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Slow Art: When Gainsborough saved the day

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The Art Galleries in the Ulster Museum are a very flexible spaces, allowing us to host a wide range of exhibits. Over 2018 Autumn/Winter we had the brilliant Dippy touring exhibition from the Natural History Museum and also the annual Royal Ulster Academy Show. This left us with very little space to have much of our own permanent collection on display for 4/5 months. As Slow Art is normally a conversation/discussion on one of our exhibits, it becomes more difficult when there is a limited choice. Slow Art is sometimes just about getting the kernel of an idea on how to approach a subject – how to make it interesting to the public and give some insight or background into an artist, a movement, a period of time or specific techniques.

After 3/4 months with limited choices, we had highlighted nearly everything on show. Slow Art Sunday in January was almost upon us. Enter Thomas Gainsborough life-size portrait of Arthur 1st Marquess of Donegal, in our collection, but not currently on show. However, there was in the RUA exhibition a photographic print ‘College Girl 2017- a portrait after Gainsborough’ (John Roch Simons). This was a light bulb moment - my colleague Jonathan Beavis and myself agreed to take a look at the RUA exhibition and see if there were any other pieces which directly or indirectly could be linked our collection?

Image: Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall 1739-99 (c.1780) Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 © National Museums Northern Ireland. Purchased with the aid of a grant from the National Art Collections Fund.
Arthur, 1st Marquess of Donegall 1739-99 (c.1780) Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 © National Museums Northern Ireland. Purchased with the aid of a grant from the National Art Collections Fund.

Looking at the RUA exhibition with this in mind, the subject matter blossomed. We had a myriad of styles mediums and subjects to talk about.

Normally Slow Art is a discussion on one or two pieces that we can research in-depth the artist, techniques and the context of the work. However in approaching the RUA show, we had little of this, as many of the entries are new, emerging or contemporary artists. It would simply be a discussion across the exhibition as to whether people had a subjective connection to any of the art and if they agreed with us that it had a link to our permanent collection.

Obviously the starting point had to be the portrait after Gainsborough as this set the whole premise of the days discussion. The aspect of a pastiche - a modern girl beside a large tree with high flats in the background holding a pug dog and a fluorescent mobile phone, instead of Arthur Chichester in three quarter length coat, breeches, tricorn hat and stick with his stately mansion in the background. This provided a good start to the session, which was followed up with the discussion of works, referencing: Derek Hill, ‘Tory from Tor Mor’, our Matisse wall hangings, Kenneth Nolan and the Colour Field Movement, to note a few of the 15 or so we covered.

As happens for all Slow Art sessions people can come and stay for the duration of the talk or drift in and out. By the time we reached our final piece, which referenced Gerard Dillon’s ‘Self Contained Flat’ we had  a good engaged audience who had been vocal with their own subjective opinions across the pieces we discussed.

Image: Self-contained Flat, Gerard Dillon 1916-1971© Estate of Gerard Dillon. BELUM.U4974
Self-contained Flat, Gerard Dillon 1916-1971© Estate of Gerard Dillon. BELUM.U4974

However a surprise awaited us during the final piece (‘Seated Woman with Crow’, Christy Keeny). The discussion was lively and positive, everyone liked the painting and agreed on the connection to Gerard Dillon’s work, style, content and even the slightly strange positioning of the figures. It was at this point a new member of the audience spoke up. Having only just joined the group he had waited till the end to speak. He thanked everybody for their comments and revealed that we had just reinforced a decision he had made. He had purchased the work from the exhibition at an earlier date - it was the first time he had bought a painting, so he had returned to view the painting again before the exhibition closed.

These final comments took our Slow Art session to a different place. As discussing our permanent collection the thought of owning the piece is not a possibility. But the aspect of reinforcing someones decision to purchase art was gratifying even more so as they were a first time buyer.

We were left with a really positive feeling about the session and felt the final comments were a great compliment.