Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Jacob Epstein

Garman-Ryan collection under threat at Walsall

Here we go again.

Quite a few posts on this blog have been focused around the excellent New Art Gallery in Walsall, a prestigious building opened in 2000 at a cost of shed-loads, which houses an extraordinarily fine permanent collection based around the amazing Garman-Ryan Collection given to Walsall in the ‘seventies by Kathleen Garman, Jacob Epstein’s widow and a Black Country girl born and bred. The Gallery also houses an important Epstein archive.

Astonishingly, the future of the Gallery is now in jeopardy. Under severe financial pressure from the government’s austerity programme, the Lib-Lab coalition running Walsall Council is floating a draconian withdrawal of funding which, it seems to me, would bring inevitable closure. More detail down below, but meanwhile, if you’re interested, here are some readable links with fuller stories, including (end of the list) one to a petition to save the Gallery:

BBC news     The Art Newspaper     The Guardian   The petition

Finally, as promised, the small print. Here’s the relevant bit from the Council’s horrific “Summary of Revenue Policy Savings by Portfolio for Consultation.” (Click to enlarge if need be, or skim down to my closing comments.)

doc-combo

So, a £100K kick up the bum next year to wake things up, then a year’s grace, then in 2019 the £470K subsidy will be reduced at a stroke to £80K. No matter how they dress this up as an “opportunity” (don’t they always?), I just can’t see enough “new business” or “philanthropic support” arriving by then to plug a gap of such proportions, even with sensible trimming. Something brave and creative is needed from the Council here, with a commitment not to go for closure while solutions are being found.

A note on “environmental implications”, further on in this document,  anticipates the Gallery building being “disposed of”. What happens then to the collection? I’ve no idea what legal provisions may have hedged in Kathleen Garman’s gift to the Borough, but if they’re not watertight and more, I can see Sotheby’s rubbing their grubby hands already.

I’ve no intention of allowing this issue to hijack the blog as happened with Mandergate a couple of years back, but if a campaign coalesces somewhere beyond the existing petition page, I will post a link.

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A Vorticist frog

I’m charmed by a little item that’s popped up in Raquel Gilboa’s 2009 study of Jacob Epstein that I don’t remember seeing before – a wonderful carving in red sandstone of an abstracted frog, about 20 by 29 cm, credited only to a “private collection”, and speculatively dated to 1913-14. Gilboa attributes this more probably to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, on the grounds that both subject and material fit Gaudier better, and that none of the Epstein family recalled seeing it lying around. I suppose it’s not entirely incompatible with Epstein’s mating doves of that era, but that’s the only possible point of connection, and his work of the period is more concerned with weighty symbolisms of procreation than with pure reconfigurations of form such as this.

frog
On the other hand, the “Chenil Blue Book” sketchbook of Gaudier’s at the Tate, dated to 1913-14, does contain a little sketch of a frog seen from above. Not that this clinches it, but the Chenil (a great online browse, by the way) has other drawings linked to a number of small sculptures by Gaudier, including two of fish, though his little animal pieces are in bronze, not stone like the frog. Quite a few doodles in the sketchbook seem, to my uneducated eye, to be drawn from Aztec or Mayan motifs, and the little frog maybe has something of this look. So, on balance, Gaudier it is – perhaps …

conway
When did this little frog surface to hop into the Epstein oeuvre? Both Gilboa and the Courtauld site reference it to the 1987 Epstein show at Leeds and Whitechapel, so I’m guessing that that was its emergence in modern times. Where was it before then?

Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing. Vehicular, almost presciently tank-like in fact, eyelids closed, fingertips touching, mouth an impassive straight line, it sits as if in deep meditation of its own frogliness. Extraordinary how Gaudier (if it was he) could stare at the block and see this form trapped within it, reducible. There are some striated chisel marks behind the eyes, while the hump at the rear seems to have been left a bit roughly shaped, so one wonders if it’s actually finished, not that it matters. If this is Gaudier’s, it is a clear point on the trajectory of his project to synthesise the natural and the mechanical, the project truncated by his early death in war. (But before the appearance of tanks.)

(Incidentally, I can’t see any photo credit in Gilboa’s book for the image used there; a colour version of the same photo turns up in flickriver, credited to a Ras Marley of Philadelphia, but it’s clear that not all photos in his name are originals, so I’m assuming that’s lifted from elsewhere. I show it here, up above. If anyone objects, by all means shout.)

