Saturday, June 21st 2014
Our intention today was to make a trip to Walsall, not just to see the town itself but, more importantly, to take a look at the new art gallery. We visited Walsall once before and I described that trip in A dull day in Walsall, where I was somewhat unflattering about the place. Would I feel any better about it today?
When we arrived at Walsall Station, I had a sense of déja vu, remembering how Tigger and I had rendezvoused hereon our two-town courier run in October 2009. Today we were not making any deliveries or beating any deadlines and could take things easy.
To get to Walsall from London, you almost inevitably have to pass through Birmingham, as indeed we did today. The town is often jokingly dismissed as a satellite of its larger neighbour but, as I discovered on this trip, Walsall is actually an ancient town in its own right. It had become famous for its leather goods even before during the Industrial Revolution when its deposits of coal, iron and limestone brought it to prominence.
The usual explanation of the name Walsall is that it derives from two Anglo-Saxon words, wealh and halh, meaning, respectively, ‘native Briton’ and ‘valley’, suggesting that the invaders saw this as a place inhabited by indigenes. An alternative explanation has it that the land was taken over by an Anglo-Saxon farmer called Walla and thus become known as ‘Walla’s Valley’. Knowing the Anglo-Saxon proclivity for naming places after themselves, I see this as quite plausible. Unfortunately we shall never know for certain. The first known mention of the place in a document occurs in a will dated to 1002 or 1004, where it appears as ‘Walesho’.
There is a claimed mystique about the way the name is pronounced. It is said that those in the know pronounce it in some special way. Maybe they do but as far as I know, it is pronounced “wall Saul”, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
Walsall is also an ancient market town. It is known that a charter was issued by the Crown to one William le Rous in 1220 for a market to be held on Mondays. Later this changed to Tuesdays and, later still, a Saturday market was added. The picture shows part of the market in a square known as The Bridge because there was once a bridge here over the Walsall Brook. We spotted a statue among the stalls and approached for a closer look.
The statue, by Francis John Williamson, stands atop a monument to Sister Dora, first unveiled in 1883. Sister Dora (Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison, 1832-78) in 1864 joined the Sisters of the Good Samaritan where she took the name by which she became generally known. She thus entered a career of nursing and supporting her community which led to her being well known and admired right up to the present day. The present statue was cast in 1956 from the original model, the existing one having suffered deterioration. Around the plinth are plaques showing four scenes from Sister Dora’s career, of which I show just two below. A more detailed account of the life and work of this remarkable woman can be found here.
Also in the square is another piece piece of sculpture, purely art this one, and not a monument. It was originally intended as a fountain but the water no longer flows and is unlikely to do so again in the foreseeable future.
By Tom Lomax and unveiled in 2001, this sculpture is entitled Source of Inspiration and is based on the figure of the Roman god Janus who looks in two directions at once. For the purposes of the sculpture, these two directions are the Past and the Future as indicated by the different ages of the heads, one smooth-featured and young and the other lined with age. At the top of each disc are objects which add detail to the symbolism: on the “young side”, they are the tools of traditional industry while on the “old side”, solar panels, fragments of binary code, an electrical circuit board, etc. speak of future development. The water was turned off in 2005 amid fears of Legionnaires’ Disease.
Like any medium-sized town, Walsall has several churches, some more interesting than others. This one is the local parish church of St Paul, built in 1893. At first sight a pretty ordinary Victorian church, St Paul’s does have an unusual feature.
Faced with shrinking support and the economic vulnerability this causes, the church authorities were inspired – whether by God or by Mammon isn’t known – to reorganize the building into two parts, one for worship and the other as a place of “Christian Social Enterprise”, including retail outlets, a coffee shop and four conference rooms for hire. This is quite a clever idea, I suppose, but I think the Muslims got there first – for example, see the Aziziye Camii, mosque and butcher’s shop, in A stroll along Ermine Street.
