Derek Williams Collection
Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, until 17 November 2012
DEREK Williams was a chartered surveyor from Cardiff.
SOUNDS like the start of a particularly British psychological thriller, doesn’t it. Maybe a Ruth Rendell. But Derek, who looks from his very 70s pic like an amiable chap, collected modern British art – and he had a good eye.
There are forty works from his collection here, and they are fascinating for all sorts of reasons. For a start, as curator Andrew Parkinson rightly notes, the paintings roughly match the Pier’s own, timewise – but ‘represent a very different approach to the British landscape and abstract painting.’ So you can bounce between the two collections, picking up threads of connection – Hepworth to Henry Moore, Nicholson to Piper’s abstract phase, Alfred Wallis to his representational.
There’s also a meditation to be had about landscape as a source of solace, or a reminder of unpleasant realities, and another about the function of abstraction in art – the early abstract works here are almost maidenly in their timidity. How very far we have travelled, you will think – and to what end?
But to the beef of it. I am coming to look forward to the narrow corridor which sets you off on the Pier journey, because it’s always hung so teasingly – to draw you in and surprise you. There’s Victor Pasmore’s student stuff – a bit laboured and watery, next to an engaging, almost twee study of Pink Roses. Look closer and you can see the abstract planes dying to escape the merely representational.
Turn your head and all of a sudden we’re in European expressionist country. Josef Herman brings all the rich colour, texture and cultural weight of history to his study of Three Welsh Miners, robotic yet earth bound, faceless, timeless. Another theme weaving through the exhibition – and reflected in the young Piergroup’s selections upstairs – has to do with people in the here and now, inhabiting landscape and living inside an imperfect, sometimes cruel world. Herman’s stunning Mother and Child, thick impasto jewelled with subtle light, reminds me of something Sienese – or of Roualt – but it’s part of the post war urge to revisit tenderness, in the wake of brutality.
This is present too in the Henry Moore next door, a sexy ovoid in a shell, and more poignantly in Graham Sutherland’s ’65 silver crucifix, planned for Ely Cathedral but, bizarrely, rejected by its authorities. Sutherland of course was famous – notorious, perhaps – for his brave modernist work in the bomb blasted Coventry Cathedral. This tiny piece is just as powerful – Christ in human agony, yes, his ribs jutting – but translating as we watch into a flying soul, the crucifix metamorphosing into butterfly wings.
It’s a worry, having Lowry anywhere. He’s cursed by his own democratic popularity, his postcardfriendliness, the man who ‘painted matchstick men and matchstick dogs and cats.’ But The Doctor’s Visit is a gem. It’s social history, of course. I could make an acrid joke here about doctors, cuts, and the likelihood of their ever visiting again in my lifetime, but I won’t; I’ll merely note that the painting has a Dutch/ Scottish genre feel about it.
It bursts to tell a story, about the pale beautiful invalid looking so directly at us, the shadowy mother behind her, the neat poverty of the mantles and lace and rugs and down at heel suits. Look closer and you’ll see a very modern pull towards the abstract – those imprisoning horizontals and verticals, the tightness of the angles, cut by the pallid ovals of faces.
He escaped to Sunderland in the 60’s, and produced a fine study of Men Fishing which is another inspired choice; not the painter we thought we knew, but a sadder, more profound, more technically subtle artist. The red capped men with their lines are swamped by sea, sky and a towering black rock with a black lighthouse on it. The paint is rough, like the sea and sky; it feels as if a storm’s about to destroy any attempt at quiet contemplation.
Old Salford Street Scene (‘part of a private beauty that haunted me,’ he said) has a touch of American gothic; but much more than that, it’s a clear nod towards abstraction once more – windows, domes, railings, all enclosing hidden, human concerns. Lowry looks in – Ceri Richards looks out, listening to the music of things. He’s vibrant, playful, Matisse-ish, Picasso-ish, as optimistic as his signature. Loose, busy, full of harmonies and surprises – the yellow doorknob! The owl! The stork carrying a bundle – not babies, of Welsh flowers, for Dylan Thomas’ requiem. Good too to see mixed media as well as oil, because he’s a scribbler, and ink suits his nervy verve.
More clever juxtapositioning in this big room – opposite Lowry’s muted moments, we’ve got John Piper’s cool, collected studies. Of all the artists here, he’s the one I thought I was most familiar with – as a War Artist, a Shell calendar artist, a romantic who had a go at abstraction. I am fond of A Ruined House, Hampton Gay (1941) – the trees are blasted, the ground’s blackened, the elegant lines of the house destroyed by bomb damage – it’s very much of it’s time, melancholy and brooding.
But I didn’t know his earlier work, which is lovely, full of reverberations for an Orkney audience. Hope Inn, done in 1934, is sea saturated, full of images – shells as classifications and as stars, – which lead you into more and more metaphors about the life of sailors (it’s impossible not to cross reference it with the Richard’s Dylan Thomas and Under Milk Wood).
Sidmouth is another delicate lovely study – the stepped gables, the kirk door (Methodist perhaps, but I thought of Mackay Brown’s poem Peter Esson when I saw this). Then – looking at Still Life with Window and Ship – I thought of the recent Sylvia Wishart exhibition (the book’s available from the Pier, if you haven’t got it). She’d have enjoyed this tight doily patterned, shuttered still life on the window, with the busy tramp steamer rushing past the tranquillity.
I’ve gone on too long. There’s more joyous, loose, tangled Piper in the darker room (trying to avoid glass reflection, nearly succeeding). There’s a Tube drawing – a sleeping person, hands clasped – from Henry Moore – poignant again, that vanished War. There are student Lucien Freuds! Very skull-beneath-the-skin-ish, these two drawings – in Man and Bird With Worms the bird has definitely dissected the worm with relish, and the Falling Skeleton reminds me of that classic Paestum diver on the tomb, only this skeleton isn’t going anywhere nice.
There’s Stanley Spencer! It’s like a Leonardo drawing, all sepia, this Cookham study, and I can’t believe I can look at it for ages here in Stromness, and see for myself how interested he was, not in individual shapes, but in the all over patterning of the whole.
It’s a great show.
Upstairs, the Piergroup are part of a nationwide learning programme; they’ve been working with staff to pull out their own complimentary exhibition until 13 October 2012), finding out on the way the joys and pains of choosing, displaying and discussing art. The choices are good – they’re thinking about form and vitality and there are interesting connections between diverse works.
They’re shy though when it comes to talking; only Stephanie Spence offers some thoughts on her pick, Landscape Head by John Wells (1950). The rest of the group, somewhat dutifully, say in different ways what a wonderful time they had and how useful it was. I’d rather hear what it was about that Kapoor that rocked you (colour? shape? ) and how it melded – or diverged from – with the Hepworth and the lovely Robert Adam sculpture.
There’s also a not to be missed new film by Mark Jenkins playing, about Scapa Flow in wartime, which, again, dovetails rather neatly – the recollections of Orcadians counterpoint the wartime work downstairs; as do Jenkins images of a sea – struck community into which war – and ENSA – intruded. A fine day out, at the Pier, I’d say.
© Morag MacInnes, 2012