Aphrodites among the roses

A bit haltingly, I’m working through Raquel Gilboa’s ... And there was Sculpture, the first volume of her 2009 Jacob Epstein study, covering his career up to 1930. It’s good. Her revealing emphasis on Epstein’s Jewishness, largely ignored by others, provides valuable new understandings. But I was perplexed for a while by the strange familiarity of the great cover photo of Epstein bashing away at the beginnings of Maternity, finished in 1912. Of course! Its echo is in Tony Hancock’s magnum (very magnum) opus Aphrodite at the Waterhole, from his justly celebrated 1961 film The Rebel, about which there is much online, though no excerpts on YouTube, sadly, thanks to copyright issues. Yes, the primal memory of direct carving runs deep.


At a bit of a tangent to this, but still in the realm of chunky stone Epsteinian Aphrodites, a visit to David Austin Roses at Albrighton near Wolverhampton has provided a fresh acquaintance with the sculptures of the late Pat Austin, a talented carver, whose stone pieces nicely punctuate the super-abundant floriferousness of the rose gardens. I’m never quite sure about garden statuary, most of which seems to have a contextual bias towards naffness, but Pat Austin’s carved sculptures are really rather fine, in a retro-symbolist, late British neo-romantic sort of way, and it’s quite a surprise to come across them in a garden centre, albeit a very fabulous garden centre.

pat austin

Pat Austin

Her chunky lion is predictably popular with visitors, but I far prefer the stately stone maidens and the vaguely Palmerish panels. These garden pieces are catalogued on the PMSA site, but apart from a carved frieze outside Albrighton Health Centre, I’m not aware of any more of her work on public view.  Anyway, here’s a few snaps of the sculptures, by way of a nod to a remarkable but little known woman with chisel. (Click on thumbnails for slideshow / enlargements.)

The darker side of Sonny

Theodore Garman at work

Theodore Garman at work

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is currently showing off its new Auerbach – a version of To the Studios from 1983, once owned by Lucien Freud, and now at Walsall via the Accepted in Lieu tax scheme. And here it is. In my humble opinion it’s not quite his best – a bit muddy and muddled in the middle – but still worth showing off, of course.

What Walsall rarely shows off are two fine Auerbach-ish works they already have by a less known painter on whom they hold a virtual monopoly – Jacob Epstein’s son Theodore Garman. Find him on the Art UK site and 23 paintings come up, all but one at Walsall.

'The Blue Girl' 1948

‘The Blue Girl’ 1948

Theo Garman, born in 1924, was Epstein’s son by his partner Kathleen Garman, though Epstein never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Due to his cheerful childhood disposition he was known as “Sonny”, but in his adult years he suffered grievously from depression, and was given a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, as his instability deepened, he required considerable care from his mother Kathleen. As a painter he moved in an artistic environment, but was essentially a self-taught loner, admiring Matisse and Matthew Smith but dismissive of “the Sutherland-Piper-Moore claptrap”.

Exhibitions at the Redfern in 1950 and 1952 were applauded, Matthew Smith expressing “wonder, admiration, and even astonishment”; Wyndham Lewis, always an acute critic in The Listener, was more wisely measured, finding himself “overwhelmed by a rancid vegetation, tropically gigantic,” but judging nevertheless that Garman’s painterly vitality “assures this artist of a high place among his contemporaries.”

GrayThere’s no denying that the so-so landscapes and still lives of Garman’s earlier years had toughened up admirably by the late ‘forties, and his Matissean looseness had become more of a freedom than a weakness. Jennifer Gray, whose M Phil thesis on Garman sits unpublished in Walsall’s archives, but who authored the 2004 booklet on him, speculates that “his illness, far from inhibiting his creativity, may have enhanced it, allowing him to be liberated and able to explore new ideas and techniques.” Maybe so, though one wishes to avoid slipping into the suffering genius narrative here.

The two late paintings that best exemplify this late development are The Old Forge Chelsea I and II, produced in 1953, shortly before Garman’s tragic and early death. In these his deepening impasto is matched with tangled, angular, linear shapes and rich, dark, dense colours, reminiscent of Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and of their teacher David Bomberg. Auerbach and Kossoff were still students in 1953, and I’m not aware of any direct connections here, but it certainly looks as if Garman had had second thoughts about some aspects of modernist style.

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

These two paintings are in the care of Walsall but are part of the Beth Lipkin collection, rather than the Garman Ryan, and are infrequently shown. A pity. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

In January 1954 Garman, in something of a disturbed state, borrowed a small statue for a still life from Chelsea School of Art and was promptly accused of stealing it. The police were called. Stephen Gardiner’s 1992 biography of Epstein gives a bare but careful account of what happened next: Kathleen, to prevent his arrest, arranged for his hospital admission, but when the ambulance arrived Theodore, thinking himself kidnapped, was overwhelmed by panic and died of a heart attack while struggling with the male nurses after injections of sedative. He was 29 years old. Despite an anonymous letter to the police complaining of “the barbarous manner in which he was virtually hounded to death” the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Later the same year Theo’s sister Esther committed suicide.