A little further on we came to the rather grand Imperial Cinema. This building was not always a cinema and, sadly, it no longer is. Its first incarnation was in 1868 when it was built as the Agricultural Hall. Despite the name, it seems to have become more and more a place of theatrical performances and in 1887, with the acquisition if a new façade, renamed itself St George’s Hall. It became successively St George’s Hall and Theatre and then plain St George’s Theatre until 1899, when the Imperial Theatre was born. A decade later, in 1910, with another new frontage, the building became the Imperial Picture House, and continued as a cinema, albeit with a change of ownership in the 1930s, until 1968 when it fell victim, as did many cinemas in those years, to the bingo disease. The Alpha Bingo Club itself closed in 1996 and the premises became a pub in the ownership of J.D. Wetherspoon, who seem to have a passion for collecting worthy antique buildings such as this one.
We had a look inside and even though the place was crowded, managed to get a few photos of the decor which seems to have changed little from its cinema (and perhaps theatre) days. Where once was the silver screen there is now a massive screen of glass that looks out onto a terrace accessible through a glass door. Natural daylight thus illumines the interior of the pub much as the flickering images on the screen would once have lit the cinema.
To the left of the screen (looking from the body of the pub), is a small gallery from where you have the fine view of the Imperial’s interior shown above. The balcony belonging to the cinema, and no doubt to the theatre before it, is still in place though it is not open to customers.
Around the corner in Lichfield Street, we found another venerable building that has been preserved by pubification. What first strike you are the Doric pillars forming a sort of atrium or narthex. The umbrellas in front straightaway give the game away: whatever this was once, it too is now a Wetherspoons pub.
No one had challenged us as we took photos in the Imperial and that is the norm for pubs. Things turned out a little differently here, however. I spotted a plate on one of the pillars (you can see it on the third pillar from the left, partly hidden by a lamp) and approached to photograph it. A member of staff came out and addressed us. Now, as you will know from previous posts, my hearing is not good, so I didn’t understand what he said though his expression was not welcoming. Tigger afterwards said she thought he had said “No photos”. Fortunately, I did not hear this and went ahead and took my photo. In view of this unusual unwelcoming attitude, however,we did not go inside.
The Greek Doric style building has served a number of purposes since it was built in 1830/31. St Matthews Hall, as it was called, was established as Walsall’s first permanent library, open to membership by subscription. By 1851, it had become a savings bank and soon after was converted into the County Court. This role ended in 1998 when it became a pub, though under whose management I do not know. It was added to the Wetherspoons collection in 2011.
Also in Lichfield Street is the Town Hall that opened for business in 1905. I’m not sure how much Council business is still transacted here as there is now a Civic Centre in Darwall Street and I see bills advertising events and entertainments here.
A year after the Town Hall was inaugurated, a new library and museum was opened next to it. Walsall’s first public library and museum had started up in 1859 in Goodall Street but in 1902, the Free Library Committee began correspondence with philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, provider of funds for so many of the UK’s public libraries, and were successful in their negotiations although Carnegie himself was unable to attend the grand opening of the new library and museum in 1906.
We entered the museum through the new entrance. The museum is fairly small though it intends to cover the history of Walsall. Photography is allowed but the displays here did not detain us for long.
We were now making for the new art gallery. In Hatherton Road we spotted (pardon the pun) this building called Hatherton House. Someone had already spotted it first (never waste a good pun). The result is at least colourful though it has attracted some unfavourable comments. For example, see here.
The art gallery is beside a large basin at the end of a spur leading off the Walsall Canal. A number of narrowboats are moored there, some of them businesses. As we were in need of refreshment by now, we thought to try our luck aboard the Tea Junction which describes itself as a Cafe Boat.
Inside the narrowboat everything was, as you might expect, tiny. We could barely fit into the tiny seats at one of the tiny tables. We managed somehow, though, and had tea and a snack.
Thus refreshed, we could turn our attention to the Walsall New Art Gallery. The good news is that admission to the gallery is free (my favourite price) and that photography is allowed in the permanent collections. It may be prohibited in visiting exhibitions for copyright reasons, something I find quite reasonable.
