Art and Insanity at the Walker Art Gallery was one newspapers description of the Walker Art Gallery
s 1892 purchase of the painting Summer (1891) by Edward Hornel.
The uproar surrounding the acquisition was due to the artists unusual style, creating patterns and striking colours which virtually diminished the subject. Strength of feeling was such that Philip Rathbone, chair of Liverpool City Councils arts committee, was forced to threaten his resignation if the painting was not accepted.
The controversial painting now features in a new interactive gallery, exploring the often turbulent transition from Victorian to modern British art, which opened at the Walker Art Gallery on 25 March 2011.
Radical shifts in British art are set against a backdrop of major upheavals in society, European art movements and wider world events, providing a more thorough understanding of the artworks which include paintings by Lucian Freud, Paul Nash and L.S Lowry.
The new display also explores how local artists responded to this time of change and features among others:
* Corfe Castle and the Isle of Purbeck (1908) by Philip Steer (born Birkenhead, 1860), one of the founding members of the New English Art Club.
* a fascinating self-portrait of Albert Richards (born Liverpool, 1919) and a selection of his work for the War Artists Advisory Committee.
* a beautiful snow scene of the Cheshire countryside by James Hamilton Hay (born Birkenhead, 1874), a member of the Liverpool Academy as well as the more avant-garde Sandon Studios Society.
* a bust of Liverpool of Doris Field by one of Liverpools most successful sculptors, George Herbert Tyson Smith (born Liverpool, 1883).
In British Art 1880 to1950 the emphasis on providing greater historical and social contexts is a new initiative for the gallerys permanent collection.
Dr. Laura MacCulloch, curator of British Art explains the reasoning behind the move: We hope a new interpretation of this particular collection, will allow the works to be viewed and appreciated individually but also in the exciting context of the major changes which happened in the first half of the 20th century.
This dramatic and eventful period of history produced a fascinating group of British artists, some of whom embraced and looked positively towards the modern age and others who chose to lament a disappearing world.
The display demonstrates the power of art to understand our history and the changes to our society. The themes and subject matter of the works explore the changing political landscape of a nation ravaged by two World Wars and the fast-paced changes to the social order.
Some works also demonstrate a new-found freedom for artists to express themselves and produce work away from the art establishment.
A highlight of the new display is an interactive time-line which provides visitors with the opportunity to explore further individual artists, their works, artist movements and key historic events.
The gallery also features specially-created canvases that can be touched by visitors to give them a real understanding of the different techniques and methods artists were beginning to experiment with; a sound-scape that accompanies Off to the fishing grounds by Stanhope Forbes, one of the gallerys most popular paintings, giving it a voice and an alternative way to appreciate it; tactile paper images for visitors with visual impairments, and permanent activities for families to explore the works.
Taken from the Walker Art Gallerys own holdings the new gallery includes furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings.
The collection is displayed thematically:
Close to Nature
Stanhope Alexander Forbes led a new generation of British artists who painted outdoors. Two important works by him are included; A street scene in Brittany (1881), his first en plein air painting, and Off to the fishing grounds (1886), a fine example of the work he produced at Newlyn, Cornwall, a town popular with artists keen to escape urban life.
Other highlights include Spring in St Johns Wood (1933) by Dame Laura Knight, a walnut settee (1880) made by Morris & Co and ceramics by Bernard Leach and the Martin Brothers.
Finding a Modern Style
British artists adopted many different styles in the first half of the 20th century, often associating themselves with the political groups prevalent across Europe.
This section includes examples of some of the major European art movements - Surrealism (including paintings by Liverpool artists and friends Albert Richards and George Jardine), Fauvism and Cubism.
It also looks at the independent spirits who developed unique and personal styles. Examples include Saturday afternoon (1927) by Stanley Spencer, French cyclists with a girl, (circa 1925) by Liverpool-born Christopher Wood and The Fever Van (1935) by L.S Lowry
A highlight is Interior at Paddington (1950-51) by Lucian Freud, originally painted for the 1951 Festival of Britain, organised as a positive look to the future after the Second World War. Set in Freuds London studio, the paintings underlying strange atmosphere hints at a sense of trepidation towards the new age.
More upbeat work by Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper explore the popularity of Art Deco during this period. While the examples of various studio potters reveal an alternative fashion among crafts people who distanced themselves from factory-produced ceramics and preferred earthy-looking materials and colours.
Materials, Colours and Processes
Between 1880 and 1950 artists experimented with colours, techniques and materials.
There was a trend to reveal the artistic process with blobs of clay, dabs of paint and drips of glaze.
The bold colours and strong outlines of their European, post-Impressionist contemporaries inspired work such as Still life with biscuit tin and pots (1918) by Roger Fry, Mrs Mounter (1916) by Harold Gilman and Two Jamaican girls (1937) by Augustus John, who taught at Liverpool University and was a member of the Sandon Studios Society.
Israfel (1930) by Jacob Epstein, reveals how sculptors were also keen to break away from traditional ideals and strived to expose the properties of the material and methods they used.
Work relating to both World Wars is included in this section. Most of the collection consists of delicate works on paper, produced while on duty, capturing the hardship of war.
The sentry (after 1921) by Charles Sergeant Jagger, is a smaller version of the 1921 memorial which stands in the Britannia Hotel in Manchester. Jagger served as an officer during First World War, after which he was in great demand to work on war memorials. His sculptures were based upon his own experiences in the trenches.
Liverpool-born Albert Richards became the youngest Official War Artist during World War Two in 1943. His work captures both army life in the UK, Sappers erecting pickets in the snow (1941) and the harsh conditions while abroad, Exhaustion Cases (1944).