Salford Museum & Art Gallery. 30th June, 2018 to 24th February, 2019

Ordsall Hall, Salford, 20th May, 2018 to 7th October, 2018

Royal Academicians from Salford’s Collection

Edited by Amy Goodwin

Salford Museum & Art Gallery. 71 pages. £5. ISBN 978-1-910759-44-8

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

This year makes the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy. Galleries around the country are marking the event by digging out paintings by Royal Academicians that they own. This seems to me an admirable thing to do. I’ve long been of the opinion that too many works of art are hidden away, and that local galleries ought to mount exhibitions of some of the best of them. There are plenty of themes that could be explored, and the curators wouldn’t need to worry about the expense of bringing in paintings or sculptures from other places.

The exhibitions at Salford Museum & Art Gallery and Ordsall Hall are good examples of what can be done with a little imagination. They aren’t large shows, and in Salford Art Gallery the exhibits are tidily contained in one room. But they have some good things. There are several paintings by William Roberts. I’m aware that some people look on him as always painting in the same way. Those tubular-looking figures seem to incline in a fashion that is similar in each of his canvases. And it’s true that, depending on the subject-matter, some paintings are better than others. The key work here is his 1940s “Munitions Factory”, with its workmen all busy hammering and wrenching away with spanners. Say what you want about Roberts, but his paintings are colourful and catch the eye. They’re also instantly recognisable.

There are works by Sickert, David Hockney, and some of Elisabeth Frink’s distinctive sculptures. An attractive Eileen Agar canvas stands out. She was associated with the surrealists, but her “Room with a View of the Moon” didn’t strike me as surrealistic in any strict sense of the word. It has too much of the real in it to fit that description. It’s a lively painting to look at no matter the label attached to it.

John Nash’s “Timber” is attractive and it’s easy to see why he was a successful book-illustrator. Another coastal setting can be observed in Charles Napier Hemy’s “St Ives Harbour, Cornwall”. Hemy was an accomplished marine artist. I’ve seen some of his paintings of stormy seas in Falmouth Art Gallery, but his view of St Ives is calm and quiet. Not a great painting, but pleasant.

It’s true that there are paintings that seem to me dull and perhaps produced to order. Portraits often strike me in that way, and John Mcallan Swan’s “Alexander Constantine Ionides” doesn’t seem to have any character about it. Ionides was an art patron and collector, which may be the still-interesting aspect of the work. I’m not suggesting that the portrait is less than competent in terms of technique, but good art ought to go beyond the merely competent. The same might be said of the portrait of Mrs Ionides, also by Swan.  Arnold Mason’s “Miss Cole” is much more provocative as a portrait. The lady in question does appear to come across as an individual.

It’s inevitable that any art collection delving back into the 19th century will have historical paintings, or those based on legends and the like. Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s “The Queen of the Tournament”, Charles Landseer’s “Aesop Composing His Fables”, and George Frederick Watts’ “Meeting of Esau and Jacob”, are no doubt of interest to art historians. They show what impressed the Royal Academy in their day, and point to the tastes of the local gallery committee members who decided to purchase them. There is, it’s true, evidence of skill in the composition and realisation of each. It may be just a personal prejudice that makes me react against paintings like these.

No-one will claim that most of the paintings on display are major works of art. They’re not, and one or two suggested to me a failure of the imagination when they were acquired. Sheila Fell’s “Houses Near Aspatria” looks bland and colourless. Perhaps it was meant to be that way, but if so it hardly makes for attractive art.  I’m still trying to work out what was thought so interesting about this painting that the gallery considered it worth displaying.

It was good to come across a Peter Coker on the walls. He tends to be overlooked these days, and was at one time associated with the so-called “Kitchen Sink” school of artists (John Bratby, Derrick Greaves,  Jack Smith,etc.) of the 1950s. And have a look at Roland Vivian Pitchforth’s “The Chess Players”, which seems to have nothing to do with chess, but positions two people in a way that makes it obvious that some sort of game is going on. It’s an amusing work, and one that invites a response in terms of questioning  the relationship between the people in the picture. An example of a painting that isn’t in any way significant as a work of art, but which somehow stays in the mind.

A well-produced small book has been published in conjunction with these exhibitions, and is reasonably priced. It isn’t a complete catalogue of all the paintings displayed, but is useful as guide to many of them.