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Rain on My Parade: Art in Harrogate

31/05/2010

Last weekend in Wakefield the nights were as hot as Bangkok, but Harrogate yesterday was customarily Northern: cool, grey and wet. I have come in search of Victoriana, and on the Walks and Parades there’s abundant nineteenth century glass – thick, warmly-coloured and throwing off queer reflections. There are also sights to avoid: the simulated ‘Victoria Shopping Centre’, the Winter Gardens (now a Wetherspoons), Turkish baths (a Chinese restaurant), and plenty of heritaged hotels (The Crown has Byron, Thackeray, Bronte and Elgar-themed suites). Skirt your way round these, however, and you are rewarded with the more out of the way pleasures of the Pump Room and Mercer Art Gallery.

The Pump Room is now a museum, of sorts. A world-show (residue of the town’s cosmopolitan past) yields ‘curiosities’ – tat, mostly, but there is one item that strikes the eye. A large Victorian doll’s house with its fourth wall removed, exposing servant dolls twice the size of their master’s family who sit weird and little at table, loll on canopied beds or watch themselves in giant mirrors – a Balzacian order this, the bourgeoise sidelined in their own homes by hirelings and clutter (lionskin, lace table cloth, metal bed warmer), all now, after a century of child’s play, pleasingly greasy and worn.

Then there are ‘exhibits’  from the original Pump Room. Among them, photographs of the building’s basilica, furnished with black marble columns and terrazzo floor (“based on the Italian Renaissance”). Sadly, other than these faded images, all that remains of this early magnificence is a water fountain, the Titus deVille, named after one of the spa’s “more colouful physicians”. Hidden a little out of view, it was once the Pump Room’s centrepiece – three bare-breasted mermaids and their fishy associates embracing in a porcelain clutch that would make Grayson Perry blush. More prominently featured, reflecting the taste of our times, is the spa’s equipment (so much puritan revenge, one suspects, for the unapologetic opulence), ingenious varieties of torture chamber such as the Needle Bath, an iron contraption that shot streams of water “at considerable pressure” onto quaking, iron-caged bodies.

The shame it engendered, perhaps, throws light on the mystery of Agatha Christie’s visit in 1926. Those eleven days, her husband claimed when he came to fetch her home, of which she had no memory.  Leaving by the gift shop, I pour a drop of well-water from a jug covered in muslin and weighted beads. The sulphurous smell is overpowering so that, much as I want to, I cannot bring myself to sip with the devil. I purchase, instead, a cardboard cut-out of Byron’s eyes (he visited in 1806 with his ‘brother’, a female companion dressed as a boy) and recall that when I worked for Rock Against Racism in the late Seventies, it was from Harrogate that the National Front sent such vehement hate mail. “History is the devil’s scripture”, Byron said.

Around the corner is the Mercer Art Gallery, a civic centre, gifted by the family and – fair enough – displaying some of their own artistic efforts. One, a painting by Gavin Mercer of  ‘St Ives Herring Packers’ is quite pretty, and forms part of the gallery’s standing collection that has studies in all manner of work: hop pickers, waterside labourers, carpet beaters and horse-traders. The world of work is virtually absent from contemporary art, which looks oddly parochial in the face of serious – and seriously sentimental – Northern Victorians like the Friths and Grimshaws. (It’s an absence that’s always puzzled me: why, after Lowry and Hopper, is there so little in the way of urban landscape?)

The current exhibition, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel, The Secret Garden (1910), displays pieces from the Mercer vault – it’s a broad brief with pictures on nature, enclosure and seclusion hailing from the C18 to the present day. But the gallery space is human-sized and the thematic looseness, part of the show’s charm, drawing attention to the off-beat and ramshackle without, well, making too much of a show of it. So a woodcut of a wonderfully-charactered ‘Lion’ (after Thomas Bewick, 1795), a glimpse of garrett poverty (Edward Cobbett’s ‘Peeling Apples’, c.1850), and a twenty-first century painting of a country corner, fitted out with bits of building from different stages of history (‘The Wooden Plunge Pool’, Simon Palmer), all hang together, like-minded in their attention to the overlooked and under-considered.

At the gallery back there’s a collection of  modern feminist pieces neurotically re-presenting one long gown: Bronte territory you think (the paraphernalia of gloves, hearts, doors, keys, birds and scratched words, give the clue), before discovering they are indeed based on Charlotte’s dress, still hanging with her sisters’, at the vicarage in Howarth, where the artist, Victoria Brookland, has been in residence. The best of her bunch, the most mysterious and powerful, is ‘Into the Woods’: a stark black tree with outcrops of flame, and at the trunk’s base, two cowering women emerging from a door.

Victoria Brookland, 2010

These collage-paintings are suggestively placed next to a heavy C17 Beckwithshaw door (“Lent by Miss Bramley”), comprising four wooden panels studded with nails, iron hinges and giant key. Also in this corner, a Victorian screen encasing taxidermied birds – tatty, spiny, but resiliently colourful, the “exotic species” valiantly clinging to the branches of a crooked tree. And lastly, in distant dialogue with Brookland’s hanging frocks, there are portraits of Victorian partriarchs. Hubert von Herkhomer’s and Howard Somerville’s studies in masculinity, their subjects, sternly-staring (one, a drypoint from 1883, inevitably titled ‘ The Artist and his Model’ ) have each, at the edge of their frame, a tiny, troubling female nude.

Hubert von Herkomer, 1883

Later that day, on the train returning to Leeds, I recollect the precarious status of these figures (barely in the picture), as I watch a Welsh woman trying to cheer up her fellow-guard: “You do such a loverly job with them clippers.” Two guards on a three-carriage train. Like the grandmothers in headscarves we saw in Prague in 68, employed to sit at the top of elevators, and the gallery attendants there just to shush you into proper art-reverence before the disorders of Schiele, Mucha and Klimt. They’re gone now and I can’t imagine this ‘clipper’ cameraderie will survive the next 18 months.

Inside the train it’s damp. I look out beyond the smudgy windows where there are stone walls, sheep, dandelion clocks furring the air. A patch of trodden flowers reminds me: this time last year we went into the bluebell woods, sat down on fallen trees and picked wild garlic for our baguettes, while you son’s girlfriend – the dancer – walked out to the tip of the trunk and practised her pirouettes. Afterwards, lying in the blue-greenery, we sang – remember? – all the lyrics with the word ‘blue’ we could think of, only stopping when the bottled fizz ran out and we were song-drunk.

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