Worcestershire’s greatest artist

Between 1862 and 1889 Benjamin Williams Leader lived next to Whittington Church on the outskirts of Worcester. He painted and drew Whittington church multiple times.

However, the church we see in these works did not appear as it would have during his life but is a recreation of the fifteenth century building that was in place there until 1784. Leader chose to replace the 1844 building with something more historic and picturesque.

Here in this painting from Worcester City’s museum collection called Worcestershire Morning Clearing After Rain, Leader’s great skill for capturing life within the Worcestershire landscape is shown in the muddy, waterlogged roads of this small hamlet, with the cheerily smoking chimney stacks of the houses in the background that promise warmth to return to.


Paolozzi – The precursor to Pop Art

Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi was born in Scotland in 1924 to Italian immigrant parents who ran a small ice-cream parlour in Leith. Paolozzi studied art at Edinburgh College of Art and London’s Slade School. Inspired by the sweet packets, cigarette cards and matchboxes sold in his father’s shop, as early as the 1940s Paolozzi used imagery of modern machinery and pinup girls in his artwork, pre-empting the pop art movement which emerged in America in the 1950s.

This work ‘Philadelphia Print’ from the Worcester City Collection is one of 100 made for the 1971 exhibition Silkscreen: History of the Medium at the Museum of Modern Art in Philadelphia. It is an example of how complex, detailed and colourful silkscreen printing can be in the hands of a master.

Cupids by Bernardo Arniconi, 19th Century

Very little is known about Bernardo Arniconi, the Italian painter of this oil painting Cupids which came to Worcester City Art Gallery in 1850 as part of the Reverend G D Bowles collection, and was one of the first artworks to come into the Worcester city collection.

In Roman mythology, Cupid is the son of Venus and Mars – the gods of love and war. He is usually depicted with a bow and arrow. As there are two of these figures and they don’t have his characteristic arrow its likely they are not supposed to be Cupid himself but amorino: cherubs or putti representing non-religious passion – figures of love and compassion. Putto are adorably chubby male babies with wings, what we usually think of as cherubs. However in early Jewish and Christian literature, a cherub was actually a creature with multiple wing and four faces, one human, as well as an ox, a lion and an eagle. Putto came to be part of the imagery of Christmas following Italian renaissance artworks representing them as part of scenes of the Madonna and child.

An idyllic view of nature

Paintings of labourers travelling to or from their days work in the field on a horse drawn hay wagon (also known as a haywain) were made famous by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. These often calm and pastoral scenes were particularly popular with wealthy art collectors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at a time when the agricultural revolution and rapid industrialisation meant that countryside life was changing, moving away from hundreds of years of tradition. For land owners, peaceful pastoral scenes like this offered picturesque, nostalgic versions of a way of life that was disappearing.

Here, the travellers present an elegant arc across the landscape. They are framed by a gnarled, leaning tree, which is a compositional device borrowed from the 17th century French and Italian classical landscape tradition of artists such as Claude Lorrain. This creates a picturesque scene of humans and nature in harmony, idealising agricultural labour.

When the Cat’s Away…

This engraving in Worcester City’s collection is a direct copy of a fourteenth century carving found in the Priory Church, Great Malvern.

A popular theme within ecclesiastical carvings at this time was ‘turning the tables’. This scene shows a cat falling victim to the ingenuity and teamwork of three mice or rats, where once they would have been its prey. The owls at each side of the scene may be there to take heed of the fate of the cat – or are perhaps waiting to take advantage of an easy meal.
The carving may be found on one of twenty-two misericords located in the Chancel of Priory Church. When folded up, the solid oak misericord seat provided a discreet ledge upon which weary monks could perch or lean during long church services. The seats aptly derive their name from the Latin ‘misericordia’, or ‘act of mercy’, and were often carved with satirical scenes or grotesque figures.

Our cat and mouse scene illustrates that a macabre punishment could be served by reversing the natural order – medieval carvers enjoyed turning the universe upside-down. Another relief at the Malvern Priory depicts a husband carrying out housework, whilst a misericord carving in Worcester Cathedral shows a Hare riding a Greyhound.


Kate Banner

Collections Volunteer

Charles Le Brun, Head of a Soldier in the Battle against Darius, around 1600

This sketch was donated to the Worcester City Fine Art Collection by Richard Cadbury who was son of Cadbury’s chocolate founder John Cadbury and took over the company with his brother, George. The drawing is one of the oldest works in the collection and is usually kept in storage as chalk drawings are extremely sensitive and fade if exposed to too much light.

Charles Le Brun (1619 –1690) was court painter to Louis XIV of France and was famed for painting large altarpieces and battle scenes, as well as decorating the ornate palace of Versailles near Paris. It’s possible that this drawing was made as preparatory sketch for a background figure in The Family of Darius before Alexander, part of the Wars of Alexander The Great series which hangs in the palace of Versailles.

The painting depicts Alexander The Great offering mercy to the mother of King Darius III of Persia after he fled, leaving his family behind following Battle of Issus (333 BC) in modern day Turkey. At the later The Battle of Gaugamela (1st October 331 BCE) in Northern Iraq Alexander’s forces defeated Darius making Alexander King of all Asia.

