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The Eye of the Beholder
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Gallery volunteer Anne Middleton gives a fun insight into her time at gallery as a Gallery Assistant.
I am one of those volunteers who sit in the galleries checking that bulky rucksacks aren’t scraping against a picture, that no one is wreaking vengeance on a picture they dislike intensely, and that visitors can find their way to the café (thirsty work, all that art).
Pallant House is twinned with another Georgian-house-cum-art-gallery, Abbot Hall in Kendal, and that is where for fifteen years I cut my teeth as an invigilator. I call it babysitting: I sit in a room full of pictures sleeping on the wall waiting for visitors to inspect my charges.
Two hours a week volunteering for the duration of an exhibition means the artwork becomes familiar. I never fail to be amazed that those I fell head over heels in love with at first sight, over the weeks can begin to pall and others slowly reveal a more subtle and lasting charm. And as I keep an eye on visitors walking around the gallery, inevitably I notice which pictures they pass by, which they stand and puzzle out and which they return to.
Research, the Tate reports, finds visitors spend an average of eight seconds in front of a picture. Eight seconds? Scandalous! Disgusting! Reprehensible! How about one second? The National Gallery had loaned Rembrandt’s self-portrait in old age to Kendal. As I sat guarding the priceless treasure, one lone visitor entered, shot past Rembrandt’s sublime masterpiece and exited, all in one second flat, surely worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records!
But to return to eight seconds, is it so scandalous? I have tried out eight seconds in front of a lithograph. It feels quite a long time and certainly long enough to decide whether to dig deeper or move on.
The same Tate website, “Slow Looking”, suggests ten minutes is a good length of time to sit in front of a work of art. With the current printmaking exhibition showing more than a hundred prints, to spend 10 minutes in front of each print would take me a good 18 hours and the gallery closes at 5 p.m.! Slow-looking means being selective so I must quickly pass by works ruling them out as being too insipid (whoever chose that combination of colours?) or too confrontational (who wants to be challenged on a bad hair day?) or too complicated (looks a total mess).
Taking time, the Tate tells me, is not about captions beside a work of art telling you how I should look at it but to go with my own perceptions, instincts. Hear, hear! It’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder and every novel, poem, sonata, installation takes on a life of its own once under the public’s eye.
A visitor shared with me that Colin Self’s black/white “Figure Number 2” was her dancing her youth away in the Swinging Sixties. I agreed and then we read the caption: “suggestive of a fleeing figure caught in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion”. I’m still tempted to change the caption to “The Swinging Sixties” as it sits on the gloriously vibrant yellow wall. Mind you, captions have their uses. The House has a beautiful walnut chest of drawers and I read that it is “on bun feet” – and so it is, inescapably, on four buns!
Historians are fond of recounting how Rembrandt was a broken man at the end of his life – out of fashion, bankrupt, alone. Kendal brought no such preconceived ideas to viewing the famous portrait from his last year. I was told: “he looks cheerful”; “good down t’pub for a pint?”; “sweet man”.
What about spending time with a sculpture? Pallant House’s Barbara Hepworth and her black marble “Single Form, Nocturne” more than deserves time to be walked round, looked at up and down, noted how the light falls on it, enjoyed from a distance. It is so shiny and so smooth and so tactile I and many a visitor have longed to stroke its polished marble. Can we? Hepworth held very definite views on the subject: “I think every sculpture must be touched”. Dare we? There’s no prohibition on the caption but perhaps oily hands damage marble?
Children have less of a problem with abstract sculpture than their elders. With inspired curating, Andy Goldsworthy’s incised chalk stones have been displayed beside the mottled marble fireplace in the Georgian House’s entrance hall. Adults often were more worried they’d trip over the stones but children loved them: the white line was “a path”, “a snake”, “a long journey”, “up hill, down, up, down”.
Visitors really come into their own when a local artist is on show. They bring with them local knowledge and inevitably a need to chat about it with the volunteers. In 2019 the “local lad”, Ivon Hitchens, had a retrospective exhibition and it felt as if there were very few in Sussex who had not walked through the woods near Petworth where he had lived in a caravan!
Likewise in 2010 Lowry at Abbot Hall brought in flocks of those whose family member had lived in or near his street, Station Road, in Pendlebury: “Dad said you’d never have guessed he was a real artist”. The eyes of those beholders were overjoyed to be experts on Hitchens’s and Lowry’s landscapes. Same thing with Hepworth’s pierced black marble seen through Cornish eyes familiar with the prehistoric Mên-an-Tol pierced stones up on the moor beyond St Ives.
Finished with volunteering for another week, I will download a pic as the screensaver on my computer. At leisure I plan to spend many more than eight seconds puzzling it out – with or without its caption!
The Tate adds a farewell helpful tip: it’s not impolite to stare at art!
This article is part of a series by our Volunteers to celebrate 40 years of Pallant House Gallery in 2022. Find more articles from the series below.