If you were asked to name three things that define Swindon, what would they be? Of course, the answer depends entirely on your interests and pastimes, but some popular features of Swindon tend to include its fascinating railway heritage, shopping at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet and, of course, the formidable Magic Roundabout.
Less frequently cited is the town’s exceptional collection of modern British art. Often praised for being the best outside of London, Swindon’s collection spans late 1800s right through to today. Paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics and sculptures represent some of the country’s most important art movements; from Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group to recent works from contemporary British painting.
It includes important work by some of the biggest and most celebrated names in British art including Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, L.S. Lowry and Howard Hodgkin, as well as significant artists with a local connection such as Desmond Morris, whose vibrant painting Girl Selling Flowers, was inspired by a young Diana Dors.
The seeds of the art collection were sewn in the 1940s, with generous donations from local businessmen HJP “Jimmy” Bomford and Frederick Charles Phelps. Since then it has grown thanks to more donations, as well as grants from organisations including the Art Fund, the Contemporary Arts Society and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For several years, the development of the collection was also supported by the advice of the Tate Gallery’s Richard Morphet.
Recent years have bought exciting acquisitions such as an early Grayson Perry ceramic, talks from prominent artists including The Great Pottery Throw Down’s Kate Malone, and profile-raising exhibitions. Perhaps most notable was a retrospective of drawings by Eileen Cooper, the first female Keeper of the Royal Academy in London since it opened in 1768.
The art collection and collections of archaeology, social history, geology and Egyptology are housed at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, in Swindon’s Old Town. The charming and quirky venue is a converted late Georgian house, complete with original stained glass features and warmly tiled entrance hall. A brutalist 1960s extension forms a spacious art gallery, where regularly changing exhibitions are held.
Through its current Art on Tour project, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery also aims to share the art collection with other (sometimes unexpected) venues throughout the town. This began with exhibitions at STEAM Museum and Swindon’s Civic Offices in Autumn 2019.
The programme will continue with work confirmed to go on display at The Central Library, The Wyvern Theatre, Swindon Arts Centre and Pinetrees Community Centre. Pebley Beach will also showcase work in their showroom, and have put forward £1,000 sponsorship toward the project, to help take art to community-run venues throughout the town.
An extensive education programme will also run as part of Art on Tour, and will help schools across Swindon respond creatively to the art collection. Among other activities, this includes a Pop-Up Gallery named “Mr Bomford’s Magical Imaginarium”, cross-curricular workshops and a Young Artist in Residence programme with New College, Swindon.
Lockdown restrictions have meant delaying much of this activity for the time being, but they haven’t stopped the Art on Tour team from making Swindon’s art collection accessible in exciting and innovative ways. Through a temporarily rebranded online initiative Art on Tour at Home, they have developed a number of digital resources inspired by Swindon’s collection.
These include a weekly art history podcast about the collection called Art Snaps, a blog with articles about featured artists and artworks, exciting Art Burst family activities, learning resources covering 114 artworks from the collection and 10 different curriculum areas, and fun creative challenges for everyone.
All this is inspired by Swindon’s collection of Modern British art, and is available to all, for free at www.swindonmuseumandartgallery.org.uk/artontour. So, though Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is closed for now due to government advice following the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s no reason life can’t be infused with fabulous and fascinating art from Swindon’s ever-inspiring collection.
Art on Tour Project Engagement Officer
Desmond Morris, Girl Selling Flowers, 1946 (©Desmond Morris)
Roger Fry, The Black Sea Coast, 1911
Gwen John, Portrait of a Lady, c.1910
Alfred Wallis, Ship Amid Tall Waves, date unknown