Gallery Oldham – ‘an innovative and unique approach’

gallery-oldham.jpg Gallery Oldham – ‘an innovative and unique approach’ by Stuart Ian Burns

I’ve always wanted to visit Oldham. Not in the same way as New York, probably, but there’s always been some latent curiosity. It developed after watching the local teatime BBC news for many years were, and I know this is probably an exaggeration, it seemed as though anything newsworthy happened in Oldham. Night after night, the social affairs correspondent, Dave Guest, would be seen in a fairly normal looking street talking about some council decision or something that the police are investigating and even if I’d missed the introduction bringing my pasta with pesto into the living room, when he said ‘Dave Guest, North West Tonight, Oldham’ it wouldn’t be a revelation. There seems to be a lot happening in Rochdale too, and I’ll be going there next.

I visited Oldham yesterday for the Museum and Art Gallery which according to Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England has a structure by local architect Thomas Mitchell that ‘is simple and unpretentious, at least in comparison with similar buildings at Bury or Blackburn’. Perhaps I should say, had a structure that ‘is simple and unpretentious’ because this is one of those occasions when time has overtaken Edward’s book, which was published in 2001, since a shiny new building was opened in 2002 to house the museum, art gallery and city library. The old building still stands but is joined by a giant modernist, concrete, glass and red brick affair designed by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt which looks from the outside like a cross between a simplified Pompidou Centre and the swimming baths on Oxford Road in Manchester but unpleasant for that.

On their website, the new Gallery Oldham describe their new philosophy: “Gallery Oldham takes an innovative and unique approach to exhibition programming. […] The new gallery building has brought about an integration of the once separate museum and gallery services, and programming incorporates Oldham’s extensive art, social and natural history collections alongside touring work, newly commissioned and contemporary art, international art and work produced with local communities.” Sadly what that means is that like Stalybridge’s Astley Cheetham, the highlights of the collection are not on display and as Edward points out, there are some real jewels — a Sickert, a Watts, a Holman Hunt, a Ruskin, a relatively well known Waterhouse ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses’ and a Rossetti, ‘Horatio Discovering Ophelia’s Madness’.

These are the kinds of works that other galleries would kill for and would never think of taking down from their walls and yet they’re apparently in storage at the moment. I popped into the tourist information centre later to pick-up a map of the town and the clerk said that the display choice in the new gallery had been noted with messages sent to the local newspaper and even talk of a writing campaign. It’s a curatorial and directorial and trustee decision based on what they think will get people to visit the gallery but it’s difficult to understand why you wouldn’t want the best of what you have for viewing, even designing a new space around being able to show those works. Since most of the works that Edward mentions in his book can’t be seen, it was a bit of a disappointment to be honest.

Most of the display spaces have quite low ceilings so the only wall space available to show one of the most renowned pictures, ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ by John Collier, is in a stairwell. It’s a magnificent and massive oil painting detailing Cleo’s final moments as they appear in Shakespeare, with the queen lying almost lifeless on a slab with her handmaidens just on the brink as well. There’s a really useful accompanying leaflet that described the chequered history of the work, from being almost lost at sea, being vandalised, hidden in a basement, attacked by an ‘evil disposed person’ (reputed to be a suffragette), some nipular overpainting and subsequent restoration it’s a surprise that it looks as sharp as it does now.

Another highlight is John Everett Millais’ ‘The Departure of the Crusaders’. This shows a family, apparently at home, watching knights heading off to the crusades; the man and wife and three children are in the foreground and behind them through a window we can see the cross of St. George on the back of a knight heading into the distance at first it’s difficult to read the emotions of the group until you the title actually attached to the frame ‘The Crusader’s Family’ and everything becomes apparent. One of the knights is their son. That’s why his father is looking away, so stern. Why his younger teenaged brother is looking with pride and excitement and pointing and why the mother looks so anguished.

These are the universal emotions of a family watching a son or brother going off to war, the kind that can be seen even now in television news reports of Iraq or Afghanistan about the supporters of servicemen waiting for news. It’s certainly one of the best Millais paintings I’ve ever seen, but again it’s not on permanent display — it’s part of an exhibition ‘Museum of the Future’ about the collection of the museum, along with a range of natural history specimens, photographs, documents and work by local groups. Perhaps I’m bias but it just looks a bit unheralded and unloved in there and just doesn’t seem to fit especially since this area is also being utilised for family activities (so lots of kids running around etc).

The bulk of the displayed collection can be seen in gallery one as part of a temporary exhibition, ‘Where Sheep May Safely Graze’ (until 11th August) dedicated to pastoral traditions in British art between the late 18th century and 19th century. Many, many paintings of the rural life, farmhands in fields with horses and cows, milk maids and farmhouses and sheep grazing and picturesque landscapes. More of an acquired taste than you’d imagine this; intellectually I can see that without these images we wouldn’t be able to understand the lost landscapes and lifestyles, would only have Thomas Hardy’s word for what it must have been like in those days, but even though some are more idealised than others and the painting styles differ wildly I just found it a bit samey.

The one painting which stands out is a depiction of farmhands in a field in Teffont Magna in Wiltshire by Harry Fidler called ‘Work’. This has to do with the approach; Fidler has piled onto the canvas masses of oil, pastel colours layered on top of one another in production of the image which impressionistically is only really clear once you step away. Fidler was apparently fairly single minded in his subject matter — most of work features farmhands in fields in Teffont Magna, but I think because of the sheer ingenuity being used to create the image, none of them would be all that similar.

I was mostly impressed with individual elements of the other pieces — the way the water in Alexander Stanhope Forbes’ ‘The Drinking Place’ rippled outwards from the mouth of a horse as it took in refreshment, the sand of Ricard Ansell’s ‘Lythan Sand Hills’ which the artist hasn’t been tempted to make golden but is instead dull and moist just as it should be and the snow and wool in Charles Porter’s melancholic ‘A Winter’s Tale’ as two sheep lay dying of cold in a frozen wasteland (Porter was depicting his own struggle to become a professional artist).

Of the other temporary exhibitions, Halima Cassell is the best. Cassell works in ceramics, wood carving and collage and drawing on her Asian back ground creates examples of architectural geometry, of shapes repeated within shapes and two and three dimensions. It’s not quite minimalist though; think of the kinds of doodles you might draw listening to hold music whilst you’re waiting to get through to a call centre. ‘Unsquare Dance’, a clay relief in which a series of squares, from large to small disappear inward, turning by 90 degrees each time. It’s very difficult to describe by there’s something quite meditative in letting your eyes follow the lines of the pattern, taking in the shadows within.

Stuart Ian Burns, feeling listless, Oldham.