This rather romanticised oil painting by James Clarke Hook is typical of the earlier part of the artist’s career. Following his 1839 debut as an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Hook spent a decade focusing on portraits and historical subjects such as Pluming the Helmet.
Hook won a travelling prize in 1846 and spent three years exploring Italy with his wife. There he was influenced by the rich colours of Venetian painters such as Titian, and these brighter colours and higher finish began to appear in his own work.
The fantastic drapery and folds of the woman’s skirt, the delicate fountain of her hair, and the clarity of her skin echo the classical agendas of the Venetian masters of the Renaissance. The flowers in her hair act as a symbol of her purity and devotion. The helmet in the scene is likely to be an Armet, or knight’s helm, and adds a chivalric element to the painting.
In the years leading up to his death in 1907, Hook was influenced by his travels in the Devonshire countryside, and his most of his later works feature coastal scenes and images of rural life.
The painting was gifted to Worcester City Museum Collection by the Worcestershire Fine Arts Association. Although the exact date of the gift is unknown, it has likely been in the collection since 1896, and is the only example of Hook’s work belonging to Worcester.
Volunteer researcher, Deborah Keaveney, has been exploring the fine art collection at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Her most recent projectresearching has involved finding out more about an etching in the collection by Celia Paul.
Celia Paul is an important contemporary British portrait artist, who began her career as a student at The Slade School of Art in central London, where the portrait painter Gwen John also studied, and whose works have been a great influence on her painting style.
This soft ground etching titled My Mother, of which the 5/25 impression is held in the Worcester City Collection, was printed in 1991 when the artist’s mother was 64 years old.
I contacted Celia Paul’s gallery, Victoria Miro, and the artist was kind enough to tell us about the piece in her own words:
“My mother was my main subject for 30 years: 1977-2007.
I did oil paintings of her mainly, but I did a great number of etchings of her too. The small scale of my prints means that I often use them like a sketchbook: a way of quickly catching the subject, sometimes in minutes. My early prints were mainly hard-grounds but I soon found soft-grounds suited my more delicate touch.”
The artist works in an austere style that isolates the subject within a limited colour scheme and often atmospheric or architectural context in which the figure seems to emerge from a haze of light or shifting shadows. In this portrait of her mother, she does not try to flatter but through carefully observed features reveals the complexity of the human form, suggesting the visible weight and contours of an ageing body in an intimate and unselfconscious pose. This approach to portraiture is grounded in the European classical tradition of anatomical drawing, which the artist acknowledges but also claims is a category that she is trying to move beyond in her present work. There is also an Eastern feel to her intense but limited colour schemes of ochre, white and black that place attenuated figures in a shimmering but harsh atmosphere. Celia Paul was born in Trivandrum, India in 1959 where her parents worked as missionaries until 1965, when her mother was 38 and she was 5 years old. Her parents were both born in London and her maternal grandfather worked as railwayman and porter at Euston station.
The figure of her mother is seen in this print sitting in a relaxed and almost slumped position as if absorbed in an internal reverie of inner peace and reflection. This is accentuated by using a chiaroscuro effect of etched sepia lines built up into areas of strong light and shade. In this way the artist appears to mould and articulate the figure, creating a real sense of the physical presence and character of her mother as a loving and sensitive person. She is seated facing the onlooker but with her head half turned to the right, as if looking away from a light that is too outwardly penetrating and intrusive to her calm and undisturbed thoughts.
Having worked on these portraits of her mother in a range of media for thirty years, the etching held by this collection is a fine example of the artist’s work and the sensitivity of her etched figure drawing. Paul continues to work on other familiar female subjects and characters, including self-portraits and paintings of her sisters and close friends.
Her work is represented in London by the Victoria Miro Gallery.
Hindlip Hall is one of Worcestershire’s strongest connections to the story of the notorious failed Gunpowder Plot of the 5 November 1605.
This sketch dating from 1810 is believed to be by Thomas Pennethorne, who recorded many Worcestershire buildings and scenes during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Hindlip Hall was demolished by fire just four years later in 1814 and rebuilt by Lord Southwell. It is now the Headquarters of West Mercia Police.
Up until its destruction, the house had an unfavourable reputation, having been built by Catholic Recusant John Abington whose family became wrapped up in both the Babington and Gunpowder plots. His son Sir Thomas added eleven expertly concealed priest holes throughout the house to hide Catholic priests, who were threatened with severe punishment for not adhering to the Anglican doctrine.
After the events of the 5 November, many of the plotters fled to the Midlands, pursued by Sir Richard Walsh, the High Sheriff of Worcestershire, who eventually caught four Jesuit priests who were suspected of involvement in the plot at Hindlip Hall in January 1606 after twelve days of searching the property.
