Review: Southampton City Art Gallery – ‘Truly a Hidden Gem of our City’

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With a great combination of iconic artists and lesser-known talents, there's something for everyone at Southampton City Art Gallery - and it's right on our doorstep!

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Southampton City Art Gallery, despite having existed since 1939, is truly one of the hidden gems of our city. Located in the Civic Centre, the collection houses western art spanning from the Renaissance to the present day. 

As the first time visiting a public place since late February, visiting Southampton City Art Gallery in person was quite daunting. Before arriving the gallery requires you to book a timeslot in order to control the number of people entering at any one time, however these tickets are entirely free! The gallery staff were welcoming and carefully explained the new one-way system, along with additional measures such as track-and-trace and hand sanitiser stations. Despite the use of the one-way system, we were still able to view every collection without being rushed. In terms of navigating the new normal, the team at Southampton City Art Gallery have excelled themselves in ensuring the safety of the public without compromising the experience. 

The main attraction at the Art Gallery is the ‘Aspects of Landscape’ exhibition, which contains more than 50 artworks spanning the six decades of John Hitchens’ career. Starting with more recent pieces which haven’t been shown in public before, we were taken through four rooms which work back through time. He has always been influenced by the landscapes of the South Downs, but the way his style has changed over the years was truly remarkable to see. His more recent paintings and sculptures are much more abstract; he uses dots and lines to create texture, and pieces such as ‘From Sombre Lands’ are full of vibrant, vivid colours. We also loved the sculptures made from tree trunks which shared these tones, and the cabinets with his more informal sketches were a nice touch. In contrast, 1971’s ‘Summer Crest’ is a stunning oil canvas, with dark clouds rolling in and just a hint of blue sky. Hitchens is certainly a very talented artist, and we were very fortunate to see the exhibition considering that it is on an extended run until October due to the gallery’s closure.

Whilst visiting the gallery there was one exhibition which stood out most for being very different to the other exhibitions. Founded by artist Tim A Shaw and curator Niamh White, Hospital Rooms is an arts and mental health charity which commissions amazing artworks for the NHS mental health inpatients units across the country. Southampton City Council not only supports this inspirational charity, but also allows examples and prototypes of the artwork to be displayed at Southampton City Art Gallery. The exhibition allows a space for visitors to consider the powerful effects of art on the mind. We experienced this first hand with Yukako Shibata’s De-escalation Room artwork at Bluebird House. Shibata has transformed this room using pastel colours and gradients which predominantly had a calming effect on us. Bluebird House is a unit for young people with mental health difficulties who have experienced the criminal justice system in Southampton – work at Bluebird House is just the latest project from Hospital Rooms. With so many other completed projects, it will be great to see what the team at Hospital Rooms does next. 

Although the first few rooms within the gallery are dedicated to contemporary art, many of the paintings are much older. Commissioned in 1875 by Arthur Balfour, England’s Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, The Perseus Series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones is currently on display in The Baring Room of Southampton City Art Gallery. This collection features ten large oil paintings depicting the story of Perseus, a demigod from Greek mythology; he is most famous for defeating the gorgon, Medusa. We both agreed that the detail given to story-telling in each piece in this series of paintings is remarkable, however I found Burne-Jones’ representation of the Grecian style artwork, especially that of Grecian sculpture particularly profound. This was especially the case in the painting The Death of Medusa I (1882), which is most notable for the depiction of the winged-horse, Pegasus, taking flight; in this instance Pegasus is portrayed in a similar style to Greek marble and bronze sculptures where the winged-horse is exaggerated and in turn becomes more mythical. Perseus and other human-like figures, such as the Graeae (the three sisters who share one eye) are all painted with the clean, smooth lines associated with the marble statues of Ancient Greece. Sir Edward Burne-Jones worked on this series for ten years, but due to ill-health he was unable to complete all the paintings. Based on the ten paintings exhibited at Southampton City Art Gallery it is fair to say it’s a great shame that Burne-Jones never finished the full collection.

Despite the gallery having a large number of interesting artwork it was impressive to see paintings by some well-known artists, such as Monet and Renoir; the gallery features one painting from each artist. Monet and Renoir are both recognised as being pioneers of the Impressionist movement with such distinctive styles it was amazing to see their work up close. 

All in all, this may not be Tate or the Ashmolean, but Southampton City Art Gallery is definitely worth a visit as it’s fantastic to have such wonderful artworks on our doorstep. They’ve made it as safe as possible, it’s free to visit, and with such informative signage about the history of each painting in the gallery you can learn a lot too. 

Southampton City Art Gallery is currently open six days a week: 11am – 3pm on Monday – Friday and 11am – 4pm on Saturdays. For more information on visiting the gallery, visit their website here.

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English student, Culture/Film PR Officer 2020/21 and News Editor 2019/20. Can usually found listening to the same playlists and watching the same films over and over.

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Third year English student interested in literature, art and music. Better known for my love of military history, planes, trains and automobiles (especially classic Ford Mustangs)!

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