Kate Brown, co-curator of ‘Regeneration’, introduces the exhibition and talks about some of the challenges in selecting works from the Fry’s unique, diverse collection. ‘Regeneration’ continues at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, to the 30th October 2022.
How do you create an exhibition that fulfils the brief of showing the best of 37 years of collecting, as a way of celebrating the redevelopment of the gallery? In the case of Regeneration, this year’s exhibition in the main gallery, the answer was to include as much as possible: all the familiar ’Fry’ artists are represented and the result is walls densely hung with pictures, and cases and drawers bursting with artefacts.
Iris Weaver and Colin Wilkin, with whom I worked to curate the exhibition, created a long list, a very long list, of possible pictures and objects. Over a number of iterations, we whittled this down to the hundred or so that are on show. The initial challenge was how to choose between the most significant works, the public favourites, new acquisitions, and rarely seen work that deserves greater publicity. How to hang the resulting selection in a coherent way in the gallery was a further challenge. Several distinct themes emerged.
In the Open Studio events in Great Bardfield in the 1950s, artists from Bardfield and the surrounding villages invited the public into their homes to see their creative work. Olive Cook’s characterisation of Bardfield during those years as ‘paradisiacal’ was no doubt tinged with nostalgia, but the domestic and the familiar are constantly present in the artist’s work.
One of the Fry gallery walls has a disused hearth, and this has been used as the setting for a selection of works illustrating the Bardfield inter-dependencies. This part of the exhibition juxtaposes images of the artists’ domestic interiors with the original wall papers from their houses, and, in the case of John Aldridge’s Lucie Weaving a Rug (2201) with the actual mirror and lampshade depicted, and one of Lucy’s rag rugs alongside. Interspersed between portraits are images of Bardfield buildings and local scene. The whole suggests the intimacy of the place.
The Fry artists are linked geographically – there is no common artistic vision, they all did their own thing. We give a flavour of this staggering variety on the long wall that faces you as you enter the gallery. Among the closely spaced works are Brighton Pier, one of Edward Bawden’s huge linocut prints, a modernist mixed media piece by Michael Rothenstein, Sun and Bridge (2949), Michael Ayrton’s mesmerising bronze sculpture Sun Maze (285), characteristic colour block landscapes by Keith Vaughan, and an almost Picassoesque print by Robert Colquhoun, Seated Woman (3092).
The exhibition and the variety continue in the new Bawden room. That space is as elegant within as it is externally, a barrel vaulted corridor of beautifully lit wall cases, that concentrates on the design work of various artists; ceramics for Wedgwood by Ravilious, Bawden’s humorous graphics for Fortnum and Mason, prints by Sheila Robinson and her daughter Chloë Cheese. Sheila’s ageless GPO stamp designs of vernacular architecture and Chloë’s quirky and distinctive recipe book illustrations sit opposite the studio pottery of Grayson Perry, Ian Auld and Dan Arbeid. Perry spent his teens in Bardfield and the latter two along with, Gillian Lowndes, were ground breaking potters living in Saffron Walden in the 60s and 70s.
Of course the work of Ravilious and Bawden is synonymous with the Fry Art Gallery to many people – and we felt that these two deserved virtually a whole wall to themselves. Some of the pieces are so familiar that they have become part of our shared visual language. It is a privilege to be able to focus on Ravilious’s brush-strokes in Tea at Furlongs (856), or Caravans (36). We had to find room for the portfolio returned to his widow Tirzah from his final mission as a War Artist, in Iceland.
The portfolio has generously been donated to the gallery by Ravilious’s daughter Anne Ullman. Throughout its existence, the gallery has been superbly supported by the artists donating their own and fellow artists’ work, and the families and artists’ estates have continued this kind and generous tradition. In fact, the Gallery’s first ever Ravilious, Harlequin (56) was originally loaned by Edward Bawden, while Tea at Furlongs was donated to the gallery by Jane Tuely, daughter of Ravilious’s lover Diana Tuely. Many other pictures have been loaned or offered to the gallery, with sufficient time given to apply for funding to enable the purchase.
The exhibition includes a wealth of archive material that supports our understanding of the artists and their work and reveals more about life in Bardfield. A selection of the Christmas cards sent from one artist to another is a case in point. Tucked amongst Edward Bawden’s designs for diaries for Morton Sundour fabrics and the Country Life Gardener’s Diary are a few of his own appointment diaries, and two rare finds: his 1952 Sign & Display Trade Union membership card and his British Council card for 1957.
Several of the Gallery’s scrapbooks are on show in cases specifically designed with them in mind. The scrapbooks created by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious are treasure troves of information –revealing interests, idiosyncrasies and friendships, Ravilious’s Blue Ryman scrap book is open on a double page spread that links to work for his friend Hennell, the Zwemmer Gallery, Cockerel Press and Stuart Crystals. One of Bawden’s is open at the frontispiece where revealingly he has played with his signature – rather like any child with a new exercise book.
Some of the Artists moved away from this corner of Essex, but the gallery still collects their work. Katie and George Chapman moved to Wales, where several of their old neighbours visited and found themselves similarly inspired by the landscape and people. A glamorous publicity shot of the Chapmans from Bardfield in the 50’s sits alongside a recent acquisition – a wonderfully lively portrait of Katie in later years by George.
As well as gallery walls and cases there are ‘pull open’ drawers to explore. A selection of drawings by John Aldridge shows his apparently effortless ability to capture his beloved garden and its produce and the rural life around Bardfield. Other drawers open to surprises: Kenneth Rowntree’s printed textile Alphabet (1847), or Chloe Cheese’s Lithograph Great Bardfield Cat (1785), one of several felines in the exhibition. Then there are the original Kynoch Press 1933 Note Book Woodblocks (1716) engraved by Ravilious, each at barely 4cm wide an exquisite delight.
From the gallery’s inception its success has been based on its strong community of friends, volunteers, and supporters. This has most recently been demonstrated through the incredibly successful fundraising campaign for the Gallery redevelopment. The Gallery is led (and run) by volunteers. A small team of them work on the complicated jigsaw that is hanging the exhibition pictures, while others write the captions and welcome visitors to the gallery. We are all delighted with the facilities provided by the redevelopment, including step-free access, and at last a store which is worthy of the collection which it houses. Planning and setting up exhibitions should be much more streamlined in the future, once all of the collections have been returned from their temporary accommodation at Fry Too.
Standing back when the work is finally done and the exhibition is ready for opening – what does one see? There is so much to please the eye…
Bawden had the foresight to realise that the Gallery would grow in significance and importance as the collection itself grew. The very tightly defined remit of the gallery’s collecting policy ‘artists of national standing who have lived and worked in North West Essex’ has helped the gallery shape its work to meet its founders’ vision, and thirty seven years on The Fry Art Gallery has much to celebrate.
The Exhibition is supported by Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers