An elegant box of tricks

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Thanks to a £5m lottery grant, Pallant House Gallery has at last reopened in Chichester, It arrives two years late and almost £2m over budget, but in other respects it is attractively unusual.

For this art gallery is built on paradoxes. Set in a Georgian enclave in a conservative cathedral city, it holds the finest collection of 20th-century British art outside the Tate. The building, too, squares the architectural circle: it was designed by Wilson Long and Kentish, in the face of intense local opposition, to enhance the original gallery, a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne house.

The result is an austere, brick, windowless façade that wraps round the edges of the old mansion, un-remarkable from the outside but with wonderfully clean-cut galleries inside, enjoying natural lighting and increasing sixfold the space avail-able for art. With its walled courtyard, and loggia boxes giving intriguing glimpses out to the city’s Georgian architecture, it is a remark-ably relaxing place.

But what makes Pallant House a must-see for anyone interested in modern art is that it reopens with its hang transformed by the gift (and loan) of the collection of its architect Sir Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson, who famously designed a much larger red-brick palace of culture, the British Library.

For 60 years Wilson has been at the centre of the contemporary art world. It began in 1947 when he was browsing in a London gallery. “I was admiring a collage when a voice said: ‘You should have that.’ It was Eduardo Paolozzi. I said I would give him all the money in my pockets, which amounted to 37 shillings and sixpence. When you get works of art that way, you can never sell them.”

The collage is on loan to Pallant House, with many other pieces by Paolozzi and by most of the leading British artists of the late 20th century. “I got works hot off the easel and out of friendship as much as for cash,” says Wilson.

There are paintings by Lucian Freud, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, Frank Auerbach, Richard Hamilton, R.B. Kitaj, Howard Hodgkin, Joe Tilson and many more – a haul of
more than 500 items. “I was finding ownership of the collection a major responsibility,” Wilson admits

What makes the gift all the more remarkable is that it includes iconic works of a period in which British artists, rather than the more heavily hyped Americans, were creating “pop” art. So here are Peter Blake’s “The Four Beatles”, Richard Hamilton’s “Swingeing London”, featuring the Rolling Stones in police custody, and Nigel Henderson’s “Screen”, a photo-collage of the mass media, begun in 1949.

Perhaps most redolent of the period is Michael Andrews’ evocation of the Colony Room in 1962 featuring such Soho characters as Freud, Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Bernard. Also, on loan, is Kitaj’s “The Architects”, showing Wilson and his wife M.J. Long in their studio, which carries extra relevance from the fact that Wilson secured many paintings as gifts when designing studios for artists such as Blake, Auerbach, Kitaj, Inshaw and Antony Gormley. Securing the Wilson bequest justifies the investment in Pallant House: Wilson is also pleased: “With the building open I can see my collection for the first time.”

The Wilson gift builds on the gallery’s impressive holding of early 20th-century British art, including Nicholson, Moore, Hepworth, Philpott, Sutherland and many more. There are even unexpected appearances by continental greats such as Léger, Severini and Derain. Most of the display rooms are small, which gives you an extra jolt when confronted by a good William Scott or David Bomberg, a dazzling Howard Hodgkin or Ivan Hitchens.

There are great gaps in the collection, too: little St Ives; not much postwar abstract expressionism, a mere trace of the Young British Artists.

This gives the director, Stefan van Raay, a Dutchman who has spent nine frustrating years overseeing the extension, a substantial wish list. He wants to raise the endowment fund from the current £1.8m to £6m; he wants to boost visitor figures from 30,000 to a break-even 50,000; he dreams of an acquisition fund, of a public benefactor who will provide the £200,000 or so a year that would enable him to remove the admission charge. But van Raay has charm and is quite prepared to smooth-talk the many rich potential patrons with homes in this part of West Sussex: he hints at imminent loans and gifts. The Wilson connection has also helped, with artist friends such as Kitaj and Paul Huxley already gifting works to Pallant House.

While the arm-squeezing continues, van Raay plans to make good the gaps in the collection by loan exhibitions. In the autumn, art from the Wonderful Fund, designed to reflect the 21st century and including pieces by the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry, goes on show, to be followed by exhibitions devoted to Blake and English landscape and to William Roberts. But van Raay expects to have the permanent collection always on show, even if the walls are crammed.

Pallant House is a queer box of tricks. You enter through sliding doors into a state-of-the-art gallery with a shop and a print room, an educational space and a restaurant. But then you cross a threshold and are back in the old house, into the 18th century, with a smattering of early works, including a Hogarth. Quickly the walls of the small domestic rooms become heavy with 20th-
century art: this space full of Sickert and British post-impressionists such as Fry and Gertler, the next given over to Eric Gill, then the nostalgic art of the inter-war period, of Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious.

The biggest surprise comes in the surrealist room, where, along with Magritte and Man Ray, you are confronted with Salvador Dalí’s lobster telephone, on loan from nearby West Dean, the former home of Dalí’s patron Edward James. It somehow sums up the topsy-turvy history of Pallant House. Thirty years ago James offered his unrivalled collection of surrealist and modern art to Chichester and the city turned it down. It has since seen the error of its ways but still retains an ambivalent attitude to the arrival of the 20th century in its most provocative form.

Pallant House Gallery, tel 1243 774557

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