Even the best artists keep learning

William James Müller (1812 – 1845) was born in Bristol and grew up amongst the city’s culture as his father was J. S. Müller, curator of Bristol Museum. His early artistic career was inspired by great painters of the past including Claude Lorrain as well as the landscapes of Gloucestershire.

Travel became an important part of Müller’s life and work and in 1834 he visited France, Switzerland and Italy and later in 1838 he travelled to Greece and Egypt, where he would draw the ruins and landscapes of these cultures.

In 1843 Müller accompanied archaeologist Charles Fellows on a government expedition to the ancient rock tombs of Lycia in Turkey. Müller spent three months sketching the landscape, architecture and culture of the area and upon returning to England, worked these into a successful series of paintings.

This picture in the Worcester City collection, Study of a Sheik Reposing was probably created during this time and depicts Turkish culture as rich and exotic in a way that was popular among Victorian arts audiences and which shaped British ideas of the Middle East.

Müller is also known for giving oil painting lessons to artist David Cox, who was more renowned for working in watercolours.

Sikar II by Gillian Ayres


Ayres, Gillian, b.1930; Sikar II
Courtesy of Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres, Sikar II, acrylic on paper, 1993, Worcester City Collection


Volunteer researcher, Deborah Keaveney, has been exploring the fine art collection at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. She has been researching Sikar II by Gillian Ayres which was acquired through the support of an Arts Council England/V&A purchase grant.


Gillian Ayres (born 1930) is an important British abstract painter, who trained at Camberwell School of Art in London (1946-50), before going on to teach painting in Bath and London and becoming Head of Painting at Winchester School of Art. She has lived and worked as an artist in London, Wales and Cornwall, which has included mural painting and printmaking, as well as painting on paper and canvas in a variety of media.

In 1991 she was awarded the Gold Medal for the British Council Triennale exhibition which began its world tour in New Dehli, India.  It is possible that the artist also visited the ancient Mughal city of Sikar to the South West of Dehli at this time, which she then used for the title of a series of abstract paintings in acrylic on paper.  Sikar II, which is now in the collection of Worcester Museum and Art Gallery, was painted in 1993, by which time the artist had also been elected an R.A. by the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The painting is a medley of vivid colours and abstract patterning that echoes the strongly illuminated colours, both natural and man-made that can be seen on a hot summer night in the North Indian city of Sikar. Originally this was ruled by the Rajas of the Muslim Mughal empire, founded by the warrior leader Genghis Kahn in the early 16th century.  Sikar soon became a fortified military centre with high surrounding walls and seven city gates. It is now famous for its Mughal architecture, art and culture that draws and welcomes visitors from around the world.

Against this historical background the painting by Gillian Ayres, Sikar II takes on a new significance in its strident shapes and colours which are surrounded by a midnight blue border that suggest the structural patterns of narrow streets and old Mughal Haveli houses around which are woven the bright and riotous life that goes on within its walls, with a striking central motif of a scimitar or curved sword in shades of blue from blue-white at the curved edge to a deep, regal purple at the rectangular cross of the hilt and finial ball handle above it. The vivid mix of colours and patterns in this work seem to carry a spirit of place and suggest the intensity of life lived in this bustling city, with its history of succeeding layers of power, buildings, people, plants and animals, all within the confines of an ancient and fortified city. Translated into abstract painting, it is a city full of glancing impressions and captivating expressions that are visualised through the artist’s forceful and compelling use of form and colour.  But from this apparently disconnected network emerges a narrative of abstract signs and shapes that suggest the architecture and sense of a distant place that is both thrilling in its strangeness and familiar in its variety.

The work of Gillian Ayres is represented in London by the Alan Cristea Gallery

WW1 Nurses Uniforms

web-vad-uniform-c-museums-worcestershireDuring World War One, 38,000 women volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Detachment units both at home and overseas, assisting medical staff with the treatment and care of sick and injured soldiers. Many of these women had never worked before and as VADs they worked long shifts that often involved dirty and hard manual labour.

Most VAD nurses had no relevant experience when they first began, but gradually added to their knowledge and skills and were duly awarded badges or stripes indicating their proficiency in sanitation, first aid, bandaging and dressings.

VAD nurses were required to either hand sew or pay for their own uniforms to be made.
Despite the often messy nature of their work, the VAD uniform was expected to look pristine and had to be worn according to strict regulations, both inside and outside of the hospital. Nurses often got in trouble for accessorizing with earrings and purses.

The VAD uniform pictured was transferred by the British Red Cross from the Balfour Museum of Red Cross History in Hampshire and is now part of the Worcestershire County Museum Collection. It can be seen in A Happy Convalescence: Hartlebury Castle’s History as a WWI Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital at Worcestershire County Museum at Hartlebury until autumn 2018.

A Happy Convalescence is part of the Worcestershire World War One Hundred project. Funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Worcestershire World War One Hundred is one of the largest programme of events across England commemorating the First World War, involving cultural and heritage organisations County-wide through until 2018.