The majority of publicly-owned paintings are hidden from view, either in storage or in official buildings. Gwen Yarker, the Dorset Co-ordinator of the Public Catalogue Foundation Project, has been helping to rescue Dorset’s share of them from obscurity.
Published in September ’09
For the last eighteen months I have been locating, cataloguing and photographing oil paintings in Dorset’s public collections, irrespective of condition or quality, for the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF). With the advantage of a background in art history and as a museum curator and manager, my quest for paintings has taken me to museums, council buildings, colleges, hospitals, regiments, police stations, countless stores, fire stations, a village hall, crematorium and almshouse. The principal focus is on oil paintings but we include tempera, acrylic and mixed media, where oil predominates. As long as paintings are portable they are included, the main exemption being wall paintings in situ.
The PCF was set up in 2002 to locate and show the public their paintings in public galleries and civic buildings throughout the UK. This is done through photographing and recording all qualifying paintings and publishing them in a series of affordable full-colour catalogues. It is estimated that there are some 200,000 such paintings, yet at any one time 80% are hidden from public view, being either in storerooms or in public buildings in official use. This is certainly true of Dorset. The PCF and BBC are hoping to put the PCF’s extensive UK digitisation programme on line, in parallel with the published catalogues. It is hoped the public will be able to view the resulting website and find information about every one of the UK’s publicly owned oil paintings by 2012, in time for the London Olympics. The PCF’s other partners, the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford and the Collections Trust, will also help with research and maximise learning opportunities.
The paintings in the Dorset catalogue will be listed alphabetically by collection and grouped by home town. All digital images of the paintings photographed by the PCF are given to the collections free of charge. This wonderful resource is an expense no collection in Dorset could otherwise contemplate, as none have a complete photographic record of their paintings. Nationally the PCF has yet to find any collection that has photographed even the majority of its paintings, let alone all of them. The PCF will also supply some free catalogues for collections to sell. Any revenue from their sale has to be invested in painting conservation – a highly welcome income stream since very little money is currently budgeted for conservation. The participating collections also benefit from improved records. For many this is the first time their whole collection of oils has been made accessible to the public, so the publication of the catalogue will mean a raised profile for them, and hopefully result in more visitors.
Freelance photographers are employed by the PCF. They take all the photographs digitally which means they can photograph paintings in their frames and through glass, resulting in minimum disruption. In Dorset two photographers were involved on the project: Dan Brown from Somerset, who only worked at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, and Dave Penman, a well-known local figure, who photographed the majority of the county’s paintings. We had a lot of fun working with the collections and were immensely grateful for everyone’s patience and good humour, to say nothing of the continuous cups of coffee provided for us.
Photographing the paintings was rarely straightforward. Many are above eye level, hang on staircases, are in cramped spaces, attics, tightly stacked or wrapped in storerooms. We became ingenious at finding ways to blank out reflections. Sometimes large immovable sculptures or pieces of furniture in front of paintings called for considerable camera skills and impressive technical wizardry up ladders. Photographing often gave curators and administrators their first opportunity to examine closely the backs of paintings, especially very large images usually too hard to move. Under powerful lights we were able to spot signatures, dates and even titles not normally visible. Such discoveries resulted in improved records and better understanding of individual images. Above all, everyone we worked with was enthusiastic about the project and its appreciable benefits, despite an increased extra work load for them, and we are very grateful to them all.
From Lyme Regis to Swanage and Bournemouth the county’s museums can be found amongst stunning scenery. Not surprisingly the Dorset landscape forms a powerful thread amongst many of the paintings we photographed. One thinks of the large and powerful The Purbeck Hills from the River Frome painted by the late-Victorian artist Frederick Whitehead, now hanging on the stairs of the Purbeck DC offices. Thomas Hardy encouraged Whitehead to paint the Dorset countryside during his summer visits to Dorset. Closely linked with Hardy’s Wessex, Whitehead’s paintings strongly feature in Dorset’s catalogue. Many 19th- and 20th-century painters were inspired by Dorset and so there are numerous landscapes with vistas of rolling downs and views of the Frome. The people who worked the land and in industry were suitable painterly subjects, appearing, for instance, in the powerful images by Francis Newbery in Bridport Town Hall. At Langton Matravers and Portland Museums, we found some fascinating paintings of quarrying amongst the collections, particularly reflecting the importance of the industry to the county.
