Continuing with the Heritage Week, I’ve been on a fantastic tour around Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and it was purely by chance that I managed to do it. Initially I heard that I had to book to join it, but when I rang I couldn’t get hold of anyone. So, when I went to Wolverhampton I thought I would pop into the gallery to have a nose around the exhibitions, but- to my delight- the lovely staff allowed me to tag along when I asked about the tour. So a big thank you to the gallery for letting me do the tour!
I have taken some photographs of the some of the exhibitions at the gallery so you can see how amazing it is inside. They have a fantastic collection of Victorian and Georgian art, as well as a great exhibition on Harry Eccleston, the artist who famously designed bank notes. I shall be detailing more about their collections later.
Eccleston produced revolutionary 1970s designs for British banknotes. Alongside sketches and proofs for Eccleston’s iconic Series D notes, which feature historic figures such as Florence Nightingale, Sir Isaac Newton and Shakespeare, are his master drawings of the Queen.
The Victorian gallery…
How cute are the little interactive desks? I think they are a really great idea. One of them had dressing up for children to play with too. Fantastic!
So, on with the tour!
The tour was given in three parts, the first part was led by the Collections Manager, Rachel Lambert-Jones. Rachel took us down to the archives where they hold some of their stored collections of approximately 1800 objects including fine art, sculpture and their weird and wonderful items such as geology specimens.
The gallery has eleven store rooms in the basement and there was an oil painting store room (with 900 oil paintings!) which used to be a life drawing class room for the School of Art which used to be based there until the gallery took it. There are 130 years of history at the art gallery, and lots of changes have happened!
One of the watercolours in the collection: Wolverhampton High Green, JMW Turner, Watercolour, 1796, (Black Country Museums)
In 2007 a grant allowed the oil paintings to be moved and the room Rachel took us in is now a research meeting room. Inside there is also a crate store which has packing materials, a sculpture storage space for overspill which also has old bicycles! It was interesting to know that 95% of the collection is in store! Although objects do get circulated, presented on loan, so eventually they all get their chance to be shown.
Rachel then talked us through the collections. The objects they hold at the gallery have great local importance, such as the drawings, prints and geology specimens and these have been photographed and made available online on the Black Country History website. The gallery are proud to say that they hold the most nationally significant objects compared to other galleries.
Although the gallery is famous for its Victorian and Georgian oil paintings which are a strong aspect to the collection, their 1960s Pop Art and Northern Ireland collection have both become just as strong, and this has allowed this small regional gallery to become linked to larger galleries such as The Tate, especially when items are shared on loan, and exhibited with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery tag! For example, the Roy Lichtenstein ‘Purist Painting with Bottles’ which was exhibited in Madrid alongside loans by well-known national galleries.
Rachel then talked through the conservation processes that are undertaken. A golden rule is basically ‘don’t handle things’ as movement is restricted to help preservation- even clean hands leave residue. The gallery deals with ‘preventive conservation’ as this stabilises conditions. ‘Active conservation’ is carried out off site and is more technical- Cardiff and Northumberland University deal with this as objects are sent to them. This helps to save money too rather than hiring a specialist in house. Photographing each object is an important part of this, as with a photograph for reference, the real object may not need to be taken out of storage to be viewed. Putting the collection online has taken four years of solid work!
And it’s not just any old storage that they have, its high quality storage! That means acid-free tissue paper, high-quality cardboard boxes, special Melinex® sleeves that wont deteriorate, for prints and documents. External factors also need to be considered- stable temperature, humidity to stop expansion and contraction of objects e.g. this stops paper undulating. An electronic system helps to monitor and regulate. Sticky traps are placed to monitor insects too such as book lice, moths and silver fish.
Light is the enemy for conservation as light damage cannot be repaired. Light is therefore kept as low as possible in gallery spaces and storage. For example, with costume damage, when people view these items they may think they are ‘moth-eaten’ but actually, light is the culprit. It breaks down the fibres! Watercolours are particularly susceptible to light damage.
Rachel then showed us another store room which contains 1600 works on paper! It was amazing to see how much is actually in the collection. The aim of the gallery is to make this accessible to the public, as this is a collection for the public.
We were then taken back upstairs and the second part of the tour commenced. This was led by Jessica Bromley who gave an insight into how an exhibition of works from the collection is developed, focusing on the ‘Traced’ Exhib.
These are some photographs of the exhibition.
The exhibition itself details the history of the School of Art which used to be there until the gallery was formed, the new Art School is housed next door now. Key lecturers taught at this school and progressed far, such as Robert Jackson Emerson. He created several public sculptures that can still be seen in and around Wolverhampton today. One example being the Harris Memorial in St Peter’s Gardens (see below). He taught between 1910 and 1942. Another famous local sculptor, Sir Charles Wheeler, was one of his first pupils. Their works are seen throughout the exhibition.
It was interesting to know that conservation continues in the gallery space as well as in the archives- temperature, humidity and light is still monitored. For example, the Silver Casket piece by Albert Lilley which is not only in a glass cabinet but also placed on carbon cloth which absorbs humidity.
The tour then continued to the third and final part- the geology collection!
Chris Broughton led this part of the tour which focused on the geology of the Black Country. Chris is both a Documentation Assistant & Geologist. The collection itself contains 10,000 British fossils! It is because of Dr. Fraser that the collection exists. A keen scientist, he collected specimens which date back millions of years. The collection itself contains some amazing finds, such as the ‘Dudley Bug.’
There is also the fantastically preserved head of a million-year-old fish, a dinosaur footprint and a dinosaur jaw. What is really important to note is that these items are local finds. I didn’t realise that there is such a wealth of fossil finds here in the area!
If I thought the conservation of art was tough enough to manage, nothing prepared me for what Chris told me about geology conservation. There are so many threats, for example dust and pollutants (managed through dust covers in drawers where specimens are kept), flood (due to pipes in the basement, the risk of flood is possible, so the collection is placed in raised cabinets), pests (monitored through sticky insect cards), pyrite decay (humidity needs to be below 60% or fossils crumble to dust! Specimens are therefore placed in sealed boxes. HOWEVER, too dry or below 45% humidity, bones in the collection crack and fall apart), radioactivity and radon gas (this comes from rocks such as granite and can cause problems for specimens), toxic minerals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, thallium and also asbestos minerals (these are dangerous to us when handling the collection).
Chris then took us through a bit of time travelling and we explored the area from millions of years ago and how the landscape has changed over time. It was a fascinating presentation and I probably sat with my mouth gaping through most of it, I was a bit in awe.
To find out more, I was told about the website Geology Matters. This details more about the fossil, mineral and rock collections in the Black Country.
Overall, I had an amazing time on this tour, it was so informative and my mind was buzzing with everything I had learnt. Thank you to all the people who produced the tour and were a part of the tour.