteenth century, can lead to erroneous assumptions which are thereafter not challenged. Such is the case with the Penley family. Years ago, when I was full-time at Cheltenham Art Gallery, I became intrigued by watercolours attributed to Aaron Edwin Penley. At that time I had many other things on my mind and I did not give the subject much concentrated attention ? although I did add some further works to the existing collection of Penley works. Some years later I was called back to Cheltenham in a temporary capacity to catalogue the works on paper collection ? something which has claimed my attention over the subsequent years.
A lesson I have learnt is that nothing beats exploring in detail the actual, physical, work ? by which I mean examining every mark and inscription on back and front. When examining in close detail the Penley watercolour works I began to realise that revealing information was contained on the reverse of the work ? in particular that the name of the listed artist Aaron Edwin Penley was not that on the reverse of the work but a ?Edwin Aaron Penley?. In comparing the works of these two signatories I began to discern a possible difference between the works by Edwin Aaron and Aaron Edwin ? in terms of favoured size of paper and of technique. These differences were not obvious if one assumed that a work bearing the signature ?Penley? was the officially accepted Aaron Edwin. My first thoughts in those early days had been that Aaron Edwin sometimes used the alternative signature of ?Edwin Aaron? or ?E A? Penley. ? or that someone else had added the name. My later more concentrated attention in exhaustively cataloguing the collection revealed some information to which I had not previously paid much attention. It was recognising that one work bore a date after Aaron Edwin had died, listed as 1870, that I realised that we were dealing with more than one Penley.. In consulting the usual art reference books and articles, other sources like the Dictionary of National Biography and the catalogues of major collections, I found no reference to anybody other than an ?Aaron Edwin Penley : 1806-1870?. Being mainly otherwise engaged my pursuit of a solution to this problem did not go away but was put on the back burner. An unexpected breakthrough came when I came across a family history search and report by an Australian family whose roots had been in nineteenth century Britain and who counted amongst their forebears a Penley family. Family histories can be very complicated and raise a lot of unanswered questions ? this family tree was particularly complicated but had been well researched, giving a number of clues as to where I could find more information relevant to my pursuit of the Penley case. Unravelling the clues provided me with the following :-
PENLEY, Aaron Edwin. 1807-1870.
Born Rye, Sussex ? died Lewisham, London. Son of William Penley (d. 1838). Brother of William Henry Saulez/Sawley Penley (1793 ? 1866) a Drawing Master at Reading. Uncle of Edwin Aaron Penley (1828 ? 1893) Artist and Drawing Master. Father of Claude Penley (b1841) landscape painter. Specialised in landscape painting but also Portrait Painter and Water-Colour Painter to King William IV and Queen Adelaide. Drawing Master at Cheltenham College 1846 ? 1849.. Landscape Drawing Master at Royal Military Academy, Addiscombe and Woolwich. Member of New Water-Colour Society. Exhibited RA, BI, SS, NWS. Author of Author of ?A System of Water-Colour Painting? 1850, published by Winsor & Newton. ?The Elements of Perspective? 1851. ?The English School of Painting in Watercolours? 1861; ?Sketching from Nature in Water-Colours? 1869. Exhibited New Watercolour Society and RBA.
1 : An Unknown Seated Gentleman : 1844 : w/c : 29.6 x 24.6 : 1948.160.
2 : Huts at Dunevaggon : 1856 : drawing : 28.4 x 36.7 : 1978.975.
3 : Lake Landscape : 1862 : w/c : 16.6 x 26.6 : 1971.46.
4 : Lake Scene, Menaggio, Lake of Como : : w/c : 18.4 x 25.9 : 1972.116.2.
5 : Cadenabia, Lake of Como : : w/c : 17.8 x 25.7 : 1972.116.1.

PENLEY, Edwin Aaron. 1828 ? 1893.
Born Southsea, Hampshire, died Richmond, Surrey. Son of William Henry Saulez/Sawley Penley(1793 ? 1866), Drawing Master at Reading. Grandson of William Penley (d 1838). Nephew of Aaron Penley(1807 ? 1870). Landscape painter and Drawing Master. In 1851 lived and worked in Reading. In Tasmania in 1858. In 1861 living and working at 3 Wellington Street, Cheltenham, Glos. By 1891 living and working in Kingston, Surrey. In 1861 mentioned as being honoured for the invention of ?Improvements in the construction of Drawing Boards?. Exhibited RBA, RHA.
1 : Lakeland Scene : 1859 : w/c : 35.2 x 57.6 : 1972.56.1.
2 : Mountains and Lake with Castle and Cattle : 1859 : w/c : 35.1 x 57.7 : 1972.56.2.
3 : Patmos, Dodecanese : 1860 : w/c : 10.5 x 32.4 : 1973.22.
4 : Ruin with Cottage and Figure : 1861 : w/c : 10.7 x 32.8 : 1966.53.
5 : Mountain Scene : 1861 : w/c : 20 x 48.4 : 1948.6.
6 : View near Cheltenham : 1861 : w/c : 20.2 x 48.2 : 1957.13.
7 : Highland Landscape : 1862 : print, lithograph : 27.2 x 59.6 : 1936.59.
8 : Mountainous Lake Scene : 1873 : w/c : 10.4 x 28.3 : 1978.974.
9 : Mountains and Lake with Cottage and Figure : 1873 : w/c : 11.1 x 29.6 : 1978.973.
One thing is clear, the uncertainty of life as a Drawing Master!!
David Addison. November 2013..

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