what has become of Birmingham over all the years since I walked the streets of that city. Here’s a photo I took just below the Rotunda back in 1976 or thereabouts. I doubt you’d recognise anything in the picture including the Grade II listed structure itself – a clue the advert for Double Diamond has gone…as has the beer (actually I just checked and apparently that’s not true…its still brewed allegedly because it is Prince Philip’s favourite tipple). Actually yesterday’s trip (another good day out with my pal Simon) took us swiftly away from this end of town to the other end of New Street. And here you don’t need to look back to the 1970’s for evidence of rapid change as even a gap of a few months reveals another story. Here’s the site of the Birmingham Library…with a good view of the Birmingham Library! The site being the Central Library that opened in 1974 just after I arrived in the city as a post-graduate student…boy…that makes me feel old! Tempus Fugit… Luckily although the entrance faces this construction site the Museum & Art Gallery is still accessible and, as it happens, in excellent form at present. As per our usual we got stuck into the comestibles first – we have our priorities right – and the cake selection and the staff make the grand Edwardian Tea Rooms a real pleasure as well as a beautiful space (score one to Tangye brothers). After that a stroll through the galleries is always rewarding and at present a wonderfully thoughtful and well curated show sits in the middle of the building.
‘Curation’ is a much abused and loosely used word nowadays. If it means anything in terms of contemporary art practice then it surely involves a degree of careful intellectual and emotional construction of a selection of works to create a meaningful engagement with the work. And if you want to see how that should work out go and study John Stezaker’s Turning to See. Any commentary from me is superfluous it simply stands on its own impeccable’ jewel-like completeness.
A friend tweeted a picture recently of her admiring ‘Soaring Flight’ by the incomparable Peter Lanyon. It got me to thinking back to a show I was closely involved in some 37 years back when I worked at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. It was titled ‘Peter Lanyon: Later Works and here’s how it came about… I’d been working at the gallery for just over a year when Hugh Stoddart was appointed Director and in our early conversations either he or I raised our joint interest and enthusiasm for Lanyon. Hugh had been working in the South West as Visual Arts Officer for the region and had, in some way, been fortunate to have met Sheila Lanyon (the artist’s wife) and have the opportunity to view a portfolio or two of drawings, particularly late drawings made on his last trip to the USA. Between us (at his suggestion) the idea of a show emerged. It was a hallmark of Hugh’s unbounded energy and ambition for the gallery that a museum style show (for which we had virtually no resources or funding) might even be contemplated. It was furthermore a measure of his unbounded generosity that he encouraged me (a complete rookie) to take a substantial role in creating such a show – I owe him a lot.
Looking back at the Lanyon materials I have, it might seem I’m making all this up as curiously the show has been omitted from the history…the listings of Ikon exhibitions in both of its survey shows of its history make no reference to it and I know of no recent listings of exhibitions that carry a record of it. And yet it did happen! I have a poster for it here.
As mentioned the gallery operated on a shoestring and often ran a deficit (we several times had to get bail outs from the Arts Council over the four years I was there) hence the plain cheap poster and sadly no publication of any kind. As we were planning it the Whitworth in Manchester was in the latter stages of planning a large show that toured to several venues ending its run a few days before our show opened (I’m fairly sure nobody pointed this out to us and I cannot at this distance quite work out the chronology…as we certainly showed quite a lot of the works also on the tour..?). Nonetheless we were able to put together a good deal of material. Somehow Hugh persuaded Birmingham Museum to let us borrow Offshore and we had a long time supporter of Ikon in the person of Paul Aston (of top quality framers Gales) who lent us his Lanyon, a real beauty – Loe Bar. Lanyon’s dealers Gimpel’s released a fair few works including Silent Coast and key late paintings including Clevedon Bandstand, Clevedon Night and Clevedon Lake. But the real deal was the agreement to let us have access to the drawings. I was deputed to go down to St. Ives over the summer and select from the portfolios a number of previously unseen drawings. My recollections this many years later are briefer by far than I might wish. I do remember being particularly struck by a frottaged work of a Texan car numberplate and thinking it rather ‘pop’ and of others of manmade objects. All distinctly ‘unlanyonish’ as I’d previously known them. Whether these works have been widely seen elsewhere over the past four decades I don’t know…whether they were ever intended to be ‘published’ is perhaps a question too. After all its not at all clear that Lanyon ever intended his constructions to be exhibited but they are a regular feature of more recent surveys of his work. I do recall Sheila Lanyon being a generous host to the rather gauche young man who came to stay. She made me a hearty meal in the kitchen at Little Wheal Owles on Carbis Bay (a place that really ought to have been acquired for the nation given its seminal place in the St. Ives story) where I sat admiring the largest Alfred Wallis painting I’d ever seen (up to and including this very day!) on a table sized piece of timber and then showed me to my overnight room. At the head of the bed was a large Lanyon canvas…again I’m struggling to bring it properly into view but it was whites and very pale greens and as daring compositionally as Silent Coast or more so. Whether it was a completed work or not I do not know, it certainly looked so to me, but I’m pretty certain its not appeared in any of the Lanyon shows I’ve seen. At the time I knew I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to examine Lanyon’s work at such close quarters and over the years it has repaid me as a painter many many times over.