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Monday, 10 May 2021

Dan Hicks on his recent book: Brutish Museums

 We were very pleased to welcome Dan Hicks for our April Zoom talk, to talk about museum collections, and collecting. In preparation for the talk, I read his magnificent book: The  Brutish Museums:The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution', it lays everything bare, and gives hope for the future. I will include notes from the talk, there is a link to the video recording which will give you a better idea of what was said at the end of this piece.

Dan Hicks has worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for 14 years where he is Curator, he is also Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University. Dan began by explaining his job as a conservator suffers from mission creep; the world is constantly changing, even before BLM/anti racist movements. Since 2015, Dan has been  re-evaluating his roles, one of which is looking at the evolution of culture as seen though the collections. The museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt-Rivers donated his collection to the University of Oxford on condition they would house it in a Museum. The Museum was first opened to visitors in 1887 and fully opened in 1892.

Looking from above, the splendid cases at the Pitt Rivers Museum
Above, this slide shows 'nearly all the weapons used by the Australians' to show 'hypothetically the derivation from a single form'. In the middle you can see the stick, and then radiating out from there, the changing forms to make weapons from different cultures. These would have been available for sale in London at the height of the Empire. An examination of weapons around the time of the Crimea shows how cultural evolution/ supremacy came about with better weaponry on the side of the oppressors. The Pitt Rivers Museum was described as 'one of the most violent spaces in Oxford' in 2015 in the student led protest Rhodes Must Fall explaining 'it houses thousands of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples throughout the world'.
Although apartheid ended officially in the 1990s in South Africa, the presence of the statue outside Oriel College normalised the white supremacist.
Superior weaponry enabled the Benin expedition to take place in 1897, the British desecrated Benin City, looting and in a chaotic free for all, carved up objects for personal gain. The towns and villages were razed to the ground, and the plundered spoils sold to museums, and individual collectors.
There has been a long history of restitution of stolen artefacts as seen above. In 1960, there was a wave of countries gaining independence from colonialism. I remember my first sight of an atlas at school in 1960 being told that Gold Coast  was now called Ghana, and being surprised by the subsequent explanation of the Empire.
Nick Mirzoeff published an e book: 'The Appearance of Black Lives Matter' an anti colonialism, anti racist work; requiring a further look at the looted objects in museums, only 1% of which are currently on display. The talk was just over a week after the verdict on the killing of George Floyd:

And barely a day goes by without another institution re examining its relationship to museum items and a consideration of how restitution may take place.

Thank you once again Dan for helping us to understand the situation of Museums and their collections in 2021. A video of the talk can be found here.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Simon Carter: Painting on the Essex Coast

In 2013 Simon Carter collaborated with artist Robert Priseman to co-found the artist led group Contemporary British Painting; a group who donated paintings to the Swindon Collection several years ago, including two of Simon Carter's paintings. Simon recently was interviewed by Katie Ackrill in her 'Meet the Artist series, you can see it here. Apologies I didn't manage to press the record button for Simon's talk. I took some quotes from Simon's web pages:

'My work is based on the stretch of Essex coast where I live and have my studio. This coast is where the gardened landscape of East Anglia starts to fall, literally, into the spare and elemental spaces of the North Sea; where any idea of landscape as static and timeless is replaced by a sense of dynamic flux.     I use the elements of the coast, the creeks and estuaries, saltings and seawalls, as an archive of shapes and colours, of weather and of objects, trying to find a dynamism and passion in the paint that will match those in the landscape whilst retaining a structural clarity that allows observed fact to become something pictured and true.'

Simon talked about the nearby coast to Frinton 0n Sea where he lives including Landermere Quay, Beaumont Cut and Walton on the Naze, all exotic sounding places to someone like me living in Swindon, about as far from the sea in England as one could be, and longing to visit the water's edge. He showed us his painting process through a series of slides. I took photos of the screen and so can share them here:

Above on the left is Constable's painting of Flatford Mill which can be seen at Christchurch Mansion and on the right, Simon's painting of the same view.
A view of a house on Landemere Quay, and I think below a photograph showing where the house is situated
Another view where as you can see the horizon dominates.

