Just a three-minute walk from York Minster, sits York Art Gallery. It first opened its doors in 1892 and houses a collection of works spanning 600 years, including 14th century Italian Altarpieces, 17th century Dutch morality works and 20th century British watercolours. In 2013 the gallery closed its doors for an £8 million refit. Now it’s opening again. And it’s looking good.
The work has taken almost two years to complete and among the renovations are the improvements of those peripherals we expect from a modern art gallery – the café, shop and a learning room. Behind the scenes, there’s improved storage for the collection. But it’s the gallery space which is the really exciting change. Exhibition space has increased by 60 percent, including a new suite of three galleries on the ground floor named after brother and sister Peter and Karen Madsen, who left their £2.2 million estate to the gallery.
The Centre of Ceramic Art has also been created, occupying two new spaces; the first is a mezzanine in a void in the original Victorian roof; the second is a space above the Madsen galleries. Items from the British Studio Ceramic collection (the largest ceramic collection in the world) will be on display in the mezzanine, including work by Henry Rothschild. In the second space there will be a 17-metre Wall of Pots, comprising ceramics from the gallery’s collection, some of which is pre-historic, all displayed by colour in a rainbow effect.
Other highlights for the reopening include works by Bernardo Daddi, Bernardino Fungai and Parmigianino; a stunning exhibition of some of the gallery’s best paintings, prints and drawings of the historic city of York spanning three centuries; and a collection of Italian Old Masters from the 14th to the 18th century. But what really caught our eye was something made possible thanks to the new space: an exhibition of the gallery’s lost and forgotten treasures.
During the renovation, York artist Mark Hearld took up the post of artist in residence at the gallery and delved into the gallery’s archives and collections to uncover long-lost, or at least well-hidden, items. Those items will now be on display in an exhibition named The Lumber Room – the name given to a room used in Victorian times to store pieces of furniture or objets d’art which were no longer in use.
Mark, a well-known painter and printmaker, studied illustration at Glasgow School of Art before completing an MA in Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art. Inspired by the ever-changing yet constant landscape and the beguiling characters of foxes, hares, birds and other wildlife, Mark works across a number of different mediums to create lithographic and linocut prints, paintings, collages and hand-painted ceramics.
To be able to raid the archives of the gallery was a dream come true for Mark’s curious nature. The resulting exhibition in the North Gallery Upper takes its inspiration from Saki’s short story, The Lumber Room, which was read to Hearld by his English teacher when he was a teenager. It is about a young boy whose youthful curiosity has been captured by the permanently locked and ever-so intriguing lumber room in his aunt’s house. Clearly such temptation must be given into when the key to said room is discovered, and when he enters he finds unimagined treasures, rich tapestries, ‘quaint twisted candlesticks in the shape of snakes’, books full of colourful pictures of birds and a ‘teapot fashioned like a china duck’, amongst other delights.
The Lumber Room exhibition brings together equally enchanting items. There is fine and decorative art, objects from the military and nature, and exhibits reflecting social history. It will be the first time in the gallery’s history that Victorian dolls houses will sit alongside taxidermy, English Delft-ware and military jackets. The thread of continuity throughout the exhibition is Mark’s instantly recognisable artistic vision. Inspired by British 20th century art and modernism, Mark is most interested in art that wasn’t designed to go in a gilt frame.
‘If there was one artist who I turn to again and again,’ he explains, ‘It would be Picasso, just for his sheer inventiveness. Picasso once said, “Good taste is the enemy of creativity,” and I think about that quite a lot and try and be bold and daring in what I do.’
Many items in the collection have never been exhibited before. ‘There’s a painting called Falcon by an unknown artist, dating from 1667, which is a fragment of a much larger painting. It has the falcon sitting on a glove with the falcon’s hood and bells on its feet. It’s an absolutely exquisite fragment that’s been restored and is going on display for the first time’. Other exhibits include a giant padlock previously used as a sign on a locksmith’s shop in the 1920s, and black Victorian capes.
In response to the objects he found, Mark has been making his own work to exhibit in August. Among his discoveries are two Leeds pearl-ware horses standing at about 40cm high and dating back to 1800; they would have stood in the windows of saddlers’ shops or been given as a fancy gift. To partner that Mark has used a 19th century wooden pull-along horse which he found in a flea market in Berlin to create a mould so that the horse can be reproduced by a pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. Each reproduction will then be uniquely decorated.
He has also created a collage in response to taxidermy fish, another in response to work by Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter, and the most extraordinary item comes from his own home in York. ‘In our house we have a vaulted Roman burial chamber’ – as you do – ‘with an open sarcophagus and the remains of a Roman lady. In the exhibition I’ve got drawings from the 1820s of our skeleton and a theophile, which is a small glass bottle for mourners’ tears that was found in the skeleton’s sarcophagus when my house was built in 1807 – it’s now in the York Museum’s Trust Collection.’ It’s bizarre, and we love it.
After the exhibition in August, Mark has a show in Cornwall of his collages followed by some curation work at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex. He will then take part in a show at the Fry Gallery in Essex. Meanwhile the York Art Gallery is throwing open its doors to reveal its rather extensive makeover and new exhibitions on August 1st. It’s going to be a very exciting reveal after being hidden for so long.
York Art Gallery