The influence of the sea is strong, from storm-tossed ships, heaving seas and shipwrecks to ships’ portraits and crowded beaches. Collections in Lyme Regis, Portland, Weymouth, Bournemouth and Poole all reflect Dorset’s important maritime and trading past. After 1815 the coastline was increasingly valued for its aesthetic qualities by professional and amateur artists, so there is a profusion of paintings capturing the effects of sunlight over the sea or of the beauty of the cliffs. A fine body of maritime paintings at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum includes works ranging from Willem van de Velde the Younger and William Wyllie to the local artist Leslie Ward, all featured in their recent long-running exhibition Celebrating the Sea.
Apart from the exuberance of many of the paintings at the Russell-Cotes, Dorset’s collection of oil paintings is as discreet and understated as the county itself. The strong instinct to collect Dorset-based art and subject matter which best represents this quality results in the coherence of artists and subject matter reflected within the catalogue. Poole and Bournemouth collections reflect the work of local art clubs and colleges established in the 1920s, who in their turn were inspired by the many Slade School of Fine Art painters who visited the county. At the time this lively community often gave or sold works, particularly to the Russell-Cotes, where Dorset-resident artists such as George Spencer Watson and Leslie Ward are represented with other artists of national reputation who lived for a while in Dorset, such as Henry Lamb.
Most of the paintings in the county’s collections and offices were acquired during the 20th century, through purchases and key bequests. After World War 2 the War Artists’ Advisory Commission distributed the works of art in its care nationally and some of their very fine paintings went to the Russell-Cotes. The military collections in the county are relatively recent additions though with paintings reflecting the experiences of people who have lived in Dorset and served their country, from 18th-century portraits to images purchased following the first Gulf War in 1991, expressing the horror of daily survival as a civilian in a warzone. Dorset CC reflects Dorset’s military importance with an extraordinary painting hanging in its members’ room. The Dorset Yeoman At Agagia, 26 February 1915 by Lady Butler was painted in 1917 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Commissioned by Colonel J Goodden, Honorary Colonel of the Dorset Yeomanry and Chairman of Dorset CC, on behalf of 110 subscribers, the Rt Hon Viscount Portman presented the painting to Dorset CC on 6 August 1918 ‘on behalf of the subscribers’. It shows the remarkable action at Agagia in the Libyan Desert that ended the threat of attack by the Turkish-backed Senussi tribe. The Dorset Yeomanry cut off the enemy rearguard by galloping across the open sand under direct fire from machine guns. In her autobiography Lady Butler wrote that all the Dorset officers were portraits despite the fact that ‘their own mothers would not know the men in the heat, dust and excitement of the charge’.
In Dorset some 55 collections, with over 2200 paintings, have been photographed for this important project. The resulting Dorset catalogue will be a source of interest and pride to local people and act as a directory of the county for visitors. The publication will cost about £75,000 to produce, and a fundraising campaign is currently underway in Dorset to ensure it is published. If successful, Dorset will have a complete gazetteer of the publicly owned art in the county and a fascinating new way to look at the county’s heritage and its treasures. Expected to be hitting the shops later in the year, the Dorset catalogue will make a great present and be a source of delight and interest for years to come.
If you would like to support this very worthwhile Dorset project please contact the Chief Executive, Andy Ellis, PCF, 33 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7JS (020 7395 0331) or visit www.thepcf.org.uk.
1. Dorset County Council
2. Purbeck District Council
3. Royal Signals Museum, Blandford
4, 7. Poole Museum
5. Bridport Town Council
6. Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society