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The Thirty Four Gallery
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In 1934, art dealer Sydney Burney organised an exhibition with a difference – all the artworks were on a miniature scale. The Thirty Four Gallery has inspired several more miniature art galleries over the past century, including our 2021 Model Art Gallery.
We take a look at how and why this unique gallery was created.
1934 was a remarkable year in British art. Three landmark exhibitions revealed the significant changes and ideas that artists were grappling with between the wars.
There was the first (and only) exhibition from Unit One, a group founded the previous year by Paul Nash. It was an attempt to unite painters, sculptors and architects in capturing a ‘contemporary spirit’ in art.
This exhibition at Mayor Gallery included artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth (all of whom contributed works to The Thirty Four Gallery). The participants each had different styles, but all were united by the ‘contemporary spirit’.
Meanwhile, at the Zwemmer Gallery, the exhibition ‘Objective Abstractions’ included work by Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore and Ceri Richards. These artists’ approach to non-figurative art was inspired by nature. They rejected the geometric abstraction pioneered by European avant-garde artists such Piet Mondrian.
Finally, the Seven and Five Society held their thirteenth exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1934. The group formed in 1919 as a ‘return to order’ following the war. With the arrival of Ben Nicholson in 1924 (along with Hepworth, Hitchens, Frances Hodgkins, Moore and John Piper) however, the Society’s outlook became more forward-thinking. The non-modernist artists were gradually expelled. The 1934 exhibition included the first of Nicholson’s white reliefs and, a year later, the Society was renamed the Seven and Five Abstract Group.
Into this incredible melting pot of ideas came Sydney Burney, a progressive art dealer, collector and patron. He was deeply philosophical and believed in the universality of art. He mounted exhibitions that displayed Yoruba, Benin and other African sculpture alongside new works by Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping.
His plan in 1934 was audacious. It would be a gallery that would capture the entire scope of Modern British art of the time. He wanted to capture what had been displayed in three exhibitions in three separate galleries in just two doll house sized models.
The Thirty Four Gallery was part of a larger exhibition held at Chesterfield House during April and May 1934 in aid of the Greater London Fund for the Blind. It was called ‘Children through the Ages’. As the name suggests, the exhibition looked at the different phases of childhood through costume and toys as well as paintings and portraiture.
The idea of a miniature gallery was inspired by Queen Mary’s Dolls House, the largest dolls house in the world. It was built between 1921-24 for Queen Mary by the leading British architect Sir Edward Lutyens. It featured contributions from over 1,500 of the finest artists, craftsmen and manufacturers of the time.
Burney commissioned architect Marshall Sissons to build his miniature gallery, and then set about commissioning the artists, choosing ones who represented different groups and styles. These included sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Frank Dobson and John Skeaping; abstract artists Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson and SW Hayter; Bloomsbury Group members Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant; and Surrealist works by Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Tristram Hillier; with a range of works by other artists from the time.
The gallery is thus an artistic tour de force, a fascinating peep show, and a page of history all in one. It really is a microcosm of modern aspects of English painting and sculpture in 1934.
R. H. Wilenski, in the original catalogue for the 1934 exhibition.
The works themselves were all new, made especially for the exhibition. They were created to look not like miniatures, but as if they were full-size paintings and sculptures that had been miraculously shrunken down.
The exhibition attracted considerable attention and was widely viewed. Yet after it closed, it seems to have disappeared from public view for decades. All but 11 of the original 34 works were later rediscovered in a suitcase by Burney’s grandson.
In 1997, those artworks were given to us on long term loan. As the original gallery model had completely vanished, photographs from the 1934 exhibition were used to reconstruct the model gallery. The Thirty Four Gallery has been on display in the 18th century townhouse ever since. It is one of the delights of our collection, fondly remembered by many of our visitors long after they first saw it.
In our 2021 exhibition Masterpieces in Miniature, the Thirty Four Gallery is on display alongside two newer galleries it inspired – the 2000 and 2021 Model Art Galleries. Some works remain missing, but the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore have been traced and borrowed back from other private collectors especially for this exhibition. Together, these galleries offer the unique opportunity to take in almost 100 years of British art in only a few glances.