Absolutely not boring

2008-02-01 00:00

The Lorna Ferguson Room upstairs in the Tatham Art Gallery has a new look. Instead of the contemporary art from last year's Jabulisa exhibition that has been there recently, the walls are now filled with part of the gallery's core collection of 19th and early 20th century English and French paintings, many in the ornate, gilded frames of the period. And seldom has the space been so full - the initial impression is almost overwhelming.

“One reason is practical,” says Brendan Bell, the gallery director who was personally responsible for the rehang. “We wanted to get as much out of store as possible.” This is because storage at the gallery is being reorganised, and the more that is on the walls, the less there will be to sort out downstairs. The Jabulisa works have gone to Durban to be shown in the Durban Art Gallery, so this was a good moment for a complete change.

Some of the paintings have not been seen for a long time. Bell points to a landscape, Autumn Evening in Battersea by David Muirhead. “That hasn't been on the walls in my time, or in Lorna Ferguson's.” Ferguson was his predecessor as director.

It is at least five years since much of the European collection has been exhibited - everything now in the Lorna Ferguson room has come out of storage. “I wanted to give them an outing - and some of these works have probably never been on display since the gallery acquired them,” says Bell.

“Everyone, no matter what colour, age or class they are, responds to works where they can recognise what's happening in the painting. They are fascinated by seeing other countries, other landscapes,” he says.

When he was busy with the rehang, one of the gallery security guards who was helping was particularly interested in the large John Tennant painting, Scene on the Banks of the Thames, which now hangs over the grand piano.

“He identified the various cattle in the painting - Frieslands, Jerseys, Herefords - and wanted to know why both dairy and meat breeds were there together. I thought that insight was fascinating - it shows that he was really looking. I knew then I was doing the right thing.”

It is an important point. Bell is aware that he is setting himself up for criticism - some will see the rehang as backtracking to a Eurocentric past. “But the counter-argument is it is part of the collection, part of our history. I'm not one to deny that.” He sees it as an opportunity to re-evaluate the gallery's rich collection. “And the more I see it, the more I think it is so incredible,” he says. And, of course, many more works from South Africa and abroad are still hanging in other parts of the gallery.

There are famous names represented on the walls - Augustus John; Mark Gertler who featured prominently as a character in the film Carrington; Walter Sickert who a few years ago was improbably fingered as a Jack the Ripper suspect; Sir William Orpen. Others are by unknowns, some donated to the gallery by residents of the city and reflecting the tastes and preoccupations of people at the time.

Bell has arranged the paintings according to themes - portraits; landscapes; paintings showing bridges, water and rivers; flower paintings; still lifes, including some with the now deeply unfashionable dead game birds and animals. I ask why they feature so often in paintings of this period. “Well, they are easier to paint than the live ones,” says Bell. And they are also part of the history.

The paintings will remain up for at least two years, until the time comes for a change once again when perhaps the major South African contemporary works will be due to be showcased.

Another reason to give prominence to this part of the Tatham's collection is that at the time of the gallery's centenary in 2003, Bell was hoping to bring out a publication on the collection and acquisitions over the years. This was delayed, but he is now determined to bring it out this year, and so it is important that as many works as possible can be seen.

“I want a kind of ‘sophisticated scrapbook', reflecting 100 years of collecting,” he says. It means going back to newspaper cuttings reflecting both important and popular works in the gallery - and the fights that directors have had over the years with the city council. One of the most memorable, says Bell, was when Valerie Leigh was director, and she wanted to bring work by Bertha Everard into the collection - to the horror of the then councillors. “I'm dying to put in some of those quotes,” says Bell. “I want it to be fun, instructive, very beautiful - absolutely not boring.”

Absolutely not boring is a good description of the new look Lorna Ferguson Room.

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