In an appendix to her rather gushy 2004 boho-romp The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans, Cressida Connolly rakes over the circumstances and their associated rumours, but in the process discovers precious little.

It’s too easy to suggest that the dark angularity of these paintings is somehow expressive of Garman’s suffering or reflects the appalling tragedy that overtook the family. But the two works do seem to indicate a deepened and more complex sensibility, and may suggest something of what Garman might have gone on to achieve and sustain if he had lived. Today he is largely forgotten, his “high place among his contemporaries” sadly unassured.

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

Women with chisels: (1) Sally Ryan; (2) Hepworth Mander scandal update

Sally Ryan: not a “sculptress”

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

After all the recent focus here on Barbara Hepworth (see also below), a moment to mention another woman with a chisel, the relatively unknown American sculptor Sally Ryan, more usually thought of as a collector, as a member of the Jacob Epstein circle, and as the second half of the New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan collection. Walsall have recently re-jigged the Garman Ryan for its 40th anniversary, and have made a good job of it. (Except that the inept interventions of Patrick Brill RA, as “Bob and Roberta Smith”, still clutter the place. I guess Brill was bought in to add contemporary edge to the collection, as if it needed it; am I the only one who finds his posturing amateurism plain insulting?)

Sarah Tack Ryan, known to her American friends as Tammie, was the granddaughter of mega-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose lawyer had been famed New York collector John Quinn. As the Milwaukee Journal put it, in a breathless write-up of August 1940:

“Sally Ryan, a resolute wisp of a girl … never cared a whoop about society but cared a great deal about sculpture. So she became a sculptor.

The word ‘sculptress’ is one of her pet hates. To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’ ‘There are many sculptresses among the debutantes,’ she said, ‘but no sculptors.’”

Unfinished Mask

Unfinished Mask

In 1935 Ryan visited London and tracked down Epstein, who became an important influence on her work. The Garman Ryan collection includes a number of her pleasing portrait bronzes in his manner, but I much prefer her carving, represented there by two pieces: a handsome Unfinished Mask in marble, and a remarkably tender limestone Mother and Child that shows the absorbed influences of Epstein, Frank Dobson and early Hepworth. She was a prolific worker, so where’s all the rest of her carving? I’m not sure, though several photos, apparently from the mid ‘forties, show another large mother and child in progress.

As a bit of a rich kid, Ryan didn’t want for publicity shots. I particularly like the first Alfredo Valente photo below where, hammer in hand, she leans meditatively on a large carving, looking boho-preppy in shorts and pumps. Accounts always mention “mannish clothes” – blue or grey flannel slacks and a boy’s shirt, old sweaters and battered oxford brogues – which were taken as a token of her sexuality. A later image shows her as remarkably elegant.

It’s not clear to me for how long she continued to sculpt. Less frequently, perhaps, as the throat cancer that killed her closed in. In later years she devoted herself to buying artworks in company with Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s widow. She died in her early fifties in 1968. [For enlargements and slide shows, click below.]


A write-up in a June 1940 issue of Life suggested that “being the granddaughter of … an American multimillionaire has given Sally Ryan as much incentive to succeed as if she had been born poor and obscure.” No doubt, but one also wonders if it gave her public less incentive to take her seriously and an excuse to dismiss her as a dilettante, rather than the fine sculptor she actually proved herself to be.

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth: Mander scandal update

For anything new on the campaign to rescue Wolverhampton’s Hepworth bronze Rock Form (Porthcurno) from the evil clutches of Royal Bank of Scotland, please continue to check our Facebook page.

gormley storySince the last round-up here nine days ago, the cause has attracted the firm backing of Antony Gormley, the petition has passed 1,100 signatures, and the story has reached –

Midlands Today BBC regional news (August 19)

BBC News Online

Artlyst – also here

Artnet

The Herald Scotland

Delancey and RBS have responded with evasive and non-committal assurances that they are “looking at” ways to keep the sculpture “available” to the people of Wolverhampton. Not good enough! Perhaps the imminent sale of the Mander Centre to a private equity investment outfit will help to sharpen their focus …

Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

Letting Go of Uncertainty: Damien Hirst at Walsall

A trip to Walsall yesterday for a running repair to my hearing aids gave an opportunity to drop in at the New Art Gallery (after a jumbo hot dog from the Mr Sizzle van outside – “Lunch for £1”) to take a look at Damien Hirst’s year long intervention in the Garman Ryan collection. (Only six months to go …)

Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart

Young Damien has seriously knuckled under to the current vogue for “curation”, and is left with little to do but arrange readymades – anatomical models, sea shells – on shelves. He has become essentially a collector of pills, butterflies and other curiosities, which has always been his real vocation, I suppose. His ideal job would probably be in a small museum, except that museums no longer consist of shelves of objects or cases of stuffed animals, having been stripped down to big graphics and interactive doodahs. The museum that Hirst, Cornelia Parker and others yearn to re-create is a childhood memory of a museum – a museum of museums.