A particular favourite painting is Landscape with Ruined Castle and Church by Jacob van Ruisdale in 1665:

Simon's method of working is to make sketches of a scene, and then work them up into paintings:
Below is an example of a painting on two canvasses
The view below has inspired the paintings below it

Simon gave us a view of his studio
and a view into the distance
and then finally a photo of his exhibition at Messum's in Wiltshire in 2018:

There was more information on a web page about Simon:

Simon Carter was born in Essex in 1961. He studied at Colchester Institute (1980–81) and then North East London Polytechnic (1981–84). Recent exhibitions include Made in Britain at the National Gallery of Poland, Gdansk and Contemporary British Painting at Yantai Art Museum, China both in March 2019. The RWS Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition, London, 2019. Solo Exhibitions at Messum’s, London and Messum’s, Wiltshire in 2018 and The Minories, Colchester in 2017. In 2016 a solo exhibition at SEA Foundation, Tilburg, Netherlands. 

Carter has work in collections including Ipswich Borough Council, Rugby Museum and Art Gallery, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, Yale Centre for British Art, USA, Tianjin Academy of Fine Art, . Simon Carter is represented by Messum’s and is currently President of Colchester Art Society.

Friday, 19 March 2021

New Cultural Quarter Plans Revealed

 Yesterday Swindon Borough Council released a press release about their latest plans for the new Cultural Quarter, please click here to find out more. 

I have sent a copy of the Cultural Quarter investment Prospectus to all members of the Friends, it gives more details of the specifics of the project.

Further details about the proposed Cultural Quarter projects are below including images of what some of the new buildings could look like.

A copy of the Cultural Quarter Investment Prospectus is available on request

 Media contact: Kevin Burchall, Communications Lead – Media Relations, Swindon Borough Council, 01793 463105. | Email:


Art Pavilion
  • The town’s Art Collection is a superb, international quality celebration of painting and studio ceramics, much of it among the very best work of British artists at work in the mid-20th Century. The collection is loved and cherished but deserves to be seen by many more people – and to be a visitor destination for the town in its own right.
  • To achieve this, the Cultural Quarter will feature a new and dramatic Pavilion at the heart of the new public park in the Kimmerfields development. It will act as a permanent home for the display of the collection and its appreciation through permanent and changing displays of art and ceramics – in a landmark building – set in a public realm that will itself be a place for public art and for outdoor and informal performance.


  • The town’s Museum collections tell important stories about how Swindon came to be – and about the lives of its communities down the centuries. For new communities, and for young people growing up in Swindon, the Museum collection is important in defining what it means to be a ‘Swindonian’.
  • To ensure the widest possible access to and enjoyment of these collections and stories, the Quarter will extend to an imaginative project to consider their redisplay at the Town Hall, from which Swindon Dance will move to the new Dance Centre, linked with the town’s Central Library, at the southern end of the Quarter.

The Theatre

  • The Wyvern Theatre is nearing the end of its lifespan and even essential repairs would incur £20m of costs. As with many theatres of its time, its facilities are ill-suited to the more flexible and diverse uses of the modern performing arts, and there are significant access challenges.
  • The market appraisal has led to the development of a vision for a 1,200 seat number one touring house – a major theatre receiving the very best touring theatrical and musical productions and with the flexibility in its auditorium to welcome music concerts in all genres, including for standing audiences.
  • Many local groups will continue to present their work in the Theatre, including in a high quality 200-seat studio alongside the main house. Together with the other venues of the Cultural Quarter, the Theatre and its studio will provide formal and informal spaces and facilities for festivals as diverse as the Spring Festival of Arts and Music and of Science.
  • The landmark building will attract 400,000 visits a year, and be sustainable – from its performance economics, its extensive food and beverage provision and its contribution as a conference, event and exhibition venue at the heart of the town centre.
  • As a net zero carbon major theatre – the new Wyvern has the opportunity to be a national exemplar for the 21st

Dance Centre

  • The proposed new Dance Centre will provide fit-for-purpose, professional standard studios, facilities for therapy and recovery and for student learning, together with a performance studio designed to meet the needs of dance and expressive performance. It will change lives and inspire tens of thousands of young and older people from the town and region to participate, to express themselves, and to explore their professional potential.

