Leeds Art Gallery is justly renown for its 20th century modern art collection. And that’s my excuse for invariably shooting straight up the main staircase to the first floor when I drop by to see the permanent collection. The other usual alternative is to make a right turn at some point on the ground floor to visit temporary exhibitions. The one option I have rarely exercised in the last 20 years is continuing straight on ahead into the Ziff Gallery at the end of the entrance hall.
I don’t have great eyesight, but it’s good enough to catch a glimpse of the collection of 19th century art through the doorway of the gallery, and I’ve never had much of an interest in 19th century painting. In fact, when I think about it properly, there is a lot of 19th century painting I like very much indeed, but I tend to assume I won’t see the stuff I like lurking in regional galleries established in Victorian times. 19th century work becomes assimilated in my mind with the worst sort of Victorian painting, but I really ought to know better. Assumptions always benefit from challenge, and so it was I found myself entering the Ziff gallery the other day to take a proper look for the first time in years.
I was immediately rewarded by a row of exquisite small works by all the Cs: Constable, Corot, Courbet and Cotman. And a Daubigny. As I stood there gazing with delight, I wondered on just how many visits I had overlooked these gems.
But the most fascinating wall of the gallery proved to be the wall hung with the very painting I am normally least interested in: a quintessentially Victorian celebration of Empire, war, glory and moral instruction. A wonderful hanging of paintings accompanied by enlightening and thoughtful text which for me prompted a wholly contemporary reflection and response to works which, even leaving aside artistic considerations, could be potentially problematic in this day and age.
Take, for example, Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage. In this allegorical painting, Britannia slays the Bengali Tiger as reprisal for the Indian Mutiny. Viewed from a 21st century perspective, it is a provocative imperialistic version of events which at that time fuelled a highly emotional response in a jingoistic British public, but Armitage was sufficiently proud of his work to present it himself to the gallery.
As I stood looking at it in its monumental glory, I wondered in the multi-cultural Leeds of today what contemporary visitors make of it? Yet this painting, hung in its context with other works of the time, is an important contribution to our collective understanding of who we are and where we come from. We need these reminders and lessons from our past. History is always chequered in shades of grey depending on perspective and differing narratives, and the Victorian art collection of Leeds Art Gallery carefully presented in this context is an enlightening and forceful reminder of how British society, for all its imperfection, has managed at least some progress in this regard.
It seems though that the average visitor has been faster than me to appreciate this gallery. Looking around, I realised that the glimpses which had dissuaded me from entering the room seemed to have the opposite effect for most other people. And if I needed proof of this, all I had to do was look around at all the red cards scattered throughout the room marking ‘Yorkshire’s Favourite Paintings‘. That is a fascinating project which I will have to return to another time.
In the meantime, do go and enjoy the Ziff Gallery if you haven’t already done so.