This exhibition brings together the work of one hundred modern British artists, a vibrant mix of paintings, sculpture and works on paper selected exclusively from the Ingram and Jerwood Collections. These are presented thematically, so that boundaries between different periods and movements are broken down, exposing intriguing relationships and surprising similarities.
Rather than being a historical survey, 'Century' is an exhibition of changing moods: contemplative on the one hand, adventurous and playful on the other. It is designed specifically for the unique interior of the Jerwood Gallery, making use of corridors, corners and changing perspectives to add intrigue and fun. Each room is self-contained, but the exhibition as a whole highlights certain themes. Strong design is seen throughout, as are a certain modesty and a (usually) subtle wit.
The specific themes of the exhibition are suggested by the artists and artworks featured in the two collections, which on occasion complement each other wonderfully. Thus we have a rare opportunity to view together watercolours by artists involved in the medium’s revival between the wars – including Paul and John Nash, Eric Ravilious and David Jones – and to enjoy work by each member of the prestigious group who represented Britain in the 'New Aspects of British Sculpture' exhibition at the 1952 Venice Biennale. Among the artists particularly well represented in the two collections are Tristram Hillier, William Roberts, John Armstrong and Barbara Hepworth.
For my previous exhibition, 'Ravilious' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (2015), I searched far and wide for the best pictures by one sensational artist. For 'Century' I have picked one or more works by a hundred different artists, the main limitation here being that every painting, sculpture, print or drawing belongs to the Jerwood Collection or the Ingram Collection. Both collections owe their particular character to the individuals who have presided over their development, notably Alan Grieve, Director of the Jerwood Foundation, and Chris Ingram, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the Ingram Collection. In one sense, the exhibition reflects the tastes of these two collectors, but from a curatorial point of view it has been an exercise involving a mixture of creativity and discipline.
Could a coherent exhibition be made from these two independent collections, with works in diverse media dating from 1890 to the 2000s? To put it another way: were there particular things that British artists were doing between those dates – themes that they were exploring? I knew a little about all of the artists, and quite a lot about some, but I learnt a huge amount over the year I spent working out how all these different artworks might fit together.
For one thing, quite a number of the artists weren’t British, at least not by birth. Others were the children of first-generation refugees from Europe. Meanwhile, many of the artists who were British spent long periods in Europe, particularly in Paris, where they were exposed to the latest ideas and innovations. I suppose I had previously gone along with the idea that twentieth-century British art was insular, reflecting our island status, but now it seems clear that there was an almost constant flow of people and ideas back and forth across the Channel. This traffic was interrupted during the Second World War but resumed as soon as the conflict ended, and soon new routes also opened up to the United States.
The influences at work on the hundred artists exhibited in 'Century' were immensely diverse, so it’s no surprise to see a wide array of figurative and abstract painting and sculpture. There are certainly themes and tendencies that hold the exhibition together. For one thing many of the artists shared a powerful sense of place, while others display a wry or sometimes sardonic sense of humour. Experimentation seems often to be less important than the feelings the artist has for person or place. Good draughtsmanship is everywhere in evidence. But I readily admit that this an eclectic exhibition of modern British art. It’s wide-ranging and fun, with some lovely works by famous names and also pieces that will be less familiar. I hope we'll show people that twentieth-century British art is exuberant and surprising!
James is an independent art historian specialising in twentieth-century British art and design. His most recent book is The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden (Mainstone Press, 2016)
'Century: 100 Modern British Artists' exhibition is at the Jerwood Gallery from 23rd October 2016 to 8th January 2017