Media and Arts Production Centre

  • An innovative combination of theatre, film and digital arts production organisations and independent cinemas will occupy this characterful new facility at the gateway to Swindon’s Cultural Quarter. This new facility re-homes Prime Theatre and Create Studios, who currently occupy inconvenient and cramped spaces on the top floor of the Wyvern Theatre.
  • The vision for the building has been developed with the young people who drive Create and Prime – as a contemporary and welcoming space with facilities for exploration, engagement and expression – supported economically and reaching a large audience through provision of independent film and media screens and social facilities.
  • Already Create Studios and Prime Theatre work with more than 30,000 participants annually and Create’s online presence reaches digital audiences of more than 3.5m. With these new facilities and continued super-growth in the sector in the town, these metrics are set to grow exponentially over the years to come.
  • The specification embraces new digital, film and live recording production facilities, rehearsal and informal performance studios – providing the facilities for many organisations in the town to continue their growth into digital - and three state of the art cinemas showing independent mainstream and alternative film and providing screening facilities for the town’s screen industries cluster.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Minster, Manor and Town: Excavations at Berkeley Castle 2004-2019

 For our second talk in February, we were lucky enough to welcome Dr Stuart Prior who talked about excavations at and around Berkeley Castle where he was Co-Director over a 14 year period. The background to the project, up until the current day when they are launching a new community collaborative project at Lower Hazel can be found here.

I looked up the village of Berkeley on Wikipedia and it gave me the following information:

 'Berkeley is a small town and parish in Gloucestershire, England. It lies in the Vale of Berkeley between the east bank of the River Severn and the M5 motorway, within the Stroud administrative district. The town is noted for Berkeley Castle, where the imprisoned Edward II was murdered, as well as the birthplace of the physician Edward Jenner, pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, the world's first vaccine. The parish includes the village of Berkeley Heath, which runs along the A38 Bristol to Gloucester road and the adjacent B4066 towards Berkeley.' 

Stuart started by saying that it was important to understand minsters, and their role in the birth of christianity. There are lots of minsters in the area of Gloucestershire where Berkeley Castle is situated, they are generally a days walking distance apart which I think Stuart said was 14 miles. The Norman feudal castle became a minster in 660AD, before this Berkeley lay in the Kingdom of Hwicce which means witch. Berkeley is a double house minster, housing monks one side and nuns on the other side, and is the longest continuously occupied building in England.

There is evidence of a Roman wall in the excavations, there were Roman villas nearby and it's not far from the Fosse Way. The photo below shows where the wall was situated if you click on the link above:

I was more interested in what artefacts were found, to a beginner like me, this seems to be the most exciting part of archaeology. There were something like 20000 artefacts discovered, some were displayed in the windows of people's houses in 2016 leading to the team receiving an award for Archaeology Research Project of the Year

I made a note of 3 artefacts: a high status ring from 9-10th Century, an astel, which is a page turner so the reader doesn't get the paper greasy, and a whetstone.

The talk was videoed and appears on our website where you can find quite a few of the talks we have had. If the talk doesn't appear on there, it's because the speaker was new to Zoom and requested that we didn't video it.

I've added these two photos, the first is an aerial view and below another photo of people working on the dig.
If you are interested in being involved in working on the Lower Hazel dig this summer when restrictions are lifted, then please contact me, and I'm hoping we can visit in person later on in the year. I'm not setting dates yet...


Sunday, 28 February 2021

Dr Desmond Morris Talks to the Friends

 We were very fortunate last week to have a talk given by our Patron, Dr Desmond Morris, who was present at the Launch of the Friends of 6 July 1993. I have been very keen to invite him to talk to us for some time, but when he was living in Oxford, it seemed a long way to ask him to travel; he's now living in Ireland, but we are now able to invite people into our living rooms via Zoom, so distance is no problem.

