Discovering Southampton City Art Gallery

Elspeth Williams reflects on her first visit to Southampton City Art Gallery.
Elspeth Williams, MA Contemporary Curation, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. (Image © Thierry Bal, 2016

I first encountered Southampton City Art Gallery (SCAG) in 2014 as an English student seeking work experience in a gallery. I had been a frequent visitor of the John Hansard Gallery and other art spaces in the area, however, due to the lack of outside attention being drawn to it I had overlooked SCAG as a source for my arts and culture fix. My ignorance of SCAG was perhaps also due to my naïve perception of local council funded museums, outside of London that is, being somewhat dull and unstimulating, an opinion which seemed to be shared by many of my peers.

Southampton City Art Gallery Exterior. Image © Daniel Wilson

Having grown up in a small Devon town where the local art museum housed a few peeling grey paintings of the area and some misshapen taxidermy, I felt justified in my snobbery of anything too ‘local’, which is why I was somewhat awestruck by my first visit to SCAG. I realised what I had been missing as I spotted work by internationally renowned artists such as L.S Lowry, Bridget Riley, Rodin, and Frank Auerbach, to name a few.

Located inside the civic centre, the large space is a beautiful one, awash with natural light from a floor to ceiling window overlooking Watts Park. The high arched ceiling is adorned with Daniel Buren’s signature stripes. Buren, purportedly one of the world’s best known living artists, recently completed a permanent installation for Art on the Underground at Tottenham Court Road Tube station, which has been met with excitement by London and the art world. Yet, few are aware that his first public installation in the UK is here in Southampton.

I was lucky enough to undertake a voluntary work placement with the then curator and the revelations about the gallery’s rich collection did not cease, not least on my first day when I tentatively helped pack up a Monet to be shipped on loan to the US. I learnt that from its opening in 1939 SCAG has received advise from directors of Tate, and been blessed with a string of passionate curators and staff. So it is no surprise that its art collection is hailed the best south of London. So much so SCAG is often called upon by influential London galleries such as the Ben Uri Gallery, found not far from Camden Town, who displayed SCAG’s collection of celebrated British artist’s drawings on paper in 2015. More recently Tate Britain loaned work by Paul Nash in 2016 for its retrospective exhibition of the Surrealist artist.

The collection is shown off gloriously in the gallery’s recent re-hang, following the closure of national British Art Show 8, with a focus on exhibitions which tell a little art history too. Visitors are led through exhibitions and the concepts behind them with insightful and engaging information, tailored to be accessible to everyone from art-lovers to novices. SCAG also has excellent paid and free activities such as art history study days, life drawing sessions, and recently a collaboration with the university’s Philosophy department on ways of looking at art.

Southampton City Art Gallery is no doubt one of the city’s gems. Free to all, it is a great way to spend an afternoon and should not be missed!

Fiona Rae “Untitlied”. Image © Daniel Wilson

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