William Muller : ‘Italian Boy with a Hurdy-Gurdy’

Muller, William James; An Italian Boy with a Hurdy-Gurdy; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/an-italian-boy-with-a-hurdy-gurdy-61931

Muller, William James (1812-1845); ‘An Italian Boy with a Hurdy-Gurdy’ (1837); Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum. 

Currently tucked away in the Reserve Collections at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson) is this large painting by an early nineteenth century Bristol artist, William James Muller. Another work in the Cheltenham collection is completely different – an ‘Eastern Scene’.  Muller made many trips to Egypt and surrounding areas and his work was popular in London and by patrons nationally.  Other painters, notably David Roberts, were making similar trips – usually at the behest of some wealthy patron. Lord Northwick at Cheltenham and Blockley was one such patron.

Muller seemed always to retain a strong Bristol link, mainly living in the City. He was involved in the annual Art Exhibitions staged at the Bristol Institution and clearly had a strong base in the city and its art patrons.  The ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ player seems rather odd – but it is probably a work done for a patron from sketches he had made when, in his younger days, he had travelled and painted in Italy.  The local  patrons were in the main the new breed of merchant and traders – manufacturers and dealers – building upon the historic importance of Bristol as the second city, alongside Norwich, outside London. It is interesting to note that a work with this title was in the ownership of the Acraman family- active art collectors and patrons in Bristol.                                                                                      The Acramans had built up a large and innovative iron and steel making business, based upon the docks and port of the city, making such things as massive anchor-chains and metal plating and machinery for Brunel’s steam ships and Great Western Railway – including iron bridges and station seating. Unfortunately the Acraman businesses suffered disastrously from the vagaries of the market, financial, and new and experimental engineering – complicated by the fact that several major local banks went bankrupt upon which the Acramans had relied for a steady cash flow on innovative projects. The result was that the Acraman empire went bankrupt – necessitating the sale of their personal large and important art collection by Christies in 1842, in the city. Amongst the lots for sale was a painting with this title, the buyer not yet identified. The Cheltenham work emerged into the open when it was given to the gallery in 1959.  It is not certain that this is the same painting as in the Acraman collection – but the only other one I have come across is a rather sketchy work and not up to the standard of the Cheltenham work, Acraman was a discerning collector who required the best from the artists he patronised.

The ‘Hurdy Gurdy Player’ was typical of the collecting taste of many early nineteenth century patrons – who had made their wealth in new technologies and products and fully supported British art and modern British artists. As they expanded they moved out of cramped inner-city houses, in Bristol also being their warehouses, to new developments in the purer air and more spacious surroundings outside, but close by, the city – examples being the  Clifton area of Bristol and the Lansdown area of Cheltenham.  New houses needed to be newly furnished – in the contemporary taste and fashion – and paintings were an essential part of the furnishings to be seen and discussed at personal social gatherings.  The ‘Hurdy-Gurdy Player  doubtless was a regular talking point.

David Addison. October 2018.

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Gerald Gardiner : ‘The Artist’s Wife Reading’

Gardiner, Gerald; The Artist's Wife, Evelyn, Seated, Reading; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-artists-wife-evelyn-seated-reading-61796

           Gardiner, Gerald; The Artist’s Wife Reading; Cheltenham Art Gallery.  c1935.

At present on temporary public display in the ‘Friends Gallery’ of Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson) is this painting by a student of the painter of the previous blog, William Rothenstein, at the Royal College of Art in the 1920’s. The work was painted around 1935 when Gerald Gardiner and his wife were living at Bisley – a village close by to Oakridge and Far Oakridge where Rothenstein lived. On leaving the Royal College of Art in 1927 he taught at Cheltenham School of Art until he died in 1959.  At Cheltenham he lectured not only in painting but was also concerned with print-making which was a particular strength of the Art School, prominent in the rise of the important early twentieth century print revival and the new techniques introduced after WW2.

Gerald Gardiner  and his wife lived in an old stone cottage on one of the steep winding, hilly, roads of Bisley. Some years after the Gardiners time I and my family also lived in Bisley – not far from the Gardiners’ house.  The artist has captured the spirit of life in such surroundings – the difference between the Gardiners and ourselves was that when the Gardiners lived in the village it appears that there was no mains electricity and therefor oil-lamps were in use.

Like Rothenstein’s ‘Mother and Child’ this painting calmly and simply catches the calm mood of domesticity and comfort – although the screens around the door suggests cold drafts, something with which we too were familiar in the windy village some decades later!

Like my comments on Rothenstein’s painting, this work requires the viewer to set aside pre-conceptions and let it speak in its own, non-verbal, language.

David Addison. October 2018.


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William Rothenstein : ‘Mother and Child by Candlelight’


Rothenstein, William; Mother and Child, Candlelight; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mother-and-child-candlelight-62003

William Rothenstein : ‘Mother and Child by Candlelight’

Tucked away in a corner of the upper galleries at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (The Wilson) is a large but very calm and simple painting by the Gloucestershire (South Cotswolds) based painter Sir William Rothenstein.  Although purist art-historians might protest that he is a Bradford or London painter I would suggest that whilst he was born and brought up in Bradford and went on to the Slade School of Fine Art in London before becoming a significant London based teacher he was nevertheless at home (literally) in the village of Far Oakridge, above Stroud, in Gloucestershire. It was in this hill country that he quickly engaged with the craftsmen and artists of the Arts & Crafts movement based in the area. In the very important Arts & Crafts Gallery at Cheltenham are two other paintings which are directly connected with the Far Oakridge area – firstly, a work depicting a number of the Craftsmen and, secondly, a painting titled ‘The Storm’,  of his own house, Iles Farm,  at Far Oakridge which he had renovated in the early 1920’s with the help of craftsmen of  the Arts & Crafts group.

