Hiding on the outskirts of York City centre there is a little known centre of culture: the York City Art Gallery. Set up in a temporary wooden building in 1879 for the second Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition, architect Edward Taylor designed the permanent gallery which was opened as York City Art Gallery in 1892. However, in recent years the gallery, run down and dilapidated, has not been popular as York’s many other cultural attractions and the gallery was closed on 6th June 2004.
On the 19th March of this year, after a £445,000 revamp, the gallery re-opened to the public. The changes include the installation of a new lighting rig and the creation of The Studio, a special area allocated for educational activities, such as workshops for visiting school and evening lectures. Also, key paintings have been cleaned and repaired in a £10,000 pound conservation programme paid for by the Friends of York Art Gallery, an independent group of interested members of the public who support the gallery. These paintings have been restored to their former glory, revealing the original colours and exposing hidden details. The interior of the 19th Century building now has a fresh, contemporary feel, the collection has been completely re-displayed and the gallery redecorated. With additions such a new Hartley’s café and interactive, educational activities the gallery hopes to entice locals and tourists alike.
The opening exhibition and focal point to the new-look gallery is titled Reflections and is positioned on the ground floor directly in front of the main entrance. To access it, you have to walk, rather oddly, through the café area. It includes work on loan from the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and various galleries in Yorkshire as well as paintings from York’s permanent collection. It’s a varied group of works, notable ones being Monet’s Flood Waters (1896), showing, (surprise, surprise) the flood waters of the River Epte, a tributary of the Seine and its neighbour, The Wave (1898) by Roderic O’Connor. This pairing allows the viewer to see Monet’s influence over O’Connor with the latter’s acquisition of Monet’s loose, confident brush strokes. There is also work by Titian, Rembrandt and Hepworth. This is evidently, judging by its flash, new spotlights which outshine the dull strip lighting of most other rooms in the gallery, the room which has been blessed with the new lighting rig. Unfortunately, this blessing is more of a curse as the harsh spotlights are reflected by the painting covered with glass and don’t offer the even illumination needed to see the detail in many of the dark toned oil paintings. A particularly regrettable example is Sir William Beechey’s Sarah Siddons, a beautiful portrait of the first major tragic actress. It is a large canvas built up out of shadows but most of the time you spend in front of it you spend looking at yourself or the painting opposite it. Even when you move away from it only a small band of the painting is in the light and this is given a slightly green tinge – a bit of a disappointment.
An unusual feature of the room is the bright purple far wall. The gallery has rejected the long-established use of white walls in favour of vibrant colours to divide the layout of the gallery into clear sections. Apart from the purple monstrosity on the ground floor, the first floor houses an outstanding collection of British and European art created during the last 600 years, including work by Lowry. This area is divided into three themes: People, Stories and Places. For each theme the area is given a particular colour, red for People, blue for Stories and green for Places. This has a dramatic clashing effect managing to break down the display of paintings feed it to viewers in bite sized pieces, but also making one realise why most galleries stick to white or cream.
Having said this, the work displayed on these brightly coloured walls is impressive; the green Places section is home so some of my favourite work in the gallery – Lowry’s impression of York’s Clifford Tower, a beautiful little piece called Washing Day by Arthur Studd, a contemporary of Gauguin’s, something which can clearly be seen in the piece. The integration of two modern installations amongst older works has been very carefully considered; one is an eye-catching modern photograph of a woman in traditional Victorian dress presenting the contrast between times, the other is a video piece about the life cycle of trees. They are situated at opposite ends of the room and provide an effective contrast to the works surrounding them. A third modern work by Paul Scott verges on strange – it consists of three porcelain works; a mug, a plate and a vignette, which protest against the harm humans are doing to the environment. My favourite is the vignette which shows, in delicate blue and white, a nuclear power station surrounded by some upset sheep, but the mug is also good. Called Foot and Mouth Mug it is inscribed with the words ‘English Farmstead, Spring 2001…..but where are all the animals?’
There are a few contemporary works shown in virtually all of the rooms of the gallery. Possibly most eye-catching is an installation by contemporary artist Susie MacMurray entitled Flock which is on the ground floor in a room called Morality. It consists of dyed black turkey feathers pasted in layers on the outer wall of an archway and the gallery curators anticipate visitors desire to stroke the work by including a little bunch of feathers you’re allowed to touch. Also in this room is collection of still life paintings, unified by the fact that they all carry a moral message in their symbolist images and there is a cute little addition for younger visitors, a make-your-own-still-life table, filled with all sorts of objects and pen and paper to draw your creation with.
Through the feather-covered archway you come to the Devotion room, filled with religious images. These are some amazing alter panels which hark back to the days when Europe’s culture was largely ruled by religion and much art was part of devotional exercises or used to decorate places of worship. The room has an eerie feel to it – there are lots of very violent images of the crucifixion of Christ – but this is let down slightly by a modern painting by Craigie Aitcison showing Christ on the cross minus, for no obvious reason, his arms. It is accompanied by the somewhat bizarre quote ‘Everybody knows who he is. He doesn’t need arms.’ Right then.
The gallery also appeals to those interested in the decorative arts with its exhibition of studio pottery; this is a collection of objects made using traditional methods in a protest against 20th century industrialisation. What is particularly special about the display is the level of interaction the visitor is able to have with the works. They can be handled and are displayed with guidebooks pointing out key areas of importance. There are some lovely items, including a dinky little cup and saucer which I was very tempted to put in my handbag; it’s only a shame they’re displayed under the stairwell!
The gallery is very easy to access, located next to Kings Manor and opposite the main Tourist Centre and admission is free. With its recent extensive refurbishment involving modern display techniques and the display of newly acquired works, the gallery is well worth visiting despite the feeling that in an attempt to display their collection in a new, jazzy manner, the gallery has made it more difficult to appreciate.