Ruth Guild­ing dis­cov­ers a lit­tle-known pub­lic art col­lec­tion, the sub­ject of a new ex­hi­bi­tion, and is as­ton­ished by its qual­ity

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Ruth Guild­ing thinks she’s found the best pro­vin­cial art gallery

Acen­tury ago, a civic­minded phar­ma­cist and JP named robert chip­per­field left the city of Southamp­ton his pic­ture col­lec­tion, a size­able be­quest to found an art gallery and a trust fund for the con­tin­u­ing pur­chase of works to show in it. More cru­cially, he stip­u­lated that the direc­tor of the na­tional Gallery should al­ways be con­sulted in choos­ing them. this was the mas­ter-stroke that made what might other­wise have be­come a de­cent job­bing pro­vin­cial gallery into a trea­sure box of first-rate paint­ing and sculp­ture, now re­garded as hav­ing pre-em­i­nent na­tional significance.

the con­nois­seur Ken­neth clark was first among Southamp­ton’s émi­nences grises, mak­ing su­perla­tive ac­qui­si­tions for the gallery. the pre­sent build­ing is a hand­some tem­ple of art with top-lit gal­leries of an ex­em­plary de­sign, part of a civic com­plex built in the 1930s, when port and city were boom­ing. Mirac­u­lously, it sur­vived the Luft­waffe, but, more re­cently, build­ing and col­lec­tion have lain mori­bund, thanks to a lack of fund­ing, which means that it re­mains lit­tle known.

This was the prob­lem that the Lon­don-based art dealer Jonathan Clark—the ge­nius be­hind the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion—recog­nised and hoped to re­solve. Mr Clark was in the process of wind­ing up the gallery that he has run for 31 years, hav­ing found him­self ‘bored for at least the last four,’ and look­ing around for a vale­dic­tory project to mark his change of di­rec­tion. He turned up at Southamp­ton and saw the col­lec­tion for the first time: ‘It blew my mind.’

Min­utes af­ter ar­riv­ing there, I came upon a pair of ab­stracts by the St Ives painters Wil­liam Scott and Roger Hil­ton, a gilt­framed cabi­net piece, Deux

Chiens, by Pierre Bon­nard, a Sur­re­al­ist col­lage by Eileen Agar, an out­stand­ing still-life by Lu­cian Freud and an en­tire room lined with car­toons by Ed­ward Burne-jones—his never-com­pleted com­mis­sion for the Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian Arthur Bal­four.

The col­lec­tion is ex­cep­tion­ally strong in Bri­tish art of the 20th cen­tury and, when Mr Clark first thought of cu­rat­ing his ex­hi­bi­tion, he combed the gallery’s base­ment store­rooms ‘two or three times’, sift­ing and sift­ing to pro­duce the out­stand­ing portraits and fig­u­ra­tive works from this group that in­clude some of his all-time favourites, ‘although there’s plenty more there’.

This makes for a very rich ex­hi­bi­tion, com­pris­ing some 40 pic­tures hung at eye level and ar­ranged in a loose chronol­ogy. It takes its name from two pow­er­ful full-length portraits hung fac­ing each other on op­pos­ing walls, The Mor­ris Dancer (1902) by Sir Wil­liam Ni­chol­son, dis­tin­guished Ed­war­dian por­trait-pain­ter and fa­ther of the Mod­ernist Ben Ni­chol­son, and The Rat

Catcher (1922), painted by Gil­bert Spencer, who fol­lowed his more fa­mous older brother Stan­ley to the Slade School of Art.

Spencer’s ex­pres­sive por­trait projects psy­cho­log­i­cal awk­ward­ness, his sit­ter pressed stiffly into a kitchen chair on a run­k­led hearthrug, large brown hands clasped pro­tec­tively across pipe and crotch with a scat­ter­ing of spent matches on the car­pet be­tween his black hob­nail boots.

Ni­chol­son’s sit­ter (who danced as the ‘Fool’ with the Eyn­sham Mor­ris, a dash­ing side still fa­mous in and around their vil­lage

to the north of Ox­ford) is a type of no­ble sav­age, his gaze slant­ing yet di­rect, the top hat and cane of his cos­tume in­vested with a dan­di­fied glam­our. The Rat Catcher was pur­chased in 1953, three years af­ter the gallery had ac­quired Stan­ley Spencer’s small but epic trip­tych, The Res­ur­rec­tion with the Rais­ing of Jairus’s Daugh­ter,

which Mr Clark has also selected to hang in this show.

Another of Spencer’s con­tem­po­raries at the Slade, Harold Gil­man, makes a kind of am­bush of his por­trait of the art stu­dent Sylvia Gosse, a sploshy close-up with the arsenic-green low­lights also favoured by his then as­so­ci­ate Wal­ter Sick­ert. By con­trast, Henry Lamb ide­alises the young Edie Mcneill, sis­ter-in-law of his Chelsea Art School mas­ter, Au­gus­tus John, in a ‘swag­ger’ por­trait that is ex­actly con­tem­po­rary, coolly ab­stracted against a limpid coastal back­drop.

Robert Pol­hill Be­van over­looks horse deal­ers at Tat­ter­salls us­ing the high, Post-im­press- ion­ist per­spec­tive that he had picked up while paint­ing with Gau­guin in Brit­tany; his fel­low Cam­den Town pain­ter Wil­liam Rat­cliffe’s vivid scene of an East Finch­ley cof­fee house, painted in 1914, is more ex­cit­ing than any­thing that ever came out of Blooms­bury.

This op­ti­mistic show signs off with fire­works: two ex­u­ber­ant nudes by Hil­ton, the pain­ter with whom Mr Clark’s ca­reer has been closely as­so­ci­ated. If it can lure a new au­di­ence of cu­ri­ous met­ro­pol­i­tans, lo­cals, pa­trons and spon­sors into the gallery, then his ef­forts will not have been in vain.

‘The Mor­ris Dancer and the Rat Catcher: Modern Bri­tish Fig­ure Paint­ings from the Col­lec­tion’ is at Southamp­ton City Art Gallery, Com­mer­cial Road, Southamp­ton, Hamp­shire, un­til May 13 (023–8083 4536; www.southamp­ton.gov. uk/art)

‘Ken­neth Clark was first among Southamp­ton’s émi­nences grises’

Above left: The sit­ter’s psy­cho­log­i­cal awk­ward­ness is sug­gested by the de­tail of Gil­bert Spencer’s The Rat Catcher (1922). Above: Henry Lamb’s Por­trait of Edie Mcneill (1911)

Next week: Queer Bri­tish art at Tate Bri­tain

Sir Wil­liam Ni­chol­son’s The Mor­ris Dancer (1902). The sub­ject is por­trayed as a type of no­ble sav­age with a de­ter­mined gaze

The Cof­fee House, East Finch­ley (1914) by Wil­liam Rat­cliffe

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