Thursday 12 November 2015

Task 25: Pay a visit to the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings Old Town, UK

When I first started boarding at Eastbourne School of Domestic Economy (it really did exist, promise - read my Dennis Sever's blog for supporting evidence) as an unworldly 16 year old, I was very homesick. So every Saturday I used to catch the bus to Hastings to visit my great-aunt Margaret, who lived in the quirky and charming old part of the town near the harbour. Aunt Margaret was the best Auntie ever - she exuded warmth, had a wonderful sense of humour, and was always ready to feed me up with GBBO-quality Victoria sponge cake, hearty soups and roast chicken dinners. I would return to Eastbourne at night-time feeling comforted and more than a few pounds heavier. Since that time Hastings has always held a special place in my heart. 

Forty-four years on I heard that Hastings Old Town now boasted a top-notch gallery of contemporary British art, and duly took note. Three years later the Jerwood Gallery navigated its way onto my sixtyat60 list like a fishing boat returning to port.

Hilary, my 'Tracey's Bed' companion and friend, declared herself willing to do a day trip from her home in Bedford all the way down to the South Coast to visit the Jerwood Gallery with me, an offer that both touched and delighted me.....touched because her journey would necessitate four hours and 3 changes of train each way, and delighted because we always have really entertaining discussions (if you've read my Tracey's bed blog, you'll already know that Hilary is very well read and informed about all aspects of culture, and that for my part I like to look for meaning in everything).

I duly arrived at Hastings Old Town last week to undertake Task 25, and was relieved to discover that it was still the characterful place I remembered from over 40 years ago (best perhaps to draw a veil over the rest of Hastings.....??) Down by the beach I found the Jerwood Gallery nestling amongst the fishermen's huts like an understated black pearl in an oyster (can black pearls ever be understated? Well, you know what I mean). And there walking towards the entrance at precisely the same time as me was Hilary - yes, indeed, Network Rail served us well that day.

The Jerwood Gallery interior was perfect for contemporary art - loads of space, minimalist design and bright white walls. Before we had even started viewing the two main exhibitions (Lowry seascapes and a collection on loan from Kettles Yard, Cambridge) we spotted one fabulous scene just by looking out of a first floor window - fishing boats of all different sizes lined up on the shore outside.

We moved on through the building to study the collection of Lowry seascapes, most of which were bleak and desolate. We learnt about Lowry's sense of loneliness and depression, as well as his tricky relationship with the art establishment. We especially enjoyed studying the painting below, not surprisingly called Beach Scene, which in contrast to the seascapes was very detailed and full of those familiar Lowry stick figures. Lowry painted it in 1942, but it seems quite timeless. There isn't the slightest hint of World War 2 to be seen, which I thought was curious, but Hilary suggested that Lowry might have been reminiscing about happier times. 

We paused for lunch (in truth it was more like a complete 2-hour halt to proceedings) and paid homage to our seaside setting by eating crab sandwiches with a basket of very yummy artisan chips in the Jerwood cafe. Then we made our way to the Kettles Yard art collection. I was especially taken with a series of paintings by Christopher Wood, who died in tragic and probably self-inflicted circumstances at the age of just 29. We looked at a life-size self-portrait that he painted 3 years before his death (painting below on left).  Hilary thought it seemed a little flat and lifeless, especially in comparison with another painting Wood had done of a young man with eyes as alive and feline as the Siamese cat sitting on his lap (painting below on right). I, on the other hand, was drawn to the emptiness in Wood's expression and wondered what was going on for him at the time (it seems that opium had a lot to answer for).

As Hilary and I were leaving the gallery we got into conversation with the reception manager. We told him how much we'd enjoyed the Kettles Yard collection. 'Oooh what did you think of the Christopher Wood self-portrait?' he asked us with a rather wicked twinkle in his eye. 'Filthy wasn't it!' Hilary and I shot a look at one another. What had we missed? Was it the angle of his paintbrush perhaps??! It just goes to show how people can study a work of art and interpret it in many different ways.... 

Hilary and I said our farewells, and she set off on her long train journey home. In contrast with 40 years ago, I didn't take a bus back to Eastbourne, but after a lovely afternoon with Hilary looking at striking works of art, I felt that same sense of well-being and comfort, and was almost certainly a few pounds heavier thanks to those chips. I thought very fondly of Great-aunt Margaret - sadly she succumbed to dementia many years ago, and I'm especially glad to have taken a trip to Hastings Old Town whilst I'm still fund-raising for Alzheimer's Research UK. This post is dedicated to her. 

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK. For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at  

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