A new era for one of the UK’s top small art galleries was celebrated at the weekend. Abbot Hall, in Kendal, reopened on Saturday, May 20, after three years’ closure.
And it nailed its colours to the mast for its future direction by choosing an artist who perfectly illustrated its intention to explore the themes of landscape, ecology and identity through its collection and new collaborations.
Julie Brook’s exhibition
Julie Brook studied art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford (1980-83). Since 1989, she has been living and working in remote landscapes in Scotland including Orkney, Jura, and the uninhabited island of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides, places which continue to inspire her work.
And she has also created outdoor installations in Japanese quarries and African deserts, as demonstrated by videos showing on loop at the exhibition What is it That Will Last?.
Julie Brook’s work, which encompasses paintings, drawings and soundtracks as well as videos, is breathtakingly immersive.
The film Parallel Space features a Japanese kabuki dancer grappling with a stone structure Julie built inside a 300-metre tunnel inside a mountain. The film displays on a triptych of screens, the central one static.
Then in the next room, there is a huge drawing made of millions of graphite marks on paper, depicting the central frame. Julie is surely multi-media talent personified.
Another huge drawing, this time of pastel and paint on paper, depicts another of her Japanese outdoor installations in a Japanese quarry. Ascending comprises a staircase rising into the mined landscape, which took her seven weeks of 12-hour days.
Her seminal work, Firestacks, is also on show at Abbot Hall as an immersive series of films that portray the might and mystery of the tidal forces that surround the islands of Scotland.
In these dazzling stone-built structures containing beacons of fire, crafted by the artist through feats of physical endurance, are eventually consumed by the sea, inviting the viewer to engage with human’s precarious co-existence with the natural world.
Julie was invited to pick several works from Abbot Hall’s collection to display throughout the exhibition. Among those selected are works by Frank Auerbach, John Piper, John Ruskin, J M W Turner and Elizabeth Frink, which further explore the timeless relationship between artist and landscape.
Julie admitted to being most excited by the Turner’s The Passage of Mount St Gotthard from the centre of Teufels Broch (Devil’s Bridge), 1804, a watercolour on paper, which she said depicts extraordinary human interaction with the landscape.
Changes to Abbot Hall and a brief history
As well as the stunning exhibition, visitors will be interested in what has changed at Abbot Hall over the three years it has been closed.
The Grade I listed building has been a part of Kendal’s history for more than 250 years. It was originally the family home of Colonel George Wilson, of Dallam Tower, Milnthorpe.
It changed hands several times before it was sold in 1897 to Kendal Borough Council who wanted to transform the grounds into a public park. With the building largely neglected, Abbot Hall deteriorated and by the 1950s it faced certain demolition.
Determined to save this iconic building and secure its long-term future, a group of local people came together to form a charitable trust (Lake District Art Gallery Trust) to raise enough money to save the house.
The last 60 years has seen it build a formidable reputation built on its permanent collection of more than 6,500 works, including those by George Romney and 19th Century watercolours by artists such as J M W Turner and John Ruskin.
The modern and contemporary collection includes work by Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, David Hockney, Paula Rego and Kurt Schwitters.
Fans of the distinctive Georgian building on the banks of the River Kent in Kendal, Cumbria, will be glad to know the changes are not drastic.
It is brighter than before, due to new glazing in the windows which allow more natural light to illuminate the exhibits. It also enables visitors to admire the riverside setting outside.
The building’s flood resilience has been strengthened, crucial after it was inundated during Storm Desmond in 2015.
The whole building has been rewired, with new fire and security alarms. The flooring has been renewed and the whole building redecorated.
The total cost of £615,000 is peanuts compared with the £10mn redevelopment originally agreed with the Arts Council of England.
The pandemic put paid to that scheme and now Lakeland Arts is to consult with the public over further phases of the redevelopment, which will include what to do about reopening the Lakeland Museum (formally known as the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry).
Clogs at the deer park
In addition to the Abbot Hall exhibition, Julie was commissioned to create an outdoor sculpture at Holker Hall deer park, at Cark in Cartmel, half an hour’s drive from Abbot Hall.
Out of the ground, a thread of air is another stone stairway, this time made of 420 tonnes slate clogs provided by Burlington Stone, like Holker Hall part of the Holker Group companies owned by the Cavendish family.
Julie spent a couple of years selecting, transporting and assembling stone extracted from the Brathay and Kirkby-in Furness quarries.
She then spent a month putting them together to form her sculpture, which the public are invited to view and climb to look out over the estate and the fells and Morecambe Bay landscape beyond.
Rhian Harris, Chief Executive of Lakeland Arts, which runs Abbot Hall, as well as Blackwell, The Arts and Crafts House, and Windermere Jetty Museum, said : “We are delighted to be reopening Abbot Hall with a stunning exhibition by the British artist Julie Brook. This is the start of a new era for Abbot Hall as a welcoming and vibrant space for all.”
Both parts of the exhibition run until December 31, 2023. Visit their website to find out more.
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