When I have to travel to meetings in the UK and have an overnight stay, I try and go to local art galleries and see what is on offer. I am often somewhat disappointed with the collections. I suppose I expect too much. It is my own fault. I should realise I am not going to find a hidden Uffizi or Prado in a provincial town as I am aware that building up an art collection is a costly affair in this day and age. So, to my great surprise and pleasure, yesterday I discovered a real gem. I was in Cheltenham for a meeting and had the afternoon free so decided to go and find their art gallery. It is called The Wilson and it has a small but wonderful collection of paintings many of which are from an era I particularly love – seventeenth and nineteenth Dutch and Flemish works of art. My blog today is all about the gallery and some of these paintings.
For a gallery to become established it obviously needs a collection of paintings and this almost always means it has to have a benefactor who has bequeathed the gallery a large number of works of art. The regency spa town of Cheltenham and The Wilson had the second Baron de Ferrieres to thank for their foreign painting collection. He died in Cheltenham in 1864 and left his large art collection to his son the third Baron, Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres, who in 1898 donated forty-three paintings and a sum of £1000 to the town of Cheltenham to set up a gallery to house the works of art, and so it was his generosity that today’s gallery began life and was able to house such a rich collection of work.
The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder (1807-1868). Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder was a 19th-century Dutch landscape painter who was born in Middelburg and was the son of the painter, Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek who gave him his early art lessons. Marinus had two brothers, Barend Cornelis and Hermanus who were also artists. Koekkoek was primarily based in Hilversum and Amsterdam, where he later died.
Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal is another fine example from the Ferriers collection. It was painted around 1850 by the Dutch landscape artist, Cornelis Springer who was born in Amsterdam in 1817. Springer became a member of the Amsterdam painters collective Felix Meritis and won a gold medal for a painting of a church interior in 1847. He was the most skilled of the Dutch townscape painters in the nineteenth century. He consistently strived for topographical accuracy in his townscapes and this he achieved by many hours studying the design plans of the original buildings. His townscapes have a meticulous style with attention to light and atmospheric conditions. In this work Springer has somewhat abandoned his normal detailed depiction of the buildings an sought to concentrate the light and atmosphere which makes the depiction more Romantic that topographically correct.
Adrianus Eversen was a pupil of our previous painter, Cornelis Springer and spent most of his life painting in Amsterdam. He, like Springer, was known for his townscapes and street scenes. However, unlike Springer most of his townscapes lacked topographical accuracy. In his painting, Dutch Street Scene, which he completed in 1858, we see a row of buildings which the artist has depicted with architectural accuracy but the setting was probably just a figment of his imagination rather than a real street. He completed many paints of this ilk which were simply entitled “Dutch street scenes”.
A fête champêtre was a popular form of entertainment in the 18th century, and took the form of a kind of garden party. This form of entertainment was especially prevalent at the French court where at Versailles large areas of the park were landscaped with follies, pavilions and temples to have the capacity for such revelries.
The term fête champêtre comes from the French expression for a “pastoral festival” or “country feast” and this may be construed as being a simplistic form of entertainment, but in the eighteenth century, a fête champêtre was usually a very graceful and stylish form of entertainment which would sometimes involve whole orchestras hidden from sight amongst the trees and participants would be in fancy dress. Joseph Anne Jules Le Roy (1853-1922), the Parisian-born painter, was a specialist in military scenes and animals and in this painting of his we see those two themes. In his painting, Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board we see depicted the fête champêtre in the grand manner with the people dressed in Flemish seventeenth century costumes.
This was different to the sumptuous costumes depicted by the French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s in his 1721 painting, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering).
The next painting which is also part of the Ferrieres Collection comes from an earlier period. This is thought to be a late sixteenth century work and is attributed to Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh. He was a Dutch Renaissance painter who was born in Leiden in 1537 and died in the same town in 1614. The work, entitled A Flemish Fair, reminds me of works by one of my favourite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was a contemporary of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh. The depiction of fairs in paintings was very popular in the last decade of the sixteenth century.
Everhardus Koster (1817-1892) was a Dutch painter who specialized in sea and river scenes. He studied at Frankfurt-am-Main’s Stadelsches Kunstinstitut and would later become a member of the Amsterdam Academy and for twenty years was the director of Het Pavijoen in Haarlem, he served as Director of the various museums that were formerly housed in the Villa Welgelegen. One of his paintings, Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen is part of the Ferrieres Collection.
Willem van Mieris (1662-1747) was the most successful genre painter of his generation and a leader of the painters of Leiden. He was a master of cabinet pieces. In this painting, A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern, which is dated 1690, the setting is the interior of an inn. Van Mieris has meticulously depicted the numerous details of the inn itself as well as the table laden with food. Not only is this a genre painting but it is also an extremely talented example of a still life featuring a meal of herring and plaice, a bun of bread and the brown German stoneware jug on the table and let’s not forget the authentic portrayal of the hurdy-gurdy. So what is the painting all about?
Surrendering to the effects of alcohol he has imbibed, the old hurdy-gurdy player has fallen asleep with his instrument on his lap. The sleeping musician, a simple beggar, is dressed in rags. Behind him the female maidservant holds aloft a pouch of money which she may have just taken from the sleeping musician. She is ecstatic. Two other tavern revellers look on in the background. Hurdy-gurdy players were a frequent theme in Dutch peasant painting. They were people who would liven up happy gatherings with the primitive and penetrating sound of their instrument. Willem shared his liking of depicting lively tavern scenes such as this one with his father Frans van Mieris the Elder. Willem painted several hurdy-gurdy players set in an inn.
Besides the Dutch and Flemish paintings bequeathed to The Wilson there were some interesting works that the museum had acquired over time. The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading is a work by Gerald Gardiner. Gardiner worked at the Cheltenham School of Art teaching drawing and painting from 1927 until his death in 1959. It is a painting which exudes the quiet domestic atmosphere of life at home. This work was painted at the Bisley home of Gerald and Evelyn Gardiner and is an example of the artist’s depiction of a night-time scene with his wife enjoying the company of her book, showing up the light, reflections and shadows which are cast by the gas lamp and fire as his wife reads. It wonderfully encapsulates an atmosphere of domestic bliss and, for us, nostalgia as we see Evelyn reading a book by gas-light in front of the fire. Gardiner was particularly interested in painting night-time scenes and here he balances a powerful composition and the subtle effects of light. Gerald Gardiner was born in 1902. He studied at Beckenham School of Art and the Royal College of Art where he was awarded an Associateship with Distinction in 1926. In 1927 he was appointed second master at the Cheltenham School of Art, in charge of the drawing and painting department, later becoming Painting Master, where he worked until his death
Stanley Spencer was one of the most original artists of the modern age and it was good to see one of his works hanging in The Wilson. Spencer’s paintings have special characteristics; we are urged to work out the story behind each painting and the work on show, Village Gossip is no exception. It was painted around 1939 whilst he was on holiday in the Gloucestershire village of Leonard Stanley. I will leave you to work out what you think is going on this painting. Look at the body language of the woman on the right with her arms tightly folded across her chest. Look at the accusing stance of the elderly man and woman on the left. Even the small girl points towards the young man in an accusatory gesture. He bows his head in a somewhat remorseful manner. What is he being accused of?
There were so many other excellent works of art on show at The Wilson and if ever you are in or around Cheltenham, I urge you to pay it a visit.