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A Potter's Moll: In Praise Of Municipal Art Galleries

…In the 1980’s Jim had one of his first public commissions to make a mural piece for Oldham Art Gallery to commemorate the men from the town who had died as volunteers in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. I enjoyed doing the research for the piece, which recorded the names and the battles in which the men died – many, many along strategic rivers.

The piece features figures in relief with rifles, weaponry and airplanes. (The Spanish Civil war was the first conflict in which civilians were bombed.) At the bottom of the panel there is a quotation from a poem by C Day Lewis:
We came because our open eyes
Could see no other way…

Liz Robison visits the new Gallery Oldham and art galleries in Sheffield.

The last time I visited Oldham Art Gallery must have been in the 1980’s. In the meantime it has become Gallery Oldham and expanded into new premises, which also house the Library and a card and gift selling area.

The gallery rooms are impressive exhibition spaces; light and airy with fine views over rooftops to the Pennine hills beyond. We had gone over there to deliver some of husband Jim’s ceramic work for their next exhibition, Life Forms, Ceramics and the Natural World, which begins on April 26th.

The curator, Dinah Winch, was very hospitable and she took time to show us some of the pots in their store. (A municipal art gallery is like an iceberg: 7/8ths of their stock is in store at any one time.) We handled pots by Norah Braden, Michael Cardew, William Bower Dalton, Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray and Kate Malone: all giants in the potters’ Pantheon.

In 2005 Gallery Oldham held an exhibition ‘Creative Tension’, British Art 1900-1950, and in the book of the same name the curator, Dinah, wrote a chapter about the development of studio pottery in Britain entitled ‘Canvas-Free Artists’, where she dates the rise of interest in ceramics in Britain to an exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1910 of Chinese pots from the Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties.

An extra reason for our visit was to see the current exhibition Out of China, monumental porcelain vases by Felicity Aylieff. There are ten giant porcelain pieces made in collaboration with Chinese potters during a residency at a ‘big ware’ factory in the historic porcelain centre of Jingdezhen. The vases are made using traditional techniques but decorated in a range of innovative ways – surface painting, layered colours, transfer decoration and carving. The exhibition also includes working drawings and illustrated excerpts from the artist’s journal written during the residency.

In the 1980’s Jim had one of his first public commissions to make a mural piece for Oldham Art Gallery to commemorate the men from the town who had died as volunteers in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. I enjoyed doing the research for the piece, which recorded the names and the battles in which the men died – many, many along strategic rivers.

The piece features figures in relief with rifles, weaponry and airplanes. (The Spanish Civil war was the first conflict in which civilians were bombed.) At the bottom of the panel there is a quotation from a poem by C Day Lewis:
We came because our open eyes
Could see no other way.

It was very nostalgic to re-visit the piece, which has now been removed from its original position in the old building and mounted on a board, so it can be easily displayed again whenever there is a significant anniversary of the war.

I also enjoyed the Oldham Panorama, a series of seven photographs taken from the top of a mill in 1873, showing the town being built. There are half-built mills, rows of not-yet-roofed terraces of houses, tons of coal in the railway yard and sheep in the street. And to think it was all over in less than one hundred years.

Our other recent expedition was to Sheffield by train, which is always an enjoyable experience as the countryside whizzes by and your level of sight changes frequently as you are borne on viaducts, through tunnels and in deep cuttings. We set off from Denby Dale where there is a spectacular viaduct that marches across the Dearne valley.

I wanted Jim to see the water features that take pride of place in Sheffield city centre. In the square outside the railway station there is a wonderful stone built cascade where the water runs down different sizes channels and brims over into pools. Because it was sunny the blue sky and white clouds were reflected. Walking up the hill to the Millennium Galleries you have The Runnel on your right. It has a beautiful mosaic bed with some gilded areas, which caught the sun, and the water runs down to a magnificent mosaic-lined plughole. Again there is lovely stone edging – what a great place for students from Sheffield Hallam University students to hang out in.

Halfway up the hill there is an Andrew Motion poem, What if?, reproduced on the gable end of a cliff of a building, which invites you to pause and think just at the very spot where you might like to rest if you were a bit puffed!

The Millennium Gallery had an impressive Contemporary Art Show – film, installation, neon sculptures. At the entrance there was a neon sign saying: ‘WAIT HERE. I HAVE GONE FOR HELP’. Intriguing.

There is a museum gallery dedicated to steel and the metalwork industries of Sheffield, and next door to it the Ruskin Gallery. I love the way many galleries and museums have moved to facilitate actually touching and handling selected exhibits.

And then out into the glorious Winter Gardens – catenary arches soar above you, supporting vast glass panels. Very high, light and airy but also on the scale of a medieval cathedral. There are spacious areas to walk or sit and impressive plantings from all over the world – ferns, palms, grasses and again, water features.

Our final call on this occasion was the Peace Garden – more lovely water features. As well as fountains and cascades there are four channels running across the garden the bottoms of which are tiled with attractive ceramic leaf panels made by Tracey Heyes, who was a colleague of Jim’s in the ceramic department at Bretton Hall College.

You feel so refreshed after a day out like that. Truly food for the soul.

More from me in a fortnight.


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