Desmond ranged from the beginnings of the Morris's involvement in Swindon and then he reminisced about his time in Swindon from 1933-51 with some wonderful tales which are mostly captured on video here: 

 However due to relief that I'd let the record 84 Zoom participants into the talk, I didn't manage to record the first part of the talk where Desmond traced the ancestral route to Swindon as follows:

After being injured in the Napoleonic war, James Morris, originally from the Welsh borders, didn’t make it home, but stopped off in Swindon where he remained and opened a bookshop in Wood Street. His son, William Morris, Desmond’s great grandfather thought it was unfair that ordinary people didn’t have access to newspapers because they were so expensive, he used to go to London, bring back old newspapers and rent them out to people. At that time, there was stamp duty on news items, whereas fiction, like Charles Dickens publications didn’t attract it. William discovered that if news publications were produced monthly, there was no stamp duty on them. On 6 February 1854, William Morris produced the first monthly newspaper in the country for 1d. Desmond held up a copy of the paper, the front page of which advertised Morse’s Herbal Ointment which cured many maladies. This was produced by Levi Lapper Morse, you can still buy the jars the ointment was sold in today online.

The newspapers were originally sold from the bookshop before moving to larger premises at 100 Victoria Road, where they remained until the offices closed recently and the Swindon Advertiser newspaper production was moved to Richmond House, Hindle Way, SN3 3RB.

The talk was fascinating in many respects, the funniest part was when Desmond Morris described  going out with Diana Dors and trying to remove the copious amounts of lipstick which ended up smeared over his face. We have 3 of Desmond's surrealist paintings in the Swindon Collection of 20th Century art, 'Girl Selling Flowers' seen below was painted when Desmond was 18, and depicts Diana Dors and those amazing lips, peroxide blond hair and huge eyebrows:

This painting entitled 'The Mystery Gift' came into the Collection in 1965
This painting, 'The Incident' was a Christmas present to the Friends the Christmas before last in 2019

 Graham Carter wrote this lovely piece inspired by Desmond's talk:

It was certainly an evening to remember, and judging by the number of emails thanking Desmond for the talk, I think many others felt the same.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Two Talks in February

It's easy to miss what's going on at the moment, so here's a reminder about our two February talks. The first one is next Wednesday 17 February at 7.30pm when we are very pleased to say that our Friend's Patron, Dr Desmond Morris will talk about various things, including:

My family history in Swindon, the start of the local newspaper and the Swindon Museum. 1930s - my early childhood in Swindon (1933-39) the Swindon cinemas

Wartime in Swindon – my private lake, now Queen’s Park, Groundwell Road bombed.

My discovery of surrealism in 1944

Diana Dors and my painting of her in 1946 (now in art gallery)

First solo exhibition in Swindon in 1948

Chiseldon Army College and the Bomford Collection

London show with Miro in 1950

Leave Swindon in 1951

After Swindon- The Naked Ape and body language

 Today at the age of 93

A reminder of the paintings we have of his in the Swindon Collection:

This 'Girl Selling Flowers' painted when Desmond was 18 and going out with Diana Dors.The painting below is called 'The Mysterious Gift'
This promises to be a very special evening, a Zoom link will be sent beforehand to all members of the Friends.

Our second talk, a week later, on 24 February at 7.30pm, is by Dr Stuart Prior of Bristol University, well known as Co-Director of the Berkeley Castle excavations from 2004-2019.

This Zoom Talk will investigate the 15-year-long University of Bristol excavations and landscape research at the Berkeley Castle estate in south Gloucestershire. The excavation project aimed to build up a detailed picture of the history and archaeology of the castle and the associated settlement of Berkeley. The focus for the project can best be described as ‘Minster, Manor and Town’. By combining the results of detailed archaeological fieldwork with information contained in the castle’s impressive collection of 20,000 historical documents, the project adds to the knowledge and understanding of the early medieval period and the subsequent changes in landscape and society that occurred with the coming of the Normans and the erection of a castle on the former minster site. Dr Stuart Prior will cover many aspects from the excavations around Berkeley Castle and town and will also include a look at the trenches excavated in the Jenner museum garden as well as aspects of Community Archaeology undertaken with the Berkeley residents.

