Charley Bolding-Smith

Century, the current exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, brings together the work of 100 modern British artists. It’s a vibrant mix of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper selected from the Gallery’s own collection and drawn from that of the Ingram Collection of Modern Art.

Many people may not be familiar with the Ingram Collection. Since he started collecting in 2002, former media entrepreneur Chris Ingram has put together one of UK’s most significant collections of Modern British art. It showcases the connections, contrasts, and development of the avant garde in Britain. There is a particular emphasis on works that show artists’ responses to the existential anxieties and challenges of the contemporary world and their search for new visual languages with which to express them. The collection has its home at The Lightbox, a public art gallery in Woking, Surrey.

In Century, the works are presented thematically, so that the boundaries between different periods are broken down, exposing intriguing relationships and surprising similarities. Century is an exhibition of changing moods and has been assembled with thought and exuberance by curator James Russell.   

Comprised of over 150 works, the exhibition is far too large to review in any detail. However, fascinating contrasts, harmonies, and insights abound. In Tristram Hillier’s meticulously painted The Crucifixion (1957: Foreshore Gallery) items of clothing seem almost empty of people, rather than discarded by them. The etiolated Christ figure is attended only by Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary – the crowd have moved on to other distractions, unseen beyond the crest of the hill. Commerce, implied by the carelessly abandoned carpenters’ tools in the painting’s foreground, finds its apotheosis in the fine architecture of the city in the distance. Step away from the painting carefully, lest you bump into Dame Elizabeth Frink’s powerful life-sized bronze Walking Madonna (1981). Unlike the supplicant Madonna figure in Hillier’s depiction, this is a vision of the Virgin Mary as a 20th Century Everywoman, striding resolutely into the future, despite war, suffering, and famine. Also in the Foreshore Gallery, two Dod Proctor paintings – the sublime The Golden Girl (1930) and Lilian (1923) are paired – almost cruelly – against Maggi Hambling’s Francis Rose (2) (1973), the porcelain hands of Proctor’s heroines contrasting harshly with the reddened arthritic appendages of Hambling’s former Battersea neighbour.

In Room 2: Aspects of the Figure, a wall filled with drawings and sketches of people in all
shapes and sizes is mirrored by the collection of portraits in Room 7: Wonderland – among them Augustus John’s energetic Study for a Portrait of Madame Guilhermina Suggia (1921). Old Jerwood favourites gain a new lease of life by being hung next to sympathetic works from the Ingram collection.

Among other highlights, Room 4: Experiment features art from the latter half of the 20th Century. Here the artists use mixed methods and media to create work that fits easily into the Surreal or Pop Art genres: Gerald Laing’s space-inspired Panoply (1964-1969) is an excellent example of the latter. Room 6: Shape and Vessel is arranged around a single object: a beautiful stringed sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Sculpture is, in fact, particularly strongly represented in the exhibition. Many of the British sculptors shown exhibited in the famous
1952 Venice Biennale, where they were known collectively as the Geometry of Fear, a term coined to describe work characterised by tortured, battered, or blasted-looking human figures. They are spiky and weird, yet strangely compelling.

In the final room of the show (Room 7: Wonderland) the show’s curator really messes with our heads. Quite literally. Huge sculptured heads contrast wildly with miniscule portraits on
paper. The ultimate work in the exhibition provides the punch line to this playful but involving journey. The show’s poster girl, the 1920’s bohemian Iris Tree, finally makes her appearance in Dora Carrington’s Iris Tree on a Horse (circa 1920’s). And it’s no larger than the postcard images available in the Gallery’s foyer! The work of oil, ink, silverfoil, and mixed media on glass is a jewel, however, and provides a satisfying pay-off.

In Century, the Jerwood have produced one of their strongest shows to date. Little wonder that the public have not been slow to respond, with the opening weeks being among the busiest of the year for the gallery. For an exhibition of this quality, the £4.00 adult entrance fee for local residents (proof of address required) is (literally) cheap as chips. And, don’t forget, on the first Tuesday of every month entry to the gallery is free to all visitors between 4pm – 8pm. It once again illustrates how fortunate Hastings is to have this establishment at its historic heart. Do go.

Century: 100 Modern British Artists – 23rd October 2016 to 8th January 2017, The Jerwood Gallery, The Stade, Hastings.www.jerwoodgallery.org