Wearside Echoes: Art brings Sunderland history alive

ART HISTORY: A temporary exhibition at Sunderland Museum  circa 1910
ART HISTORY: A temporary exhibition at Sunderland Museum circa 1910
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A NEW exhibition tracing the history of Sunderland Museum’s eclectic art collection has just opened. Today we take a look.

IT has been 162 years since leaders of Sunderland Corporation offered artist Mark Thompson 30 guineas to paint the opening of the South Dock.

His work, a colourful crowd scene full of excitement and celebration, was to become the first picture in what is now an eclectic collection of fine art held by Sunderland Museum.

And for Wearsiders who head for the new Art for Sunderland display at the museum over the next few months, it will also be one of the first paintings they see.

“The exhibition traces the history of the collection, from its Victorian origins to the present day,” said Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden’s curator for art Shauna Gregg.

“The art collection that belongs to Sunderland has developed in many different ways: some pieces were bought by the old museum, but many were gifts and bequests.

“You can see how the acquisitions from different eras reflect the changing tastes and attitudes that people have towards art. We’re very lucky to have such a mix of style and periods.”

With artwork from artistic heavyweights such as LS Lowry, Elizabeth McGill and Ralph Hedley, as well as Katya Filmus, the new display spans 160 years of artistic taste and changing fashions.

There is also plenty of history to be gleaned from the artwork on show too, including a marvellous scene featuring horse racing at Tunstall Hope, painted by an unknown artist in the 1830s.

“This exhibition will give our visitors the chance to see some old favourites alongside some new and modern pieces,” said Jo Cunningham, manager of Sunderland Museums.

It was back in 1846 when Sunderland Corporation established the town’s first museum at the Athenaeum in Fawcett Street – the first public museum funded by a local authority outside London.

But when the museum displayed its first paintings in 1880, visitors were charged a 6d entrance fee to the gallery – as well as an extra penny to leave an umbrella or walking stick at the door.

“In the rest of the museum entrance was free,” said Shauna. “But the money was used wisely, to buy paintings, and the paintings they bought were mainly contemporary Victorian works.”

The collection grew quickly and, by 1898, the Corporation owned 104 pictures. A report on the state of the Art Gallery, written in 1906 was, however, scathing.

“It recommended that several paintings should be discarded, and others be exchanged for higher quality works. It also noted that most of the frames needed repairs,” said Shauna.

Despite these problems, the art gallery continued to be hugely popular and, in 1906, the entrance fee was finally abolished. The venue was decorated, and the paintings cleaned, in the same year.

Just two years later, in 1908, the gallery received the largest bequest in its history. A total of 31 paintings were left by John Dickinson, head of a marine engineering firm, to the museum.

“Many local authority art galleries were founded by wealthy benefactors, who gave collections of paintings or money. But Sunderland’s wealthy industrialists did not follow this trend,” said Shauna.

The unusual bequest by Dickinson sparked, unsurprisingly, headlines in the local papers. But the gift was welcomed with opened arms by all, and reporters revealed: “All are handsomely framed, and landscapes predominate. The works are of first-class merit. They greatly enrich the gallery and form an addition of which the town has every reason to be proud.”

Wearside art lovers keen to see more paintings added to the museum’s collection were, however, to be left disappointed between 1904 and 1920, as no new pictures were purchased.

An appeal in 1920 raised £400 and four modern paintings were bought, but the depression, in addition to a lack of storage space, stopped collecting in the 1920s and 30s as well.

The year 1934 saw Sunderland School of Art move to Ashburne House at Backhouse Park – at the same time plans to knock down the Winter Gardens and extend the museum were proposed.

But the scheme was halted with the outbreak of war, and most of the museum’s most treasured paintings were removed for safety reasons and stored in Hexham. Langley Castle and Durham.

“The Winter Gardens were severely damaged by a parachute mine in 1941. On another night four bombs fell on the museum and four on the Winter Gardens,” said Shauna.

“After the war ended, the Sunderland Echo marked the return of the paintings with the headline ‘Former Favourites return from Evacuation.”

The much-missed pictures were finally put back on display in the late 1940s although, after being hung ‘in a single line,’ the number of images exhibited was ‘greatly reduced.’

But the 1950s saw lecturers at students at the Art School add to the collection and, in 1955, the Art Fund donated two oil paintings by the 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini.

Just four years later, in 1959, an ambitious scheme of museum alterations was approved and, following a £254,000 revamp, it became one of the largest municipal museums in the country.

“The Art Gallery, which had remained unaltered since 1879, was given a complete fit out,” said Shauna. “The staff increased from two to six to handle the extra enquiries and exhibitions.”

