Review of Grosvenor Musem, Chester

“At the beginning there was the Word – at the end just the Cliche.” — Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Written by Stuart Ian Burns – (feelinglistless)

I’m going to use a cliché to describe the Grosvenor Museum in Chester so stand well back. Like a Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, because it really is. The building does look tall and forbidding from the outside, but you sort of expect that stepping through the front door you’ll find yourself in a space not unlike a bank with a low ceiling and tiny reception area. Instead it’s a massive atrium, with a stairwell twisting around the edge like some medieval castle, the display rooms leading off from the sides. But then, just when you think you’ve seen everything, you notice a door at the back of the ground floor which leads through into the shop and then into a whole other adjoining building, 22 Castle Street, a National Trust-style recreation of a 17th century home.

The fine art collection is mainly displayed in a room on the first floor nicely decked out to look like the kind of display space you might find at one of the much larger metropolitan galleries with green wallpaper and lots of furniture. Usually with these potted reviews I like to offer some of the history, some the flavour of the place, and describe my favourite paintings as best I can, usually having taken copious amounts of notes whilst I was there, usually because you won’t be able to see most of these paintings yourself because the gallery doesn’t have the resources to offer a website with much depth.

The Grovesnor Museum has a useful website for a change and I don’t see much point in simply reproducing what they say. Certainly there’s more in here than I found out on the day about the history of the museum, rooms in the adjoining house and particularly the fine art collection with very detailed pages dedicated to the most important works in their collection. The museum currently lacks for a guidebook (it’s currently being rewritten) and a print publication of the material in these pages would do the trick.

On entering the room you can’t fail to notice Diana The Huntress by Jacob Van Oost The Elder (great name). The story being illustrated reminds me of the time I stumbled into a housemates room at in my second year at university to tell her she had a phone call and finding her half naked cloaked only seconds later in a scowl. Now I suspect I was lucky because Diana turned her accidental peeper, Actaeon into a stag. If Elizabeth had magical powers they didn’t stretch to transmogrification; instead she didn’t speak to me much for the rest of the year – but judging by the times we did speak I’m not sure I was losing out on much. Meeow.

What’s stunning about Van Oost’s painting is the split perspective – the scene of Actaeon being chased by the hunt looks almost like a painting within a painting or a depth of field experiment not unlike the one employed by Orson Welles at the opening of Citizen Kane to show the audience the boy whose future the adults are discussing. There’s also his depiction of Diana – she’s not the vicious and cruel character you might expect, although psychologically you could infer that chillingly she’s psychologically disconnected from what she’s just done.

Looking through my notes I’m quite surprised to find that I’ve been most impressed by paintings that don’t appear on the website, so here goes. Pollock Sinclair Nisbet’s North African Scene (1887) offers the kind of reportage you might expect from National Geographic though as the label notes there’s also definitely an element of orientalism. Nesbet’s impressionistic style shows traders huddled in a non-descript alleyway with light peaking in from the edge – the main street. Whatever it is they’re doing they want to keep it from prying eyes and the viewer’s participating in a kind of voyerism, like a cop in a CCtv control room.

Henry Pether’s Chester Castle By Moonlight is a shimmering view of the city from just outside its borders, his alluring application of lighting picking out the edges of the buildings and ripples on the waters of the river. Recently restored it’s a shame that in its present position, close to the ceiling, its slightly obscured by light from a nearby lamp, but if you can stand at the right angle you’ll find an excellent way of seeing Chester’s past, however idealised, since most of the buildings within have subsequently been demolished or have collapsed.

Close at hand is a small statue of the Byzantine general Belisarius by Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1763-1810). Rather than offering the thumping alpha-male who aided the Roman Empire in conquering half of western Europe, Chaudet recreates a moment from the general’s later life when he was reputed to be begging on the streets of Constantinople having been wrongly accused of corruption and having his eyes plucked out by the very man, Justinian I, whom he aided in developing his power structure. It’s a useful evocation of the transience of fame, and it’s a shame that Britney Spears wasn’t aware of this story when she too decided to trust a man called Justin.

Just outside the room door back near the stairs we find Chris Fairclough’s Flyover. It’s certainly a contrast to the rest of the paintings in the collection, providing a realistic recreation of Chester’s inner ring road viewed from below, standing between St. Martin’s Gate and the fountains roundabout. The advent of photography, particular in colour has meant that scenes such as this that might have been a landscape subject in the past are largely ignored. It’s not unlike an Edward Hopper, showing the absence of humanity in a place that can only be man-made.

Just because I’m curious about everything, when I trotted back to the ground floor I looked through the windows of a lecture theatre and saw more fine art decorating the walls. Assuming you too can get permission to go inside, you’ll find the meat of the museum’s twentieth century collection of which the most striking are three paintings by Etehel Leontine Gabin of workers at Williams & Williams, a factory who made cast iron window frames and during World War II shell cases, shelters , warship sections, ammunition boxes and the Bailey bridges for the D-day landings.

Offer the picaresque detail LIFE photograph and with a genuine sense of people going about their daily lives, a fragment of which have been captured in time. In my notes I said I thought they were the best paintings in the collection, and I was probably right, particular the scene of a lunch break underlining that no matter how much we might want to imagine that our ancestors were nothing like us, they were exactly like us, desperate to retreat from work but knowing that its simply something we have to do to survive.

The house next door is worth visiting and I’d promised I’d say as much to the man in the shop who noted that people tended to forget about it when they visited. It’s a useful contrast to the typical period recreations since its an example of a fairly standard town house of the period and as such isn’t decked out in every finery available, just enough to keep up appearances should a more wealthier member of society come calling. What it does have in the Georgian Drawing Room, on the far corner wall behind one of the glass screen which are used throughout the house to keep the public away from the displays is a Gainsborough.

Gainsborough apparently preferred to landscapes to portraits and tended to take commissions for the latter so that he could spend time on the former. I’m no expert but happen to think he also enjoyed painting the ladies more than the blokes, particularly the costumes, almost pernickety in their accuracy. This (as far as you can tell from a distance) is nice – but it has the smell of one of the commissions that he was doing for the money. There’s nothing really exciting about it, other than the story.

The subject of this portrait is James Tomkinson, a Cheshire solicitor and dates from 1784 and the painting was rediscovered two years ago as the Chester Chronicle and The Times reported in February. It had apparently been hanging on the staircase of an unnamed hotel for years, totally ignored by guests until it was recognised by a Gainsborough expert, at which point it was sent off to be cleaned in Liverpool and now finds itself on display here. Like The Grovesnor Museum itself, to use another cliche, it was just waiting to be discovered.