Thursday, 15 January 2015

Ben Uri Gallery

108a Boundary Road
St John’s Wood NW8 4RH
Wednesday January 14th 2015

On a very cold January morning Jo and I made our way down Boundary Road from Swiss Cottage, appreciating the wealth of seemingly well- kept social housing provided by Camden Council which lines the street from Finchley Road. Linda remembers all this stretch as a post-war bomb site so it is not surprising that the bulk of housing dates from the Fifties and Sixties as this area was gradually rebuilt. As there are blocks and estates it is difficult to keep track of numbers but once we had crossed Abbey Road (yes that one – see Routes 139 and 189there was a short stretch of mixed shops, very reflective of the area, including 108a which is the current premises of the Ben Uri Gallery.

When we spoke with Laura Jones, who welcomed us on behalf of the gallery, such is the fame that precedes us (not), she explained that these premises – essentially one of the shops using ground floor and basement for exhibition space – was the second home of the Gallery which started life in Soho. They celebrate their centenary this year with an opportunity to display rather more of the 1000 or so pieces in their collection with an exhibition scheduled for the Inigo Jones room at Somerset House later in 2015.   Having limited space means they focus on special exhibitions and this one – due to finish in February – is very aptly called Re-figuring the Fifties and features five artists. And, to use a hackneyed phrase, it very much does what it says on the tin. The five selected artists, coming after nearly a century of successive waves of Impressionist landscapes and scenes, cubism, fauvism, modernism, expressionism – and doubtless several other isms I have omitted – chose to return to figurative art. This does not mean that any of the featured ARTISTS have not been influenced by what has gone before but rather they have incorporated trends into their very personal styles. What is more each artist identified very closely with the areas where they lived and worked, and this gives their art a special edge.

LS Lowry, the enigmatic rent collector, needs no introduction and there are several of his works on display here – closely identified with Salford and the factory gates, the works here show smaller groups and more individual pieces though to call them portraits did not feel quite right – there are faces but we were not sure they were real people except perhaps for the professor bent against the weather (rather like today). Lowry’s work is always pleasing but while his name might have tempted people over the threshold it was not his work that lingered in the memory.

The other male artist, Josef Herman (a Polish-born Jew, hence the Ben Uri Gallery links) worked for many years in a Welsh mining village where he recorded the lives of the workers. His paintings are often very dark and at a superficial level do not photograph or reproduce that well; they do however convey absolutely what it takes George Orwell several chapters to convey (see ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’) – namely the weary demeanour of those who spend their working life underground, under pressure and at the time he was recording their lives (just as the coal industry had been nationalized) probably underpaid. I loved the chap in the canteen with his hot (sweet?) tea. 

Neither of the male artists made an especial study of women or children so it was refreshing to find a roomful of paintings whose main subjects were children – sometimes babes in arms in what can only be seen as echoes of the classic Madonna and Child depictions through the centuries, sometimes with their mothers, sometimes alone or a delightful sketch of a young boy entrusted to hold his younger baby sibling – you can practically hear the guiding adult ‘off-screen’ so to speak. Eva Franfurther had lived in Soho and worked as a 'nippy' or at least for J. Lyons Tea Room so the portraits of her fellow workers are very evocative.  She also befriended them enough to paint them ‘relaxing’ or more accurately resting after work.  These include West Indian (as they were called at the time) families and also a wonderful family group from the East End where she also lived and painted. The children are realistic and natural but as an artist she captures more than just the image of a good photographer.  Joan Eardley in Glasgow was doing similar work amongst the equally deprived of her community - 
Though not a native Scot she embraced both the countryside and people and her works on display here show a really empathy with her subjects.

The last artist featured in this excellent exhibition is Sheila Fell  whose work was bought and admired by Lowry and whose father was a miner – she too painted them and her native Cumbria, in bold shapes and colours. Less inclined to feature children than her fellow artists she nevertheless has a strength and energy and in her paintings which include more formal commissioned portraits as well as the ordinary folk whose lives she recorded.

We both greatly enjoyed this modest but absorbing exhibition which drew together contemporaries from the Fifties (the women all died in their forties) who had all chosen figurative painting  as their preferred interpretation,  but which gave a wonderful range of subjects, approach and execution within these boundaries.   

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