The new building was opened by the Queen Mother in 1964 and, later in the decade, a collecting policy for art was developed to target local scenes and work by contemporary artists.

“The Museum bought its first L.S. Lowry oil painting, The River Wear at Sunderland, in 1963,” said Shauna. “Lowry made Sunderland a second home for himself towards the end of his life.

“He loved exploring the region, enjoying the sea and countryside, as well as the industrial towns. He painted and drew many of the places, and had a keen eye for unusual people and buildings.”

Lowry’s connections with the museum actually dated back to 1942, when an exhibition featuring “Industrial Street Scenes etc” by Laurence S Lowry, RBA was held here.

Two decades later, in 1966, the major Arts Council exhibition entitled L S Lowry opened in Sunderland, before going on a successful national tour.

“Lowry often visited the museum in the 1960s, and liked to see its drawings by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Rossetti,” said Shauna.

The past four decades have seen several key paintings added to the collection, extensive art conservation work carried out and a major overhaul of the museum and Winter Gardens.

“Access, in its widest sense, became increasingly important in the 1990s,” said Shauna. “Large print labels, better seating, disabled access and sound guides were some of the measures introduced.

“Following a major rebuild, the museum then re-opened in 2001. The new art gallery highlighted works by Lowry, including three newly acquired oil paintings.”

Today the museum’s collection of artwork includes just under 500 paintings, the most recent of which being Elizabeth McGill’s Rooks – which was bought in 2011.

“There is still a focus on works of strong local interest, but today’s acquisitions also reflect cultural diversity, social issues and under-represented sections of society,” said Shauna.

“Sunderland Corporation’s aim in 1846 to provide a museum ’for the instruction and amusement of the inhabitants of the borough’ is still true today. Last year the museum received 340,156 visitors.”

The Art for Sunderland exhibition will run until June 5. Admission is free.

Sidebar: History of Art:

Sunderland Corporation established a museum at the Athenaeum, Fawcett Street, in 1846.

A painting by Mark Thompson was the first painting in Sunderland’s art collection in 1850.

The current museum opened in 1879. A room showing just paintings opened in 1880.

By 1898 the Corporation owned 104 paintings.

A report on the Art Gallery in 1906 recommended several paintings be discarded.

The 6d gallery entry fee was abolished in 1906. It was decorated in the same year.

John Dickinson, head of a marine engineering firm, left 31 paintings to the museum in 1908.

Between 1904 and 1920 no paintings were purchased.

An appeal in 1920 raised £400 and four modern paintings were bought.

The depression, as well as a lack of storage space, stopped collecting in the 1920s and 30s.

Sunderland School of Art moved from the Town Hall to Ashburne House in 1934.

Pictures were removed during World War Two and stored in Hexham, Langley and Durham.

The Echo marked their return with the headline: Former Favourites return from Evacuation.

The Art Fund gave two paintings by 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Panini in 1955.

Museum bought its first L. S. Lowry oil painting, The River Wear at Sunderland, in 1963.

Sunderland Museum became part of Tyne & Wear County Museum Service in the 1970s.

The first major exhibition featuring Sunderland artist Clarkson Stanfield was held in 1979.

Plans to revamp the museum and build a new Winter Gardens were announced in the 1990s.

Thieves stole Lowry’s painting Young Man in 1998. It has not been recovered.

The Museum re-opened after the revamp in 2001. Lowry pictures were among first exhibits.

Sidebar: What to see at the new exhibition

Paintings have been hung in the date order they were purchased/donated, rather than produced.

Introduction screen:

Brigands Dividing the Booty, by Sir John Gilbert 1872-73: Purchased for the museum in 1896.

Freestanding screen: Opening of South Dock, Sunderland, in 1850: Commissioned by Sunderland Corporation from Mark Thompson for 30 guineas. It was the first painting in museum’s collection.

Glass case: Containing paintings by artist L. S. Lowry.

1850-1907 Section:

Mrs. Thompson of Sunderland, by Charles Baxter, 1800s: Bequest from Mr T. Thompson, 1895.

The Fashion Plate, by Luigi Da Rios, 1886: Purchased 1888.

‘Oh, why I left my hame?’ by Thomas Faed,1886: Purchased 1901.

Borrowdale, Cumberland, by James Peel, mid 1800s: Purchased 1886.

Watering Place, by James Ward, early 1800s: This landscape was originally attributed to Thomas Gainsborough, but has since been re-attributed to Ward. Bequest from Mr T. Thompson, 1895.

Old Sunderland, by Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy, 1885: Born on a ship as his parents travelled to Australia, he later lived in Sunderland for a few years. Given by T.W. Backhouse, before 1906.

