Favourite things from The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery Museum

Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum was renamed The Wilson in 2013 when it reopened after rebuilding. Edward Wilson, son of the town, medical doctor, natural historian and painter is best known as a polar explorer who took part in two British expeditions to Antarctica, both on the Discovery Expedition and the Terra Nova Expedition under the leadership of Scott. (The wider Wilson family were also very supportive of the museum in its early years.) However, fine chap as Wilson was the renaming of the museum in his honour has not been uncontroversial.  Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum clearly was what its name suggested, while to the uninitiated The Wilson could be anything – pub, theatre or cinema (not so far fetched, the cinema in my own home town where Lord Byron the poet is buried is called The Byron!).  I even once heard someone suggest The Wilson was a museum devoted to Harold Wilson, one time British Prime Minister, who, as it happens, has nothing at all to do with Cheltenham!  Wakefield City Art Gallery and Museum has gone down the same path as The Wilson and is now called The Hepworth, after Barbara Hepworth, although her exhibits are only a small fraction of the museum’s internationally important collection. Goodness, it was bad enough when Opal Fruits sweets became Starburst and Marathon chocolate bars became Snickers but at least they didn’t leave you disorientated in a town you’d never before visited.  Let’s hope sanity returns and the name of a building can once more directly refer to what it’s all about inside.

Gardiner, Gerald; The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, Seated, Reading; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-artists-wife-evelyn-seated-reading-61796

Rant over, The Wilson has much about it to love as I hope intermittent posts on some of my favourite things will show. The Arts and Crafts Collection is a designated national collection of international importance and mouthwatering loveliness which is always a good place to wander into when your spirits need lifting or inspiration is in short supply. Marquetry, dovetailed joints, hammered silver set with semi-precious stones and enamelling, lustreware crewelwork, pargeting, printed textiles and painting – the Arts and Crafts Gallery thrusts at you work of hands that glorify the makers and enthuses the viewer.  Cheltenham also has a splendid costume collection which I was told is second only to that in Bath in the UK. Sadly there is no longer space to exhibit, or even properly to store this at Cheltenham; many people recall how for a few short years it occupied the top floor of the now underused Pitville Pump Rooms. Fingers crossed that the costumes will not languish unseen for long.

Gardiner, Gerald; William George Simmonds (1876-1968); Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-george-simmonds-18761968-61798

When my husband showed the picture  at the top of the blog at a recent U3A (University of the Third Age) meeting, it drew many sighs of pleasure and recognition. Although the oil lamp suggested it was not contemporary, many felt the image had a timeless quality. You could so easily have sat down beside the reader and budged her up so as to feel the heat from the fire more – though of course  that would have ruined her stillness and absorption in her reading, and thus the mood of the painting, so you would never have done anything so cataclysmic. A second person is apparent in the picture for their absence. An abandoned newspaper at the side of the less comfortable chair suggests their reading was not as absorbing – perhaps they were off in the kitchen making tea. I do hope so. Painted by Gerald Gardiner (1902-1959) and dated 1935, ‘The Artist’s Wife Evelyn, Seated Reading’, unlike ‘The Wilson’, tells you exactly what you wanted to know about the painting, except you might like to know the room was in their own cottage, in Lower Nash End, Bisley, in the South Cotswolds. My husband lived in a similar cottage in the same village some forty years later and recalls winter life in a stone cottage built into the hillside –  minimal heating, undiagnosed draughts and heavily curtained doors. Brr. Gardiner seemed to like painting his wife in a world of her own for another painting shows her pooled in sunlight languid on a day bed, happily kitting. Once more, we are tempted to join her.  Lamp light/firelight or sunlight, Gardiner makes the light peculiar to winter or summer equally entrancing.

William Simmonds: Autumn Cow (The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum)

Also in the Cheltenham collection is Gardiner’s painting of a Cotswold woodcarver, William George Simmonds (1876-1968) at work in his workshop at Far Oakridge. Cheltenham has a few of Simmonds carvings on display – in particular this wonderful little calf which children love – my grandson makes a bee line for it.  Called Autumn calf, it is painted oak but we call it the chocolate calf – self explanatory really when you see it! For such realistic and tangible animal sculptor, it is a surprise to learn he studied painting under Walter Crane, known for nursery rhyme characters and fairies, although Simmonds’ skill at making and performing with marionettes suggests there was a fantastical element to his imagination too. Like Gardiner his wife was named Evelyn and interestingly she was a skilled embroiderer.

When I decided to blog the painting of the lamplit reader, I never thought I connect it directly to another favourite exhibit, the chocolate cow. I hope The Wilson has many more chains of connection for me to uncover.

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  1. Posted April 8, 2019 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I’m sure it will. It sounds like a real delight of a place. And yes, the two paintings are lovely depictions of what you might call “active repose” – happily engaged in the book or the knitting..

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 11, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Active repose – I like it. I certainly do a lot of it. I could also live very happily with one of those two paintings on my wall – contemplation of active repose would suit me very well!

  2. Amara Bray
    Posted April 22, 2019 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    It does look like chocolate! So glad these little ones are going to museums. I feel like it has really helped my own kids grow up with more open eyes to beauty and art, just from being taken (sometimes dragged) to art museums so often while young.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 22, 2019 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      I agree, Amara. Drag them round – just not for too long. Soon, they learn how to look and visiting museums and art galleries becomes a habit to last a lifetime.

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