From the outside, the building is, if not beautiful, at least not as bad as some of the horrors foisted on our communal environment by too many modern architects. Inside, the environment is perfect for an art gallery. For one thing, there are acres of space and the ceilings are high enough to admit very large pieces. I found the lighting a bit too dim in places, though I accept that some works are fragile and need protecting from over vigorous bombardment by photons.
We long ago learnt that the wisest way to visit a gallery is to take the lift to the top floor and then work your way down. The more floors there are, the more valuable this advice becomes. As a bonus, the New Gallery has a balcony or viewing platform at the top which offers impressive views of the surroundings. Just the place to practise using my camera’s panorama function! Click on the above image to see a larger version. The zig-zag handrail is an artifact of the panorama function. In reality the rail is quite smooth.
The gallery contains a wide range of art works but what interested me today was the Garman Ryan Collection. Kathleen Garman was a model, sometime mistress and subsequently second wife of sculptor Jacob Epstein. An account of her life will be found here. Kathleen, who also traded in art put together a collection of works with her friend Sally Ryan and this collection was donated to the people of Walsall in 1973. It has now found very comfortable accommodation in the New Gallery.
Most galleries that I have visited have held just a few works by Epstein, if any at all. Finding a large number all together in one place was quite an experience. I show a selection of nine below. If you think this is too many, well, the title of the post did contain a warning!
Epstein’s relationship to Roland Joffé is described as that of “adopted grandfather”. I am not sure what that means, but Joffé went on to become famous as a director of TV and films.
Epstein produced a number of sculptures of the angel St Michael, mainly for churches, but this slightly haunting head is of an altogether gentler – and human – saint, St Francis.
Romilly was the son of Augustus John, the painter and etcher. Epstein’s portraits are usually naturalistic but this one veers into the abstract with the smooth, helmet-like hair that has caused the piece to be described as “almost like a cannon-ball in the process of becoming human”.
Epstein made sculptures of animals as well as of people. The pose and self-contained demeanour of this feline will be familiar to any cat lover. The gallery lighting made this a difficult subject for photography and there is loss of detail in the shadowed areas.
I was quite excited to see this sketch by Epstein. It is a study for his Rock Drill and it was the interest and puzzlement caused by this sculpture that brought me to Epstein in the first place – see A day of sculpture and Photorealism in Birmingham. Often characterised as the culminating work of the short-lived Vorticist movement, Rock Drill came to be for Epstein a symbol of humanity’s race to dehumanize itself and he destroyed it, leaving only the torso. In his autobiography he wrote these oft quoted words about it: “Here is the armed and menacing man of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the machine like and terrible Frankenstein we have made ourselves into”. See also this page on the Web site of the Tate.
Kathleen Garman modelled for Epstein and became his long-term mistress. When Kathleen first came into the sculptor’s life, he was married to Margaret. Though Margaret tolerated Epstein’s other affairs, she was jealous of Kathleen and shot her in the shoulder with a pistol. Epstein finally married Kathleen in 1955, Margaret having died in 1947.
Epstein had five children, three of them with Kathleen Garman, Theo (1924-54), Kitty (1926-2011) and Esther (1929-54). Above is a portrait of Kitty.
Two of Epstein’s children died young, Theo (aged 30) and Esther (aged 25), both in 1954. Esther was the youngest of Kathleen’s children and Epstein referred to her as “Esther the Beautiful”.
My final selection is a sculpture of Frisky, Epstein’s Border Collie. The dog accompanied Epstein to his studio every day and even climbed onto the scaffolding with him during the making of a large piece. Frisky went missing on a number of occasions, on the last being absent for three months before being found.
The visit to the Walsall New Art Gallery was a great success and I enjoyed seeing so many works by Jacob Epstein and other artists such as Modigliani and Picasso. From that point of view, the trip had been a success but what of my view of Walsall? Had this changed at all?
I think the answer to that question is yes. I saw aspects of Walsall that I missed on our first visit and certain annoying factors of that occasion were not present today. Also, I am aware that we have not exhausted Walsall – to do so in one short visit is impossible – and that more remains to be discovered. Will we return? It is not impossible and we shall keep an eye on the programme of exhibitions at the Art Gallery as a good one would be an inducement to pay another visit.