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Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cotton to Gold – Two Temple Place

Science and technology has long gone hand-in-hand with arts and culture. Although now they’re seen as rivals for funding and prestige, in fact historically these two things have been inextricably linked. Fiction, for example, has presaged the future shape of technological development, whilst those making their fortune from scientific endeavours invested their new wealth in cultural pursuits. So our modern obsession with technological progress, which so marginalises the arts, is somewhat misguided and I’ve written before about the value of cultural expression when all that scientific endeavour rages at the freedom of the individual.

This new exhibition at Two Temple Place weighs in on this debate with a look at the collections of leading eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialists based in northern England. Gathering pieces from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley, this interesting exhibition demonstrates how closely related technological development and investment in the arts were at this time, and it’s also fascinating to see the impetus Britain’s role in the Empire and exploration gave to the types and variety of artefacts that were collected. What could seem like a showcase of the riches of wealth industrialists actually tells an interesting story about philanthropy and the donation of great swathes of cultural goods to local museums and town halls to benefit the community.

This eclectic exhibition is loosely held together by the incredible book collection of Robert Edward Hart which appears in most of the rooms, taking us from intricately decorated Books of Hours from across medieval Europe, to incredible first editions of Shakespeare, Byron, Spenser, Swift, and Milton. Clearly the progress of the written word was something that drove the international-nature of his collection which also included Assyrian tablets from the early days of the history of writing and a number of beautifully illustrated books from Persia. All of this is juxtaposed with a large loom and coil of incredibly thick rope to emphasis the work that paid for his hobby.

Prints were also among the most popular items to collect and again these are threaded through the exhibition to showcase the diversity of interests among industrialists. Some of cotton-magnate Thomas Boys Lewis’s extensive archive of Japanese prints of everyday life from around 1700-1900 are displayed in the first room including the famous Hokusai wave (recently depicted in Lego by Nathan Sawayer). Upstairs are some early Turner watercolours collected by brewer Edward Stocks Massey who bequeathed a large sum to Burnley as long as his pubs kept their licenses. Turner’s subjects include some regional sea and landscapes as well as pictures from the Holy Land.

My favourite prints are the John Everett Millais images from the1840s owned by Wilfred Dean, a wash boiler manufacturer. The pictures are delicate black and white sketches of a man from the same series and they really are stunning, particular male nude with head supported to the right where the muscles of the back are brilliantly drawn. There are also some quirky animal art-works by Edward Landseer and a wall of book illustrations owned by James Hardcastle, all of which again emphasise the broad range of influences on the nineteenth-century collector.

But it’s not just art on display and no exhibition on this era would be complete without a fair amount of taxidermy and some natural history displays. The Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and Darwin aside there are lots of examples of their interest in understanding and documenting other species, both in the UK and further afield – In Wives and Daughters (for example), the hero Roger is a science scholar who grows close to the heroine Molly through their mutual interest in the natural world and Roger’s African expedition. Back at Two Temple Place, George Booth’s collection of birds is shown as well as Arthur C. Bowdler’s glass cases full of beetles from around the world but it will be William T. Taylor’s preserved Peruvian mummy from the twelfth-century that will stick in your mind along with his llama-skin bound diary.

Another of my favourite collections is the Tiffany vases and mosaics owned by Joseph Briggs, at one point assistant and good friend of Louis Tiffany himself. Near the lower staircase are several mosaics of flowers and birds which have a lovely pearlescent quality while in a cabinet on the first floor are some beautiful pieces, including the large Peacock Vase from 1900-1910 showing how Tiffany experimented with pattern and design of his coloured glass. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this section as the Aquamarine Paperweight Vase has an extended base section that looks like a fishbowl.

At times wandering through all these amazing things it’s hard not to spare a thought for the working conditions of the people in various mills and factories whose labour paid for all these incredible gifts to the nation that they almost certainly never enjoyed, while their entrepreneurial bosses scoured the globe for exciting nick-nacks.  And perhaps you don’t get a sense of any conflict that the newly rich faced with the established aristocracy who would almost certainly resent any encroachment on their ancient rights and privileges.

Yet that doesn’t detract from neatly arranged exhibition that draws strong links between Britain’s changing place in the nineteenth-century world and the diversity of interests that provoked. For what else is a wealthy industrialist to do with his money but buy objects displaying his wealth and taste (always an important element for aspiring gentlemen in this era)? Above all it reiterates that indissoluble connection between arts and science, showing clearly how they continue to inspire and reflect one another, if only we continued to recognise and promote the unquestionable value of cultural expression in the modern world.

Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North-West is at Two Temple Place until 19 April and entry is free.


Discoveries – Two Temple Place

It’s not often that you step back and think about the process of curating an exhibition – be it a permanent collection or temporary assemblage of objects. How do museum staff decide which items, from their vaults to include and how would selecting different combinations alter the messages they transmit? This fascinating exhibition at Two Temple Place combines diverse pieces from the University of Cambridge’s eight departmental museums joining very individual objects under the banner of scientific discovery. The curators have taken items that normally exist in a different context within their ‘home’ museum and united them to tell a different story about the nature of science and the role of the university in the development of the modern world.

Naturally, then pieces are diverse – these a spectacular dodo skeleton from the museum of Zoology, a stunning Indian snakes and ladders board from the nineteenth-century normally housed in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Greek sculpture and an oil painting of Newton from the Fitzwilliam Museum, prints from Japan, and a telescope from the Polar Institute that not only travelled to the North Pole on the Discovery, but went to the South Pole with Captain Scott, before orbiting the earth in the Space Shuttle Discovery in the 80s.

This works really well and there’s no doubt that every object in this eclectic collection is well worth seeing, especially in a rare visit to London. I was quite intrigued by the almost existential idea of an exhibition about exhibitions, and it was partially successful in making me think about how acquisition, collection and display decisions are made. Although each piece is given a detailed placard, what is missing is that very explanation of why the museums donated these pieces and not any of the others in their care, and what, together, they think it means.

I would also have liked perhaps a stronger emphasis on the ‘discoveries’ theme. For example, a lot of these objects are clearly linked by the Royal Navy and its role in the mechanics of world-wide scientific exploration – many leading explorers were naval officers or helped to transport these stories back to the UK and to Cambridge museums. The Empire too has a huge role in bringing this exhibition to London, and it would have been interesting to place them in this broader context. Questions of how the navy and/or Empire affected and facilitated their discovery, transportation and interpretation within a British context, could have added an extra, more interesting dimension.

That aside, this is a great exhibition and Two Temple place is an attractive Victorian Mansion on the Embankment, open a couple of times a year to the public. The beautiful wood panelled and stained glassed rooms are a fabulous backdrop to this quirky and fascinating ramble through hundreds of years of Cambridge science. And how often do you actually get to see a genuine dodo skeleton!

Discoveries is at Two Temple Place until 27th April and is free to enter.


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