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The Crack Magazine


Truth, Beauty, an Adventurous Eye and Money Well Spent

Now here’s a situation that might make a very good period drama on the telly: the only daughter of an eminent Victorian banker and Liberal politician inherits much of her father’s wealth without having any of the obvious calls on her income (no children or surviving siblings, unsuccessful marriage successfully annulled). So instead of distracting family concerns, she concentrates on artistic circles, meeting Picasso and Brancusi in Paris, starting to buy contemporary art with the advice of London ‘s forward-looking Mayor Gallery, and becoming not just a collector of contemporary paintings, but an active patron and friend to interlocking circles of British poets and visual artists during the 1920s to 1960s. What adds a special resonance to this history is that, although having a home in London, this estimable lady spent long periods of time in the north of England, leasing Rock Hall near Alnwick, later living at Cockley Moor near Penrith (where she had her house redesigned in Modernist mode) and even forging a Jesmond connection via her friendship with local resident, poet Michael Roberts.

And now you’re wondering why we aren’t already familiar with this beacon of enlightened, open-minded and generous patronage – and honestly, so am I! So considerable kudos to the Granary Gallery in Berwick upon Tweed, where a new exhibition will herald the summer in Northumberland by celebrating the remarkable, if little researched, life of British art patron and collector, Helen Sutherland (1881–1965).

Her tastes were wonderfully eclectic – when in early 1936 her friend Nicolette Gray (who would inherit Sutherland’s collection after the latter’s death) organised an exhibition of cutting edge modern art entitled “Abstract & Concrete”, though the show travelled to four British venues it was neither a commercial nor a critical success, but with her eye for a new artistic language, Sutherland spotted and purchased Piet Mondrian’s exercise in strictly formal, geometric abstraction, “Composition B (No.II) with Red” (now in the Tate). She could also, though, appreciate the way that the influences of Cubism could be absorbed into the traditions of British landscape painting in a work like Ben Nicholson’s 1928 Cumbrian scene “Walton Wood cottage, no. 1”, which she gifted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. She was an enthusiast, too, of the same artist’s serene white relief constructions, and became friends with his two (successive) artist wives, Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

The regional connection is highlighted by the work of Welsh neo-Romantic artist David Jones, whose prolonged stays at Rock Hall (“He’s bad at going”) inspired his watercolour “Rock Hall in the Garden” and may have influenced the concept the Chapel Perilous in his Arthurian works – the Tate has loaned his “The Chapel in the Park” from 1932. Sutherland owned over 200 of his paintings, a demonstration of the productive rapport between artist and patron/collector.

Given the range of her involvement with contemporary developments, it’s perhaps not surprising that she also took a keen intertest in the “Pitman Painters” of the Ashington Group, evening class amateurs who developed a direct and energetic approach to documenting local life in their imagery. On Sunday 21 July 1935 Helen had invited 17 miners from the Northumbrian town to Rock Hall for afternoon tea. David Jones was assigned the role of guiding the visitors around the house and explaining the modern paintings on display. Initially apprehensive, Jones soon found that his audience was "intelligent and sensitive, twenty times more ‘aware’ than most people one meets". Sutherland went on to acquire works from members of the Group, and clearly inspired a genuine affection between the miners and their patron, with painter Jimmy Floyd quoted as saying: “Give her my picture. I can always paint another picture, but we could never get another Miss Sutherland.” For her part, Sutherland regarded a painting by a pitman every bit as worthy as a Picasso.

With rarely-seen works borrowed from private as well as public collections, “Truth and Beauty: The 20th Century British Art of Pioneering Collector Helen Sutherland” offers a rare insight into the development of 20th century British Modernism as reflected in the taste of someone who approached it with eyes wide open to its power and possibilities.

Truth and Beauty: The 20th Century British Art of Pioneering Collector Helen Sutherland, The Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 21 May – 9 October.