Monday, 1 August 2016

Sudley House

Sudley House

Sudley House in Aigburth, Liverpool

Sudley House, like Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, is a rich man's home gallery: a large private art collection bequeathed along with the home it was located in. Sudley is on a much grander scale than the wonderful, higgledy-piggledy cottage in Cambridge which houses an eclectic, magpie collection of minor Modernist masterpieces. George Holt, a Liverpool ship owner who bought Sudley House in 1883, filled his modest stately home with British painters of the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. The gallery contains no less than three Turners – two of them important works - plus paintings by Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, Edwin Landseer and Joshua Reynolds. But it is the cache of well- and lesser-known Pre-Raphaelite pieces that makes Sudley the important niche it is. Works by Holman Hunt, Frederic Lord Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones were especially sought out by Holt, who also bought dozens of paintings by lesser-known artists.
The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt

The experience of visiting this gallery is somewhat different, firstly because of its location. A sandstone manor house, set in suburban parkland, it's several miles from Liverpool city centre. There is very limited parking on site, and if you go there by bus or train, you will have to walk up a slight incline for 10 or 15 minutes. From its terraces and windows, you get wonderful views across tree-lined fields and desirable residential properties, down to the Mersey estuary and Wirral peninsula.
The view over the lawn towards the Mersey Estuary

Secondly, Sudley House is no white-walled gallery space. The paintings are displayed just as they would have been in Holt's day. There is still some of the original furniture in the Hall & Library and the Dining & Morning rooms. This means the appearance of the paintings varies according to changes of light during the day. This can make it a little difficult to see details or even whole canvases as there are tables or other objects in some rooms, plus reflections from lamps and windows in the glass-fronted picture frames. However, many of the original features are works of art in their own right; for example tiled fireplaces or hand crafted sideboards and bookshelves. The upshot is that in Sudley, paintings exist in the context their creators painted them for.
Fireplace in the Library

A further difference is that Holt's collection is almost 100% British. I saw only one painting by a non-British artist: a small landscape by Corot. This means the collection is almost a permanently curated exhibition of how, at the height of the British empire, artists in Britain carved their own unique pathways. How Turner, for example, influenced the French Impressionists. How British portrait and landscape painting raised standards to the levels seen on the Grand Tour. And how such a flagrant bias towards home grown talent was without jingo or racism. On the contrary, Holt's preference for native art, and his generous wallet, encouraged British artists and championed the Pre-Raphaelites, who were unpopular with many critics. And Holt was no eccentric. The penchant of many Liverpool and Manchester art collectors in the nineteenth century has left other nuggets of a unique national movement: eg, The Lady Lever Gallery over the water in Port Sunlight, which has an even larger collection of well-known Pre-Raphaelite works.
Pathway to the South

Sudley House was built by a coal merchant in 1821, so the building long predates the Arts and Crafts Movement of the Victorian era. Holt made some alterations to the original plain, rectangular structure, but it is the garden that most effectively frames the collection. The house is surrounded on three sides by massive beech, rowan, chestnut (horse & sweet), cherry, sycamore and a few pine trees. Under these are curiously twisted oleander, magnolia, laurel and hawthorn bushes. Bordering the East wing, two enormous ginkgo trees stand, while to the West there is a small walled garden and then a long footpath bordered with rose, bramble and fuchsia. The house's former kitchen is now a cafe serving good scones and tea; and if the weather is suitable, you can sit outside in the yard.
A Pot of Leaf Tea with a Scone, Butter & Jam: 4 pounds 20 pence

The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Photography, even with flash, is allowed. There are videos and fact sheets for most of the rooms. However, the gallery brochure is out of print and there are no post cards on sale, so any mementos you take away with you will have to be your own. I think you'll need a good two hours to see round properly. Parts of the upstairs are used for temporary exhibitions and workshops. Entry is free. There is a lift to the second floor, but wheelchair access to the cafe yard is round the outside of the house.
One of the pair of Giant Ginkgos