19 February – 24 April 2023 – Woodhorn Museum
Woodhorn currently has an exhibition of art in one of its galleries which are comprised of artwork submitted from an open call to the museum. From the artwork submitted they have selected over 130 pieces from a wide range of styles and mediums. The exhibition this year is on the theme of ‘A portrait of Northumberland’ and so it’s not surprising that some of the artwork deals directly with places in Northumberland, other pieces reference Northumbrian culture and folklore, some display wildlife, the exhibition is a real mix of stunning gems.
The tone of this exhibition comes across as slightly wistful, it is about Northumbria, identity and location after all, so some of the artwork and iconography is very idealised. Quite a lot of Northumbrian cultural history was referenced between all of the artwork, something which I have tried to reflect here in this article about the exhibition, though I have only selected a smaller sampling of the 130 ish artworks to display here alongside my review. All of the artwork that I have decided to write about spoke to me in some way, or reminded me of something, to me, this is what makes art an interesting personal experience that can sometimes be poorly understood, or can confuse other people.
Paul Hennery’s Barn Owl was the first artwork in the room to grab my attention, it has a distinctly Northumbrian quality about the arrangement of the landscape, using the different tones within the work to help indicate the progression of distance into the picture space. The owl itself is so beautifully painted, hovering in the near-space as though it has spotted an interesting little rodent hiding within the undergrowth.
Lesley Wood’s art spoke to me from a completely different kind of angle, her piece Hinny Rose is charming and more than a little folksy. The face within the picture has been created by stitching the details over print fabric. There are a couple of different kinds of stitch that she has used here to great effect bringing forth the realistic impression of a head and neck. The patterning from the print that would have shown through has been ‘tattooed’ onto the face in a similar manner to that which it is constructed. Even with a very limited range of colour pallets, the artist has rendered a beautiful three-dimensional effect to the hair.
I do love a round picture, there is something about the clearness of the edge and the lack of straightness that appeals to me about them. The Celtic patterning on this tondo is a real delight to the eye with its intricacy and repeat, emphasising a sameness to the viewer. I really like how Wood has placed her figure in this piece, centrally, looking over her shoulder. The Celtic stitching of the pattern on her back as well as the area left free of stitching on her face serve well to emphasise the Celticness of the lady, that regretful gaze hinting that she has left her Celtic origins behind and would like to reclaim them. I haven’t managed to find out whether this piece really is the nostalgic look back that I think it references, but from the viewer’s perspective, it does appear so!
For the most part, abstract artwork does not appeal to me much, but Anne Dodds has managed to captivate me with her Snow On Cheviot. The bulk of the Cheviot is visible in this as a white/green mass which contrasts with the darker sky above, whether this sky is cloudy, gloomy, or just promising more snow is anyone’s guess.
At a first look, this image was hard to reconcile with the landscape which is known to me, however, the shape of Cheviot itself is one of the most iconic things in the region. The spots of colour in the foreground work exceptionally well in the way that they denote the landscape below the mountain, with the different colours of heather, fields, moorland and woodland. Once the random-seeming nature of the image was worked into a coherent image mentally, it gave an overpowering sensation of home through colour and familiarity.
Elidh Gardiner is a Coquetdale artist who brings the charm, colour and beauty of Coquetdale to life through homely seeming pastel colours. Her tonal range emphasises the picturesque nature of the landscape in this part of Northumberland, with its almost unspoilt natural beauty. This tranquil scene has the colours of dawn, or of dusk, painted with a delicacy that hides the sometimes harsh nature of the landscape it portrays. What really attracted me to this image, aside from the colour scheme was the small shrub growing alone on the rock in the stream.
There is little that can epitomise Northumbrian folk art more than a watercolour of a cute hare. Claire Shand’s offering is a colloquial vision that can already be found festooned hanging around in gift shops for its cute country air. This hare’s eyes stand out from the painting in a manner that is unusual, but I feel gives extra depth and emphasis to the picture, settling the focal point for the eye to range around from. The overall whimsy of this piece is just delightful.
Marra is a painting of a Sculpture in a park near Peterlee in Co. Durham, the statue is of a miner with his heart torn from his chest. Though this isn’t in Northumberland, the image of the miner is as identifiable with parts of Northumberland as it is with Durham. Named after a colloquialism for ‘Friend’, the statue symbolises the heart being torn from the mining community; whether through the pit closures or through tragic incidents is left to the viewer.
Tony Simpson’s painting of this statue is extremely well-executed, he has the colour tones the rust, as well as the more silvery colours of welds running throughout this piece. He has built up these lines of welding until they stand several millimetres from the surface of the picture, giving the image a kind of three-dimensionality if looked at in person. This is a very considered subject which is well presented.
Alison Longstaff’s Alnmouth drew me in because of its absolute quirkiness. The background is rough and textured demonstrating the general form of the river as it runs through the village. The small shelves holding on pieces of the village look as though they are made from beachcombed wood. Each part of this image holds a familiarity to anyone who has seen Alnmouth first hand, the boats and the iconic cross over the river are really all of the iconography required to decipher the content of this artwork without any other help. The small street scenes, pub, row houses and beach huts are all meticulously done, adding to the rich Northumbrian overtones visible within this work.
This is one of the pieces that spoke to me most on my journey around the exhibition in Woodhorn, the tree, the darkness and the gate helped me to recall several old folk tales from Northumberland. The scene appears set with that brooding tree looming over a very small person on the inside of the gate, created from shadow. This could be an allusion to the Brownies of Northumbrian folklore. Certainly, the tree itself in its stature looks mystical.
Keenan’s photograph Atmospheric Duddo is a fantastic composition that alludes to the depth of thought that has gone into the placement of stones like this in the Northumbrian landscape many thousands of years ago. The central composition of the sky in this photo really shows off the beauty and drama of the sky, the empty grass and fields giving a timeless sensation, an impression that this could have been anywhere.
For me, Jessica Kinnersley’s offering of Sycamore Gap was the artwork that I most adored. This rustic looking piece of folk art absolutely captivated me with not only the level of detail as to local knowledge required to create it but also the heavy texturing of the composition as it was put together. Framing a piece with a lace doyley is a cute idea, one which has worked well because of the subject inside, I love how a portion of a map has been printed into the fabric for use as the sky, and that map contains the actual location of the tree. The roughly sewn-on patches off tweed, all different shades, sizes etc are a perfect way to envision moss.
The whole exhibition is very well curated and displayed in a long building with plenty of room to walk around and view each individual work independently of any other, enabling the full attention of the viewer to descend on every piece. While Northumberland is the general theme, the arrangement of works does not appear to reflect sub-themes overly much, giving a well-mixed cross-section of the dynamic Northumbrian arts scene which exists in and around the county at present.