‘All In The Eyes’ by Stuart Ian Burns
So yes, I visited Sudley House in Liverpool on Tuesday as I continue to work my way through the Public Art Collections in North West England book. Its recently re-opened after a couple of years of restoration, renovation and redevelopment and unlike most of these visits I managed to be there and back in a morning.
It helped that it was within walking distance, about half an hour away from home – well actually longer since I somehow managed to get lost in Sefton Park on the way (which considering I’ve been living next to it for over fifteen years is something only I could do).
You can read about some of the history of the house at the National Museums Liverpool website. It’s the only surviving merchants house from the period with most of its original features and art collection intact. The building is now straddles the formats of a National Trust style recreation of the period on the ground floor and an exhibition space on the floor above.
Downstairs, even with the replacement furniture (the originals were apparently sold off in the 1940s) you can definitely get a flavour of what it must have been like for the Holt family in this time when people entertained themselves and visitors. You could imagine them idyllically collecting in the Morning Room, the view of the grounds through the window. About the only thing which spoils the illusion are the slightly incongruous but undoubtedly educational plasma screens in some of the rooms featuring actors playing members of the family and their help.
It has to be said that George Holt had an eye for the ladies since most of the paintings in the collection are of the fairer sex, either members of his family or in works illustrating myths and literature. ‘In A Convent Garden’ by George Dunlip Leslie is a love picture of what looks like a society girl hiding below a low wall with a lute out of the way of a Mother Superior. Also striking is ‘A Girl With A Basket of Apples’ from Hugues Merle, a woman with an angular face but bottomless eyes following you about the room.
The pearls of the collection and the discovery for me is the work of the interestingly named John Melhuish Strudwick a follower of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Frankly that’s a bit like saying Oasis sound like The Beatles but glancing at ‘O Swallow, Swallow’ for the first time before glancing at the provided information sheets I thought it was Burne-Jones, so close in aspect is it to a work at Leeds Art Gallery (I’m learning to speak Edwardian). I suppose what divorces the styles of the two painters are the faces – even though Burne-Jones painted stylised figures there was always a glimpse of humanity in the eyes – whereas these Strudwicks all have a slightly vacant expression.
Upstairs in Sudley is now split into three main areas. As education room featuring a collection of period children’s toys, a neat display of women’s costumes that would have been worn by Holt’s contemporaries and a temporary exhibition space, currently showing images of the interiors of lost Victorian and Edwardian mansions from throughout the local area. For some this will be an exciting way to compare the interior designs of the past with the present. But for me it was an eye opening exercise as I saw a range of painting which now deck the walls of the Walker and Lady Lever Art Galleries within their original domestic setting. Imagine having Adam and Eve at ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ looking down on you as you munch through your breakfast.