The Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal

(I know Kendal is a long way from Liverpool but I’m really enjoying Stuart’s series of visits to NW Galleries. ed)

By Stuart Ian Burns
After something of a gap, I’m back on the trail of the Public Art Collections in North-West England. Edward Morris’s book covers a wide area, and having cover nearly all of the relatively local galleries, I’m now heading further afield. The Abbots Hall Gallery in Kendal is two hours and some walking distance from Liverpool. It’s somewhat in the mould of Sudley House, a small town house filled with paintings, but the rather good introduction by the director of the gallery Edward King in their latest catalogue demonstrates that the similarities are cosmetic.

The hall was built in 1759 by a Colonel George Watson (architect unknown) but he didn’t live there long and after marrying, almost immediately went to York and the house was inhabited by a range of families over the following few centuries before dropping into the ownership of a back at the close of the 1800s and thence to the local borough council, who despite turning the grounds into a park for Kendal residents left the building to rot to the point that in the 1950s it was ready to collapse.

Luckily, the newly formed Lake District Art Gallery Trust saw an opportunity and after some lengthy fundraising activities were able to renovate the building and open it as an art gallery in 1962. Only then, and this is a crucial difference, was the current collection begun (much of the art in Sudley House was bought by the Holt family), with acquisitions based on what would fit within the house and would reflect local artists. As King notes in that introduction:

“Abbot Hall’s collection is almost entirely devoid of what might called high Victorian Art. There are no Pre-Raphaelites, no Landseers, no paintings of deer-stalking, railways stations, historical scenes, sentimental moments or languid naked nymphs totally without body hair waiting to be rescued by heroes! And this generally in contrast to most regional galleries, particularly in the north.”

Meow. In other words, (almost) no filler. He goes on to explain because most galleries began their collections during the Victorian era, that tends to be what they’re ‘stuck with’ (his words). Abbots Hall, then, far choosier in what it gathers, not really seeing a need to reflect the epic sweep of art history these other galleries have. It’s more of a private gallery then, and this is reflected in the fact that it charges an entrance fee — £4.50 – and it’s just about worth that, despite only really having work in about five sections.

Behind a rather ominous black curtain is the watercolour room and its here that you first get an idea of what this choosier policy means. Larger galleries tend to mix the more ‘interesting’ works in with the ‘less interesting’ works (I’ve written before about how cack-handed that distinction can be sometimes so I’ll not dwell on it here). In this room, every piece is by named artist, either through popular acclaim or through perennial appearances on the Antiques Roadshow.

There’s an Edward Lear, a Turner, a Frederick Nash and a couple of Ruskins, the best of which is ‘Beavais, Bishop’s Palace (1854)’ a painting that really captures some old architecture in its prime, so that even though the trees in the garden are simply washed in, the features of the house are carefully detailed in. The other works are of a similar quality and you begin to understand how this policy works. Metropolitan galleries have tended to buy everything, good and ‘bad’. At Abbots Hall its about quality rather than quantity. That’s a pattern repeated throughout the gallery’s relatively few rooms.

In the next room is what’s clearly seen as the highlight of the collection The Great Picture, a secular triptych describing the life of Lady Anne Clifford an Elizabethan/Jacobian noblewoman. It’s a visual biography of her life in three paintings, firstly as young girl learning music and about her head books of latin and Chaucer and French and lastly as an older woman close to death, her texts in disarray, with one hand on the bible.

In the first she’s joined by paintings of her tutor and governess in the last its her two husbands. They’re painting in a style very much of the period, very formally and with a slightly skewed perspective, and scrolls with her life story actually written upon them. Sadly, there isn’t room in the gallery to show the central section, a massive work featuring one of those husbands and her children. Brought together they must be have an astounding presence and it would be a shame if the gallery’s plan — to create an extra area especially for showing this piece — doesn’t happen.

The other display they seem particularly proud of is a room dedicated to the work of George Romney who saw out his apprenticeship in Kendal before moving to London. Their professed jewel is ‘The Gower Family: The Children of Granville, 2nd Earl Gower’ (which is in all of the leaflets and guidebooks) a carefully drafted image of the kids dancing (ominously it looks like ‘Ring a Ring of Rose’ which developed out of the black death) a couple of which look out at the viewer like characters in a film breaking the fourth wall.

More impressive to these eyes though were some smaller works, clearly sketched much faster, in which the artist is experimenting with light. In one, the face of his brother James is illuminated by nothing but a candle which throws an arresting orange glow on his face and blasts light through his fingers (yes, just like a torch does when you’re camping). The other shows the moment in King Lear when the old man has completely taken leave of his sense and is pulling off his robes. This too has a single candle as a light source, but is more technically interesting because it’s a group and is painted in a very angular, impressionistic style, a wild contrast to the care brush strokes of the large painting of the children.

The first floor is inhabited by the contemporary artwork, which demonstrates that again, unlike a lot of regional galleries, the collection is still being added too. There’s a pencil sketch from Lucien Freud, a Hepworth, Paula Rego, Hockney prints and a really gorgeous Lowry (on loan admittedly) depicting the sea using subtle shades of grey – it’s cold, wet and seems as though it should be tempestuous but totally serene. The best of the bunch though is probably the abstract Wall of Light, Red Summer by Sean Scully, in which a rectangular canvas is covered in boxes filled with autumnal colours laid on using massive brush strokes. He was apparently stimulated by the changes in light on the derelict stone walls of the ancienct Yucatan ruins.

It seems fitting that a painting inspired by one set of ruins should appear in a building which was also a set of ruins until some art lovers were inspired to save it.