Wounds of Christ

Wounds of Christ

At the same time, Hirst seems completely unable to let go of the Christian iconography that he constantly references, whether in his New Religion series (especially the superbly beautiful The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the surprisingly reverential The Wounds of Christ) or in his formaldehyded lost sheep or Lamb of God (Away from the Flock). The former are not at Walsall, but the sheep, looking a little off colour, is there to greet the visitor. Hirst may imagine that he’s critiquing, kitsching or pastiching Christianity in a naughty boy way, but we know better. Whatever his intentions, such images don’t debase the Christian narrative – they revive and inculturate it. I’ll give it ten years maximum for Sir Damien OBE to convert into a practising Roman Catholic.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a dozen Walsall College students, under the banner of “Let Go of Certainty,” have been roped in to “curate” a roomful of vaguely Hirst-themed pieces about life, death, er, the universe and stuff, drawn from the permanent collection. They’ve chosen quite well, but good grief, what’s this “Certainty” they want us to let go of? We’ve all lived with paradox and multi-POV ambiguity for so long now that no one can remember what certainty was. I’m afraid they’re well behind the curve here. What we want today is freedom from Uncertainty.

Enough of “convergences”, of art that “explores”, “is concerned with” or “makes reference to”. Enough squishy flux. Enough indifference. Enough cheap grace. Enough of this post-modern timelessness that is merely the commodification of Eternity.

We’re in need of the hardness of ice, of dogma, of direct touch: Pain, Holy Defiance in the face of tragic extra-personal reality, Mystery, Sacrament, Redemption, the Terrible Beauty of Resurrection, the Hope of Anarchy. And other things that seem to demand Capital Letters.

Speaking of capital letters, the Walsall Gallery is STILL in thrall to the parasitic resident interventions of “Bob and Roberta Smith” (Patrick Brill) that clutter the Garman Ryan rooms. His most recent reflection on the Epstein Archive is an insulting and slatternly “sculpture” of Epstein’s son, the painter Theodore Garman, whacked together in five minutes out of offcuts of firewood, and resembling neither Theo Garman nor anything that might qualify as sculpture. When Jacob Epstein confronts Mr Brill in the afterlife, he will probably want to kick his bottom for this.

The curse of curation

Found a last minute in which to call in on Revealed: Government Art Collection, finishing this weekend at the Gas Hall at Birmingham, but no doubt soon to visit a city near you with a flourish of tinny trumpets.

Core of the show is Cornelia Parker’s “playful” (read: lazy) curation of a big bunch of random pieces plucked from offices and consulates, arranged by her according to their predominant colours – a post-modern dabble which was no less meaningless at its previous outing at the Whitechapel. In his over-lengthy but timely Retromania, Simon Reynolds fastens perceptively on the dangers of “curation” in the modern music scene – music as a vast, futureless museum, with nothing left but tributes and mash-ups. Same here. Visual artists (sorry: creative agents) will soon all be custodians and samplers of heritage, with nothing to say for themselves.

The Parker mash-up has been augmented for this show by other guest curatorships, which at least serve to amplify the dangers of letting Peter Mandelson and Nick Clegg in on the act. Simon Schama’s choices are intelligent but dully historiographical, as you’d expect of a historian.

lowry coronation
I found the gallery full of local taxpayers, curious to see what return their government had got for their dosh down the years. Answer – not a lot, apparently. When officialdom gets its pale hands on purchases and commissions, discernment and quality seem to shrivel. The great big embassy panels by John Piper, for example, must be among his worst work ever. Star of the show – at least for many of the taxpayers – has to be L S Lowry’s risible little painting of the 1953 Coronation procession (above). The wall blurb frankly admits that national treasure Lowry, commissioned at vast expense to crank out a matchstick queen and coach, didn’t get to his seat on time and missed the whole thing, but came back next day to sketch the empty street. He simply invented the rest, and it shows; the result resembles perfectly a piece of mid 20th century school art as cultivated by an art teacher from the Marion Richardson “self-expression” tendency – on-no-account-teach-the-kids-anything-but-let-them-make-it-up. Which, of course, is pretty much where Lowry was coming from and what all his work looks like.

rock drillo'donoghue

A considerable relief to trot round the corner to the main Birmingham Gallery to say hello to the reconstruction of Epstein’s Rock Drill, in the pride of place it deserves. Birmingham now also has Studies for a Crucifixion, a composite carborundum print by Hughie O’Donoghue. Much of his work seems, well, rather watery, but this is big and tough, with blacks as intense as accumulated coal dust. A bit more like it …

Today there has been born to you a deliverer

flenite relief