Southampton City Art Gallery at 80
PUBLISHED: 15:26 10 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:26 10 January 2020
To mark its 80th anniversary Southampton City Art Gallery is the guest of the prestigious London Art Fair. Curator Clare Mitchell gives us a guided tour
How do you sum up 80 years of history in just 25 images? That's the challenge facing Clare Mitchell, curator of art at Southampton City Art Gallery as the well-loved institution joins forces with London Art Fair to mark its 80th anniversary. "The idea is to try to showcase the gallery in a nutshell," says Clare as she takes Hampshire Life on a guided tour of the purpose-built gallery. "We have got some fantastic works within the collection. We are well-known for British 20th century art, but I wanted to show that we are still acquiring works. It is quite unusual for a regional gallery to collect and acquire at the same time."
The reason for this dates back to the gallery's origins, which can be traced to a 1911 bequest from pharmacist, justice of the peace and city councillor Robert Chipperfield. "Chipperfield was born in London, but moved to Southampton to start his business," says Clare. "When he died in 1911 he left a bequest for the building of an art gallery and an art school to secure the future of art in his home town. He also left a collection of paintings he had acquired in his lifetime and a trust fund to add to the collection." An important guiding force for the gallery was that the curator had to take direction from the National Gallery as to which works should be added to the bequest. These National Gallery advisors included celebrated art historian Kenneth Clark for a decade. Naturally it made for a strong collection. Over time more bequests and donations came flooding in. Major donations included Eric Milner-White's donation of British studio pottery in 1939, 99 paintings from Arthur Tilden Jeffress in 1961, 250 works of art from Dr David and Liza Brown in 2002, the 2011 Phillip Schlee collection of more than 100 prints, drawings and paintings by British artists and another purchasing bequest from councillor Frederick William Smith in 1925. "Smith said he hoped others would be inspired by his and Chipperfield's wish to give to the city," says Clare. "Southampton has been lucky with the gifts and bequests that have come in. We cream off the interest and invest it into the collection - making a small amount of money go a long way."
The gallery was officially opened on Wednesday 26 April 1939 by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. It was the final part of the city's Civic Centre, conceived by former Southampton mayor Sidney Kimber back in 1914 and designed by architect E Berry Webber. As well as the gallery, the Art Block on Commercial Road is also home to the city library which is still on the ground floor. An art school was built, but was destroyed in the infamous Southampton blitz of November 1940. In the daylight raid on the building 35 people died, including more than a dozen children who were having an art lesson in the basement.
The direction of the collection changed in the mid-1970s after the purchase of a Claude Monet painting, which was to be the last under the auspices of the National Gallery. "It broke the bank," says Clare. "We realised if we were going to carry on fulfilling Chipperfield and Smith's wishes we had to change our direction, as purchasing such high calibre works of art was becoming unviable."
The focus moved to modern and contemporary art, under the guidance of the Tate. "David Brown had his finger on the pulse," says Clare, of the Tate advisor who died in 2002. "We have been able to get a lot of artists before they were household names. Part of our acquisition policy is to try to buy works that are no older than two years from production."
One good example is the work in the collection from future Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, who held an early solo exhibition in Southampton. There is also a very important strand of British Surrealism and the Camden Town Group, both of which will be featured in the London Art Fair exhibition. The gallery is still looking to fill in gaps in its 20th century collection, in areas such as Pop Art.
Clare first joined the gallery after completing her studies at the Southampton Institute and Winchester School of Art. "I used to walk around the gallery when I was a student thinking I would love to work here," she recalls. Among her earliest jobs as a documentation assistant, and later a registrar, was working on David Brown's bequest. "He had a Barry Flanagan sculpture on his sideboard which he used to use as an ash tray," she recalls. After moves to the Palace of Westminster as a registrar and assistant curator, and then collections manager at Hampshire Cultural Trust, she came back to Southampton City Art Gallery in February 2018. Her acquisition work is supported by the Tate and advisory boards representing the Chipperfield and Smith funds. "It is amazing to have that support network of experts," says Clare. Recent acquisitions under her watch have included two works by British artist Christopher Bucklow, donated to the gallery by a US collector who had fond memories of passing through Southampton on the way to starting a new life in the States.
The stories of some of these collections are set to be displayed in the gallery over the coming year as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations. When Hampshire Life visited there was a room dedicated to some of the works and ephemera connected to the opening of the building, as well as a display of the latest pieces to join the 5,300-strong collection, of which only ten to 12 per cent can only be shown at one time. These range from paintings and sculptures to works in new media, such as boredomresearch's Robots in Disguise, a computer-generated video piece which is never the same twice.
Certain elements remain on permanent display, such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones stunning gouache cartoons on the story of Perseus, which were painted for British statesman Arthur Balfour. Another important strand is of artists born in the city or further afield in Hampshire. The gallery regularly lends works across the world. One recent loan was a selection of works by the Pether family, which has been lent to Southampton's newest gallery space God's House Tower.
Touring exhibitions regularly visit, with an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings last year attracting 37,000 visitors over the course of three months. The gallery is currently hosting a breathtaking Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, linking to their Perseus collection, which showcases the art movement's influence on illustrators of Tolkein and the designers of Game of Thrones. Exhibitions and acquisitions for the future include Alice Kettle's modern piece Odyssey, which links in with the Perseus cartoons in the Baring room, a retrospective exhibition of work by John Hitchens, son of Ivon whose work was celebrated in Chichester's Pallant House Gallery last year, and highlights from the gallery's long list of bequests. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that entry to all the exhibitions is free - which was part of the original bequest for the gallery.
Clare hopes the upcoming London Art Fair display will take the gallery's name even further afield. "They have a footfall of 33,000 people, which is not something we can achieve in a week," she says. "Hopefully visitors will be inspired to see the rest of our collection and want to come to Southampton."