Here in London we are privileged to have countless galleries and museums. Amazingly, most of them are open for free to the public. It's only the Courtauld
that insists on a fee to see its collection of paintings, and the waxworks at Madame Tussauds. Of course we accept paying to see the special exhibitions
put on by the British Museum, Tates Modern and Britain, and the V&A, some of which are curatorial masterpieces in their own right. Now and then
there is a special show that is itself free to the public but do we have any right to complain about their flaws?
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is just such a show, an intriguing assembly around a theme that unites several Sussex gallery collections that have contributed to it. Any trip back to the early days of the Modernists in Britain is always worth a look, and there is certainly plenty of interest at this exhibition. What with works by Eric Gill, Edward Wadsworth, John Piper, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the free entry makes it irresistible.
This exhibition is, however, located in Two Temple Place, which was designed for William Waldorf Astor back in the late eighteenth century when he was the richest man in the world. Needless to say that this little palace constructed for him in high Victorian Gothic style is dripping with carved wood, stained glass (picture below) and other fine decorations. Many fine old buildings have been repurposed for exhibitions, the nearby Somerset House a case in point, but one could hardly imagine a more contradictory place to exhibit works that champion twentieth century modernity.
There are a few pieces that reflect a modernist take on medieval themes such as Saint Gregory and the Anglo Saxons, but putting in a scale model of the Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion with all those carved wooden panels and figurines is a clang too far. The grand hall with its lofty carvings is an imposing space in its own right, and here the brightly coloured works by Roland Penrose almost work with the two bright multi-panel stained glass murals at either end.
The grand hall is also where three excellent works by the Rye based artist Edward Burra can be found. These are strong examples of Burra's meticulous technique and are worth the trip alone. Some of the other works that are here to support the thesis of Sussex as a hotbed of modernist activity are not, however, quite up to the same standard, including a Graham Sutherland that seems totally out of place. The Eric Gill works are good, but not all are the height of his art. Some of the paintings, and the lamp, by Vanessa Bell are also substandard.
In spite of all this, the overall curatorial level is excellent, painting a fascinating picture of the stirrings of modernity in the South East of England. There are many other artists on show that have not been mentioned here, and there is much to discover. If you've never been to Two Temple Place you may find the building's Victorian magnificence distracting you from the exhibits the first time you go. Don't despair, as the building is a two minute walk from Temple underground station (on the District and Circle lines) and the exhibition is on until 23 April, and open every day of the week except Tuesday.
From OISE London, Two Temple Place is:
20 minutes on the Northern and District Line from Tottenham Court Road
20 minutes on bus number 1 from New Oxford Street
30 minutes on foot through Covent Garden and Aldwych
Gregory Edwards,Tutor at OISE London
Gregory has been teaching English for many years. Originally from Canada, he has made his home in the UK, although he also spent some time in Libya. With a previous career in the banking industry, he specialises in teaching English in this area as well as finance, oil and gas, and culture and the arts. He is a published writer of several books on art and poetry and this gives him a unique insight into the importance of language development for students.