Changing Times: A Century of Modern British Art
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent
Eric Ravilious, Observer's Post, watercolour and graphite, 1939. Image courtesy The Trustees of The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)
What an appealing medley of artworks are on show at The Higgins Bedford this autumn and winter.
Changing Times: A Century of Modern British Art, their first large-scale exhibition since reopening last year post-pandemic, brings together more than 80 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from some of the best-loved names in British art to explore the history of the nation’s art of the 20th and 21st centuries.
It’s like a pick ‘n mix bag of tastes and colours. A highly visual exhibition, the themes of the galleries taking second place to the thought-provoking grouping of artworks, the show guides us to notice points of connection between the works whilst at the same time highlighting the strength and breadth of British art of that period.
Where to begin? Let’s start with some names. For instance, there’s that master of restrained, precise pictures, the quintessentially ‘English’ artist Eric Ravilious; then there’s Edward Bawden (of course – no show at this gallery could fail to include his work for the gallery is home to the Edward Bawden Archive), and Paul Nash, Dame Elisabeth Frink, Arthur Rackham, David Hockney and Lucian Freud among many others.
Paul Nash, The Fruit Pickers, watercolour and chalk, 1916. Image courtesy The Trustees of The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)
But first, let’s knock on its head the slightly misleading exhibition title. This puzzled me until I spoke to the exhibition curator, art historian and writer James Russell. Geographically and somewhat temporally the exhibition strays a little from its title, drifting beyond the borders of Britain to show influential foreign artists such as Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Paul Klee, and Max Beckmann, and stretching the century ever so slightly to include a 1793 work by William Blake. Russell explained that he wished to show the undoubted influence of their foreign contemporaries on British artists at that time for they would certainly have seen their game-changing work exhibited in London galleries.
The themes running through the show include artists’ self-portrayals, variously conveyed by gesture, composition and so forth, the development of still-life painting, and the evolution of landscape painting. The labels by the artworks are excellent. Easy to read and informative, they pave the way for visitors to see the visual and thematic connections between the images.
The visual parallels between figures within a landscape are sometimes quite strong. Cézanne’s lithograph of Large Bathers (1896), the oil painting on which it is based initially shocking to viewers, for instance, hangs next to Dame Ethel Walker’s The Bathing Pool 1923, a rhythmic composition reminiscent of a Greek frieze, (suggests the label). And nearby, William Robert’s dynamic 1926 Garden of Eden scene of two lovers (also initially so shocking to people it was withdrawn from an exhibition at Southport in 1928), hangs next to Paul Nash’s tranquil scene of fruit picking, painted in 1916 a year before he went to Flanders during World War I.
Some juxtapositions are inspired. William Blake’s The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child, a pen and watercolour from 1793, for instance, beside Keith Vaughan’s Figure Throwing at a Wave, from 1950, and Lucien Freud’s stunning 1945 drawing Botanical Gardens made on a trip to the Scilly Isles, alongside John Craxton’s exquisite Yellow Estuary Landscape (1943).
Kathe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis im Profil (Self-Portrait in profile), lithograph, 1927. Image courtesy The Trustees of The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)
I could go on. There is a lot of interesting art here, drawn from two important collections: Bedford’s own Cecil Higgins Collection and the Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art.
To see an array of well-loved British artists together is always a joy, but to my mind it’s the way that Russell paired and grouped them that makes the exhibition knit together.
That concept continues into the final gallery, which in some ways is the strongest. Powerful monumental sculptures take centre stage: English sculptor and printmaker Elisabeth Frink’s Riace Figure (1986) and Walking Madonna (1981), together with Ralph Brown’s extraordinary Meat Porters (1959). Here, two of my favourites fit together perfectly, exuding dynamism and modernity: David Bomberg’s boldly colourful The Dancer alongside a classic CRW Nevinson pen and ink drawing of Men Loading Timber at Southampton Docks.
Russell, whose previous exhibitions include Ravilious (2015) and Edward Bawden (2018) at Dulwich Picture Gallery, said, “What a pleasure it has been to explore these two sensational collections, teasing out themes and points of connection. Visitors will see works by dozens of artists, from household names to the brilliant-but neglected. They will be able to trace patterns of development and influence through the last hundred years of British art, or simply revel in an array of artworks that are by turns colourful, mysterious, thoughtful and fun.”
The Higgins Bedford
Changing Times: A Century of Modern British Art
Showing until: 16 April 2023
The exhibition is accompanied by a major new book - Revisiting Modern British Art, published in association with The Ingram Collection and edited by Jo Baring (Director, The Ingram Collection). In this wide-ranging publication, published in October by Lund Humphries, experts in their field, including Changing Times curator James Russell, address specific aspects of British art of the 20th-century.
The Higgins Bedford, a Bedford Borough Council run art gallery and museum, unites on one site three previous cultural venues: Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford Museum and Bedford Gallery. The buildings themselves date back 200 years and have their own rich history of occupation and use, even before they became used for their more recent cultural past. For more information please visit www.thehigginsbedford.org.uk
The Ingram Collection is one of the largest and most significant publicly accessible collections of Modern British Art in the UK. Through its programme of loans and exhibitions, the collection works in partnership with galleries & museums, innovative spaces, and new artistic talent to bring art to the widest possible audience.