Opened in 1917, the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead houses one of the UK’s least known art collections. It is one that contains many gems and some of the finest and most interesting paintings of their kind in the country. I was lucky to be curator there for some time and would like to highlight some of them.
The gallery’s eclectic painting collection is largely the result of the mammoth and, it has to be admitted, largely indiscriminate collecting activities of local solicitor Joseph Shipley, who made himself rich on the building boom of nineteenth-century Tyneside.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Shipley bought over 2,000 paintings, locally and through hard-pressed agents working for him in London, who searched through the dusty storerooms of dealers for what they hoped were hidden masterpieces. On his death in 1909, however, the bequest of his enormous collection was rejected by Newcastle, on rumours of its quality, and as it had recently built the Laing Art Gallery. However it was accepted by Gateshead and then winnowed down by a selection committee to 504 paintings. Apart from £100,000 left to local public and charitable institutions, Shipley’s bequest included a sum of £30,000 to build a beautiful gallery, eventually designed by Newcastle architect Arthur Stockwell. The rest of the collection was sold at an eight-day auction in Newcastle, raising an average of just over £3 per painting (how many other masterpieces got away in that sale?).
Of the paintings accepted for the new gallery, the earliest is the outstanding large double-sided panel Christ in the Temple and The Reviling of Christ from a German altarpiece of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the Passion of Christ. It is by Dürer’s pupil Hans Schäufelein and an anonymous artist known as the Master of Engerda, and was made when these two artists were working in Hans Holbein the Elder’s studio in Augsburg. The images were inspired by, or based on drawings by, Holbein. Painted around 1510 with horrible realism, this is one of four surviving wing panels from the dismembered altarpiece; the other three are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie. So the Shipley is in good company.
From later in the sixteenth century is Pieter Balten’s rare Saint John the Baptist Preaching, watched by a cross-section of ordinary people in the colourful costume of their day. From the seventeenth century, Dutch and Flemish works cover every genre. The extraordinary ‘breakfast piece’ by Clara Peeters, Still Life with Shellfish and Eggs, is one of only two paintings by this rare woman artist in Britain. The top portion of the panel is missing and has had to be reconstructed, but the original composition can be judged from the almost identical upper portion of her Still Life with Crab, Shrimps and Lobster in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
There are fine signed landscapes and seascapes by rare artists such as Jan van der Heyden and Jan van Leyden; religious subjects like Benjamin Cuyp’s moving Adoration of the Shepherds, and mythological stories such as Casper Casteleyn’s stunning and very rare Croesus Showing Solon His Riches (from whom we get the phrase ‘as rich as Croesus’). This is Casteleyn’s only work in the UK and I believe undoubtedly by him, although only ‘attributed’ to him on Art UK. Based on comparison with the only other comparable work by him, in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, his authorship has been agreed by art historian, Christopher Wright.
Shipley seems to have been rather more interested in religious and mythological subjects, which are more common in Flemish art, than in the contemporary realism of Dutch artists of the period. Outstanding among his Flemish paintings are Abraham Janssens’ classical Diana after the Chase and Joachim Wtewael’s The Temptation of Adam. The Janssens was doubtless made to decorate the dining room of a Flemish landowner in the early 1600s. It shows Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature, with her attendants and hounds and the beautifully painted trophies of the hunt in the foreground. It is one of only two works by this powerful artist in UK collections (the other coincidentally being in Wolverhampton, where I began my curatorial career!).
Of the same period, the Wtewael is a textbook example of mannerist refinement: Adam and Eve elegantly but naturally posed among the plants and animals of the Garden of Eden.
This strong core of fine sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish works was supplemented in 1985 by David Teniers’ beautiful Interior of a Tavern, of about 1640, given by the National Art Collections Fund from the important bequest of Edward Cook’s collection. The figures are more sympathetically and sensitively portrayed than in some of Teniers’ peasant subjects, comparable to the fine painting of a similar subject in the National Gallery.
The eighteenth century is not well represented, but Shipley was happy to buy more recent works. He bought (by accident, believing it to be by Millais) a rare and remarkable early Pre-Raphaelite work by Walter Howell Deverell, his Scene from ‘As You Like It’, of around 1850. Deverell died tragically early, aged only 27, in 1854 and was close to being one of the founder members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group’s devotion to detail and nature, their use of pure colours and striking sense of composition are very evident here.
Of a similar period is a most interesting example of early Victorian artists’ interest in social issues, Richard Redgrave’s The Poor Teacher (1845), which highlights the lonely plight of educated, unmarried young women in the mid-nineteenth century. A variant is in the V&A. Like other nineteenth-century collectors Shipley was not immune to the lightly disguised pin-up qualities of Charles Landelle, for example his Ruth – the noble (but seductive) widow working in the fields – painted in 1886.
Of the same period, but in striking contrast and acquired later by the Shipley Art Gallery, are examples of the Tyneside social realist Ralph Hedley, such as Out of Work of 1888, set on Newcastle’s Quayside, with Gateshead’s across the river, and Seeking Situations, of 1904. The North-East’s industrial growth was frequently interrupted by depressions, recorded relatively unsentimentally by Hedley.
In contrast, William Irving’s rumbustious Blaydon Races (painted in 1903 and purchased for the gallery 100 years later) celebrates Tyneside working-class life at one of its famous social occasions, also the subject of a famous Geordie music hall song, and still a feature of Newcastle United home games. The painting caused a sensation when it was first exhibited in an art dealer’s window in Newcastle.
The gallery has not consciously collected contemporary art: Winifred Nicholson’s glowing and vibrant Mount Zara (1974) is a rare exception. Winifed, who seperated from Ben Nicholson in the 1930s, had her home in Bankshead, Cumbria, where she died in 1981. She travelled extensively, especially to Greece, but her interest in the traditional crafts of the North of England, particularly rag rugs, provides the link with the Shipley Art Gallery.
The collection’s focus, from the 1970s under Tyne and Wear Museums and its successors, has been on traditional and contemporary crafts: regional traditional crafts, especially quilting, and the whole range of British contemporary craft. It now has one of the finest such collections in the country, crowned by the recent generous bequest of the personal collection of one of the leading private collectors and dealers in European studio ceramics, the late Henry Rothschild.
The collections of Joseph Shipley and Henry Rothschild, created 100 years apart, are irresistable reasons to visit this gallery, in the town now put firmly on the UK’s cultural map by the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Sage Gateshead, and the Angel of the North.
Andrew Greg, National Inventory Research Project, University of Glasgow