Benjamin Williams Leader was born in 1831 and grew up in Diglis House, now the Diglis Hotel on the riverside in Worcester. Leader made his name painting vast landscape scenes and is now considered Worcester’s most celebrated artist.
The landscapes of Worcestershire were one of Leader’s main subjects of study. He regularly travelled to Wales and Scotland, and also visited France and Switzerland, but when asked about painting spots in an interview, Leader replied, “I prefer our English home scenes, river studies at evening time, country lanes, the village church are subjects that I love and am never tired of painting.”
The mountains of Wales seem to be an equally popular subject with Leader as his Worcestershire homeland, such as this one in Worcester’s collection On the Hills Above Bettws-y-Coed .
The Commandery is one of the oldest buildings in Worcester with history dating back to the 11th century. One of the building’s gems is the Painted Chamber, dating back to the late 15th century. Once hidden from view after the Reformation, this treasure was rediscovered in the 1930s and conserved by Miss Matley-Moore of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society.
It seems likely that the area of the building that the paintings were found was the infirmary wing where people suffering from ailments could go and pray to a saint that understood their pain. A part of healing in the medieval period did not just rely on herbal treatment; a healthy dose of prayer was also prescribed. The paintings depict various saints; some undergoing terrible tortures for which they are well known for, and some that are associated with aspects of religious afterlife, with St Peter, depicted with the keys to the gates of heaven.
By the nature of the paintings, scholars have argued that this room may have been a room where people may have prepared to pass away. It was important in medieval life to ‘make a good end’ and to do that, physicians would leave their patients, and invite the priests in to absolve the patient of their sins and to administer the last rites.
The paintings were made by creating very basic pigments over a finished coat of fine plaster. Most frescos on the continent were painted over damp plaster, but in this country due to the climate, it’s possible that The Commandery’s examples may have been painted onto dry plaster. The most common element of a pigment was iron oxide which gave a great range of colour, and there is evidence that the paintings were sketched out first using charcoal.
Since the early 20th century, Worcester City museum collection has been collecting artworks made by living artists that explore the landscape and our relationships with it. A recent acquisition, Sounds from Beneath was made by Greek/British artist Mikhail Karikis and Swiss/British artist Uriel Orlow between 2011 and 2012.
The sound piece was devised by Karikis working alongside former miners from Kent and then performed by Snowdown Colliery Male Voice Choir amongst the landscape of the disused coal mine. Using both the memories and voices of the miners, Sounds from Beneath recreates the underground soundscape of scraping, explosions, mechanical clangs, wailing alarms and shovels scratching.
The artwork was purchased through the Contemporary Art Society acquisition programme. The work was shown for the first time in Worcester in early 2018 following significant international exhibitions in Mexico City, Melbourne, Germany, Japan, France, Ecuador, Belgium and across the UK.
Whilst walking in the Worcestershire countryside on the outskirts of Droitwich, you may encounter a pair of very grand historic houses, with a continental, chateaux style, nestled in amongst the trees and rolling countryside
The first residence is the famous Chateau Impney built by John Corbett, Staffordshire born businessman and Droitwich salt magnate. The second red brick structure only a couple of miles down the road belonged to his political rival Lord John Pakington. there are many who believe the grandeur of Chateau Impney was inspired as much by Corbett’s rivalry with Pakington as by his French wife.
The beautiful grade I listed Westwood Hall (pictured here in a print in Worcester City’s collection), with its soaring parapets and glorious bay windows, pre dates the Chateau by several hundred years and was a residence of the Pakington family for centuries.
Formerly a nunnery, it was handed to Sir John Pakington in the mid-1500s during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and has been built upon and expanded throughout its existence.
The Pakington family were strong allies to the crown and a subsequent Sir John Pakington was MP for Worcestershire and an unshakable supporter of Charles I during the English civil wars. Tried and imprisoned in the Tower for his loyalty to the king, he was later freed and supported Charles II at the Battle of Worcester. The ceiling of the ballroom was a gift from Charles II for the Pakington’s unwavering support and complements the Elizabethan plasterwork that is still in situ.
Originally set in the centre of Westwood Park the grounds of the house extended several miles in every direction to the borders of Hadley and the built up areas of Droitwich, including the 60 acre great pool that still sits next to Westwood Road in Droitwich. The three quarter mile long drive from Droitwich ends at the beautiful Gate House featured in the picture. This wonderfully ornate gateway straddles the path and bears symbols from the Pakington coat of arms, three five pointed stars and three sheaves of wheat.
The property passed to Lord Doverdale in the early 1900s and was ultimately sold to be converted into 12 private residences, but its splendour can still be admired from a distance, towering above the trees in the beautiful Worcestershire countryside.
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.
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.