The painting which is the subject of this blog seems to exude the peace and calm of his family growing up in the Cotswolds –  including his sons John and Michael, who both became themselves eminent in the Arts, John as Director of the Tate Gallery and Michael as a pioneering print-maker. The painting has, in my hearing, often been dismissed as lightweight or sentimental – and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. I would profoundly disagree on two main scores. Firstly, this work is about humanity – about concern and love – of home comforts and domesticity – of family love and life. It reflects the painter’s own circumstances – the peace and tranquillity of the South Cotswold countryside and his and his family’s haven from the angst of life in London. Secondly, the work reflects Rothenstein’s understanding and appreciation of contemporary art – a light kindled as a student at the progressive Slade School of Art and in Paris. The grandiose statements, overwhelming detail, and cold ‘fussiness’ of the fashionable and ‘official’ art of the nineteenth century in both Britain and Europe was being severely questioned, by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists amongst others. The Slade School was a conduit, a weapon, for British artists leading to a stripping of all unnecessary detail and ornamentation – concentrating on the fundamental essence of the subject. The strong influence of people like Monet and Gauguin  can be seen in the progressive British art groups in Britain, from the New English Art Group in London, to the Glasgow School, to prominent regional groups such as the Cheltenham Art Group (founded in 1920).

William Rothenstein was in the thick of this exciting new approach – as a painter, as a teacher, and as a pioneering re-organiser of the old Government School of Design into the Royal College of Art which soon became a rival to the Slade as the cradle of modern British art. In Britain two main strands emerged based on this radical new approach to art – firstly, the rise of pure non-figurative abstraction and, secondly, the rise of a purist, minimalist, approach to painting rooted in the person and place, the place being Britain, and, in relation to Rothenstein, the South Cotswolds.

‘Mother and Child by Candlelight’ is a good example of this modern British approach – pairing away interfering detail and focussing upon the fundamental subject matter. It is a work to be contemplated at leisure – its atmosphere and ethos gradually absorbed.

David Addison. October 20th 2018.

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Discovering Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum : No.3

A Personal ‘Window into the Wilson’

One of the current exhibitions, ‘Window into the Wilson’, at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson) seeks to involve the general public in understanding the work involved in running an Art Gallery and Museum. The photograph below gives an idea of what visitors are faced with as they enter the gallery – a room within a room, but with glass walls – an ‘Open Store’. Like the proverbial ice-berg there is a great deal of essential hidden work which continuously goes on behind the scenes looking after the very extensive and important collections which belong to the people of Cheltenham.


Throughout the next six months or so this ‘exhibition’ is on view – useful information sheets explain the idea behind the design of the exhibition and a list and information on some of the items seen on the shelves. On Wednesdays and Fridays, from 11am to 3pm, relevant curatorial staff will be working in the ‘bubble’ and visitors are encouraged to wander in, explore, and have a chat with the specialists.  The exhibition has been open for over a week so it is early days – for it could appear ‘different’ and challenging – and possibly initially incomprehensible!                                                                                            I have, as a Fine Art Curatorial Volunteer, manned several sessions with a colleague and have found the experience mixed but interesting – in fact the work I was doing frequently was interrupted by curious and enquiring, and often hesitant, visitors. What has already been revealed is that, given the opportunity, visitors have very useful and interesting comments to make about a variety of things – including practical things which are very useful as the Art gallery and Museum is constantly seeking to develop and improve its ‘visitor experience’.                                                                                                           One experience in the last few days stands out – a couple who were visiting Cheltenham for the first time had climbed the massive new staircase and having seen the paintings and sculpture in the first gallery to the right  they had ascended further and wandered into the next gallery on the right (Window into the Wilson). After looking around and chatting to us they commented that there did not seem to be many paintings or museum objects which they had expected. I realised that some serious PR work was needed here! I started by showing them a design for a brass candle-sconce and told them that they could see the finished work in the Arts and Crafts Gallery – and emphasizing that Cheltenham held the major national collection of Arts and Crafts items, including not only furniture and metal work but other related objects AND an important and extensive archive of drawings and designs. So I led them in to the Arts and Crafts Gallery and showed them the candle-sconce and then took them on a quick guided tour of the extensive museum galleries, which include important paintings. Sadly the sign-posting for the museum galleries is sadly lacking and nothing downstairs in the entrance space is apparent for any but a regular visitor.  As a postscript to this tale – I saw my ‘boss’, the senior Curator, and told her about this experience. She was pleased – and then asked if I had got them to make a comment in the Visitors Book! I had not! So I quickly returned to the galleries and found that they were still exploring the hidden treasures and, telling them I had been told off by my ‘boss’ (a bit of an exaggeration!!!)  I asked them if they could possibly pop a comment in the book – they assured me they would make some favorable comment (I have not dared to look!).

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