Reflections on the UBP Annual Seminar 2014 by Laura Millward, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery

Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Elliot Fry, oil on canvas, 1917. Image © University of Leeds

Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Elliot Fry, oil on canvas, 1917. Image © University of Leeds

Since starting my position at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds in 2008, we have received many enquiries relating to the University’s collection of portraits. Our enquiries come from researchers, students and the general public but also staff within other departments wanting to know more about the sitters in the portraits, including Vice-Chancellors and founders of the various schools and departments at the University.

I signed myself up to the Understanding British Portraits Annual Seminar, hoping to discover how other galleries and museums have researched their own portrait collections. Not only did the seminar fulfil this initial interest, I came away inspired and eager to share ideas with my colleagues, particularly our Education Officer.

The first of the day’s speakers was Will Troughton from the National Library of Wales, who spoke about the research, identification and digitisation of photographs from the First World War. One of our current displays, The Individual Remains: Untold Stories of the First World War, curated by students from the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies course, include photographs, letters and objects from the University of Leeds, Special Collections (Liddle Collection). As most of the exhibitions and displays I am involved with are art-related, Will’s paper helped me to understand the amount of research the students and my colleagues in Special Collections have undertaken to make the display interesting and engaging for our visitors.

Amanda Askari and Jane Hardstaff’s talk, Putting Yourself in the Picture: Creating Costumes for the Joseph Wright Institute, Derby Museums, left me full of enthusiasm and hope that one day we might have the resources to undertake a similar project and to me this emphasised the importance of working closely with our Education Officer, to create engaging and informative workshops and interactive installations within The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. One of the Gallery’s key works is Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Fry, 1917, oil on canvas (top left). Many of our visitors are drawn (as I am) to Nina’s dress and the cushions by her side, which were produced at the Omega Workshops and would lend itself to a fun and interesting interactive project linking the Bloomsbury Group and Omega Workshops. (This is me rambling with excitement, but I would love to discuss this with the Gallery’s Education Officer and Events and Marketing Assistant!)

The Seamstresses by John Currie (1883-1914), 1913, oil on canvas, University of Leeds Art Collection. Image © University of Leeds

The Seamstresses by John Currie (1883-1914), 1913, oil on canvas, University of Leeds Art Collection. Image © University of Leeds

I was unfamiliar with the work of John Minton until Matthew Storey gave his paper, What Makes An Object LGBT? John Minton’s Portraits. Minton’s painting style reminded me of other artists of that era such as John Bratby – who I later discovered had produced a portrait of John Minton. Matthew’s paper brought back memories of an LGBT project in 2012 when The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery invited artist Matt Smith to work with the University of Leeds Art Collection. Matt created and installed his art work which he described as ‘interventions’ close to the work he had been inspired by, including The Seamstresses by John Currie, 1913, oil on canvas and Standing Male Nude (Horace Brodsky) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, c.1913, pen and ink on paper. Matt’s ‘interventions’ offered new ways of understanding many of the works in the collection.

Dr Rebecca Wade’s (Henry Moore Institute, Leeds) paper, ‘The hand is a portrait’: The reception of the plaster death masks and hands of Thackeray and Rossetti by Brucciani  was fascinating and prompted me to look again at a hand cast in the University of Leeds Art Collection entitled A Plaster cast of Mayo Robson’s hands. Mayo Robson was a surgeon in Leeds and had studied at the University in the 1870s, however, unfortunately, we know very little about this piece and the artist is unidentified. Rebecca explained that many hand casts were taken of surgeons as it was seen as their hands being the tools of their trade and often the family or associates would request a hand cast rather than the face, as it was often a preferred or less disturbing way of remembering the person. I would like to know more about the cast in our collection and hope to invite Rebecca to the Gallery to see it and perhaps assist us to shed more light on this peculiar item in our collection.

Having a personal appreciation of the work of Laura Knight and the Staithes Group, I was particularly looking forward to Rosie Broadley’s (Associate Curator at the National Portrait Gallery) paper, In the bedroom or under the coats: rediscovering Laura Knight’s portraits. We are lucky enough to have a Laura Knight print in the University of Leeds Art Collection entitled Changing, c.1923-25. I hadn’t realised how prolific Laura Knight had been and how varied her subjects were. Rosie explained how she went about tracing paintings by Knight in public and private collections and how it was fascinating that many people who visited the exhibition contacted her to say they owned a Laura Knight painting or they had been one of the sitters in the painting. A few years ago, a colleague of mine was chatting to a visitor who realised he was the baby in one of our portraits displayed in the Gallery!

I would like to thank all the speakers and organisers of the Understanding British Portrait Network for an inspiring and thought-provoking day.

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