Dicky Chiltern’s House, Bishopwearmouth Green, by Dingwall Burn Tate, late 1800s: Chilton was an eccentric who lived in squalor despite being born a gentleman. Purchased 1881.

Thomas Dixon, by Alfred Dixon: The subject is Thomas Dixon, a Sunderland cork-cutter who was also a highly learned and cultured man. Given by Mr. Dixon, 1887.

The Sleeping Priest, by Robert Kemm, 1800s: Gift from J. Dickinson, 1879.

Mistletoe Bough, by William Oliver, 1887: Inspired by Thomas Bayley poem. Purchased 1888.

A Chapter of Accidents, by Godfrey C. Hindley, 1880: Purchased 1881.

1908 Dickinson section – all bequeathed in 1908:

The Thames at Greenwich, by Sebastian Pether, early 1800s

A Scene from Scott’s The Talisman, by Charles Landseer, 1838.

The Passage of the Bidassoa, by Richard Beavis, 1886.

A Scene from The Lady of the Lake, by Alexander Johnston, exhibited 1849.

Lake in North Wales, by Sidney Richard Percy, 1856.

A Spate in Glen Spean, Inverness, by Richards Ansdell, 1868.

1909-1945 section:

Sunderland Races at Tunstall Hope, by unknown artist, about 1835-40: The races started in 1835 after a gap of nearly a century. Previously held on Town Moor. Gift from J. S. Barwick, 1911.

Autumn on the Somme, by Sir Ernest Albert Waterlow, early 1900s: Purchased 1920.

Short Sunderland Flying Boat on Convoy Patrol, by Roy Anthony Nockolds,1942: Gift from Short Brothers, Rotherham, 1942.

1946 -1959 section:

Ronda, Spain, by Oliver Hall, early 1900s: Gift from local Sunderland historian J. W. Corder, 1947.

Hylton Ferry, by Ralph Hedley,1910: Completed during a rain shower in April 1910. Gift from Mr. Aitchison in memory of his cousin James Cuthbert Morton, late Coroner of Sunderland, 1948.

River Wear, Sunderland with Shipyards, by Walter Norman,1955: Part of an exhibition of 20 pictures by Norman held at Sunderland Museum in 1955. Purchased 1955.

Spring in the Suburbs by Francis Dodd, 1925: Purchased 1950.

1960s section:

Sun Plane, by Allen Jones, 1963: Purchased 1963.

Midland Landscape II, by Prunella Clough, mid 1900s: Purchased 1965.

Wheatfield, by Anthony Gross, 1962: An almost abstract view of a wheat field. Purchased 1963.

Mykonos, Greece, by John Keith Vaughan, 1961: Gift from the Contemporary Art Society, 1968.

Burnt Penumbra, by Ian Stephenson, 1961: Born in County Durham, he studied at the Department of Fine Art, King’s College, Newcastle, in the 1950s. Gift from the Contemporary Art Society, 1965.

Screen Facing 1960s section: Winter, Cumberland I, by Sheila Fell, pre-1963: Purchased with assistance from the Contemporary Art Society.

1970s section:

Suspended Forms, by Sir Terence Frost, 1967: Frost, a former prisoner of war, went on to become a professor of painting at Reading University. Gift from the Contemporary Art Society, 1972

The Slow Dance of the Nativity, by Michael Ayrton, 1958: Fought in World War Two and was an art critic, novelist, historian, film director, theatrical designer, artist and broadcaster. Purchased in 1978.

1980s section:

Last Man Ashore, by James Stokeld, 1865: This painting by Sunderland-born Stokeld shows a successful rescue, probably on the south pier at Sunderland. Purchased 1980.

Figure in Studio, by Sally Moore, 1983: Gift from the Contemporary Art Society in 1986.

1990s section:

Singing Lover’s Farewell, by Neil MacPherson, 1986: Gift from Contemporary Art Society, 1992.

Reflection, by Rosa Lee, 1991: Gift from the Contemporary Art Society, 1996.

2001 – present

The Happy Garden, by Ged Quinn, 2004: Painted in the style of a 17th century view, the patterns of the garden planting imitate viruses such as HIV. Gift from the Contemporary Art Society 2005.

Triple Self Portrait, by Jeffrey Sarmiento, 2007: Funded by James Wilson Bequest Fund, 2008.

Rooks, by Elizabeth Magill, 2007: Purchased with assistance from Contemporary Art Society 2011.

Painkillers, work by Katya Filmus, 2011: Purchase funded by James Wilson Bequest Fund, 2010.