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On beaches, women artists and fishermen

The Jerwood Gallery opened its doors to the public today. Erica Smith contemplates the art, the building and the views of the beach.

Years before I knew where Hastings was, I was familiar with the sandstone cliffs and the tall black net shops. I grew up looking at a picture of the Stade by a London-based artist, Marjorie Hawke. She must have taken a painting trip down to the seaside and, like countless others, was drawn to the life of the fishing community.

Paintings by Hawke’s famous contemporaries make up the majority of the art on the walls at the Jerwood: Ben Nicholson, Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer, Frank Brangwyn (picture left). The names will be familiar to anyone born in the ’30s and ’40s and will delight younger generations with an interest in British twentieth century Art.

The paintings that make up the collection have rarely been seen in public before – often owned by other artists or private collectors before finding a permanent home in the Jerwood collection. About one third of the collection is on show in the gallery, and the walls will be re-hung twice a year. The collection continues to grow, so there will always be new works to keep it contemporary.

Jerwood exterior by Chris Parker www.parkerphotography.co.uk

The architects, Tom Grieve and Hana Loftus of HAT Projects, have designed the gallery spaces to an intimate scale. It would be wrong to describe the building as ‘modest’ – it is quietly sensational. The design influences are from domestic art spaces like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, rather than the monumental scale of the Turner Contemporary in Margate. Careful attention was paid to the art collection in order to design the internal space, and externally, the building has been thoughtfully proportioned and placed to fit in with the rhythm of the net huts. The large ceramic tiles are a fabulous choice for the exterior, and clearly nod to the vernacular architecture.

Chairman of the Jerwood Foundation, Alan Grieve, is keen to remind us that the Turner Contemporary cost £71.4m of public money, whilst the Jerwood cost £4m of private investment. This explains the much bemoaned £7.00 entrance fee. It is still cheaper than other private galleries like Pallant House in Chichester – and if locals bring along a household bill, it’ll save you a fiver.

Whilst the majority of the collection appears to be twentieth century male artists, there are more recent pieces by women artists – a stunning portrait by Maggie Hambling hangs above the staircase. Canvases by Lisa Milroy and Prunella Clough, winners of Jerwood Foundation prizes, are also exhibited.

The choice of Rose Wylie to be the first solo exhibitor in the temporary gallery space is interesting. Wylie, the winner of three  Jerwood prizes has a long relationship with the Foundation, even if she is only recently becoming a publicly recognised name. The gallery could have been designed for her giant canvases: sometimes they are stacked two high and fit flush from floor to ceiling. We talk about a painting of Penelope Cruz – or rather a painting created from a list of Penelope Cruz’s attributes. Wylie’s work plays with symbols and signifiers. She admits to a love of contemporary painted signage from Mexico and Africa. Superficially, her work could be written off as giant doodles, but after spending time in the gallery, Wylie’s vision wins me over.

I feel the same about the location of the Jerwood. When the consultation was under way, I favoured the site at the other end of the Stade. But having listened to the architects express their careful thought processes, I think they were right to be brave and stick to their vision.

The Jerwood can be seen as a ‘barrier’ between the beach and the Old Town, but it also works as a bridge. From inside, the careful placement of windows highlight the views over the West and East hills, and the floor to ceiling window on the south elevation makes it feel like you could walk the plank straight down to buy your fresh fish. The views over the fishing beach are better than any of the art on the walls.

There has always been a relationship between the fishing community and the arts community – even if it’s not always an easy one. Artists and fisherfolk are both non-conformists, they share a love and respect for the natural elements and (with few exceptions), they sacrifice high earnings in order to follow the careers they are drawn to.

When the Old Town-based artist Laetitia Yhap first appeared on the fishing beach over 35 years ago, like a mermaid from a strange new world, she dazzled the fishermen. It took her time to win their trust and understanding, but that didn’t stop her from drawing and painting them, being a part of their lives as much as documenting their lives. Yhap remains ambivalent about the Jerwood – it has plonked itself directly on the boundary of her loyalties.

She is enthusiastic about the architecture, particularly the use of natural light and the domestic proportions of the galleries, and she appreciates the very focussed choice of artworks. “The collection ignores the avant-garde in favour of the more conventional painters of the twentieth century, and the examples of their work are remarkably good.”

Yhap is also appreciative of the Jerwood as a foundation which supports contemporary artists. “The Jerwood Foundation is the first philanthropist the town has had since the Brasseys – philanthropy doesn’t happen very often these days. The rich prefer to keep hold of their money.”

She is less enthusiastic about the poor relationship with the fishing community. “It might be picturesque to ‘look down’ on the fishing beach, but it’s not a picturesque life to live. The fisherman’s beach might look like a mess, but that’s part of a working beach. I don’t want to hear anyone else say it needs to be tidied up.”

Like anyone whose neighbour builds an extension or balcony, the fishermen will feel overlooked and invaded. They are the natural guardians of the beach, but the Stade and Rock-a-nore Road is a space for all sorts of ventures – a museum-in-a-church, a sea-life centre, a titchy train, amusement arcades… why say ‘No’ to a gallery?

Yhap says, “Underwater World is also a private enterprise. When that was built, it was on an area where the fishermen dried their nets, and it was controversial. When it opened, they had a special party for the fishermen, and made sure the fishermen and their families had free entry. The fishermen are not stupid people, they have their sensibilities and they should be respected.”

Local photographer John Cole was employed by the Jerwood to document the builders working on the site. Yhap says, “When John first came to Hastings, he got to know the fishermen and made their portraits.  I would like to see those images exhibited too. That would be the best homage that could be made”.

You can read Joe Fearn’s interview with Rose Wylie here.

Posted 18:35 Saturday, Mar 17, 2012 In: Arts News

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