Spreading the Word

 There are still lots of people who don't know Swindon Museum and Art Gallery exists, and if they do are unsure where it is located. During the Covid pandemic, it has been difficult to advertise somewhere, like many other venues, which cannot be open at the moment due to lockdown. The Friends have been looking for ways to publicise this fabulous place to a wider audience, and one of our newer committee members, Angela Atkinson, kindly agreed to put an entry onto the great We Are Swindon site, so here we are, please take a look, I think it's an excellent piece:

 For a flavour of the art in our Collection of 20th Century art, please take a look at Art On Tour led by Katie Ackrill and Mags Parker, this aims to share the collections wile the venue is closed.

I've included 'Winter in Pendlebury' by LS Lowry, it seemed apt in the freezing cold weather, although we haven't got the snow.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country

We were very fortunate to have Dr Gill Clarke for our January talk on Evelyn Dunbar. The talk was entitled War and Country and it wouldn't surprise anyone who attended the talk to know that Gill has written a book entitled just that, and is an absolute expert on Evelyn Dunbar. I've just looked up 'War and Country' by Gill Clarke on Abe books and found even second hand copies are fetching £45!

I love Evelyn Dunbar's work, thoroughly enjoyed the 'Lost Works' exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, and bought the book, so I was really looking forward to this lavishly illustrated virtual talk on 13 January. Gill met almost everyone associated with Evelyn Dunbar in researching her, and visited all the places where she'd lived, stayed or worked, apart from Evelyn herself who sadly died in 1960 aged just 54. Gill also visited the Imperial War Museum where there's a collection of Evelyn Dunbar's letters.

Evelyn Dunbar went to Rochester Grammar School which was a progressive school where I think members of the Royal Drawing Society came and taught the students and she learned to 'see, remember, reproduce' and trust your eyes. She was the youngest of five children who were keen gardeners; from school she went to the school of art at Rochester and then got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. At the time she went, William Rothenstein was the principal when she went, he employed practicing artists to lecture to the students. Evelyn Dunbar was romantically linked with Charles Mahoney, her tutor, and in 1931 won a prize awarded by the Times newspaper.

She is well known for the Brockley Murals which she worked on from 1933-36. They were based on fables and were the most important creations of the age. There's a great blog post here about the making of the murals. They can still be seen at Prendergast School

Above one of the panels in the mural, the fable referred to is don't cry over spilt milk, and below, The Cock and the Jewel is one of Aesop's fables.

I've taken that photo from the computer, hence the strange effect. Gill also showed us illustrated letters Evelyn had written to people:

In the late 1930s, Evelyn and Charles went their separate ways, Evelyn produced quite a few garden paintings, and exhibited with Edward Bawden. In 1939, she joined the Womens' Land Army and worked at Sparsholt Farm. Evelyn Dunbar was the only female second world war artist.

 In 1942, she met Roger Foley who lived from 1912-2008. Gill knew Roger quite well before his death.

Here is Roger Foley photographed with a portrait Evelyn made of him.

They moved to Wye in 1953 where Roger was a taught at Wye College. Sadly with Evelyn's premature death, they only had 8 years of married life. I'm now going to include some of my favourite paintings, from the Womens' Land Army days and gardens she loved. This one below is 'Womens' Land Army Hostel' c1943, it can be seen at Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth.

This is 'The Fish Shop' 1943 with Roger Folley making an appearance on the bicycle!
This looks like back breaking work, it's entitled 'Sprout Picking in Monmouthshire'
Below 'Milking Practice with Artificial Udders'

And 'Canning Demonstration' 1940

The painting below is called 'Women's Knitting Party' 1940

 I love this one 'Land Army Girls Going to Bed' 1943, it reminds me of the Ravilious' 'Attic Bedroom' painting

This painting is titled 'The garden' and is a good example of Evelyn's depiction of a personal space around a house.

Not so easy to see here, but 'Winter Garden' is a wonderful depiction of her garden with her house just visible to the right of the painting.

 You can find many more examples of Evelyn Dunbar's work, the Art UK website has many of those featured here and more: 

We were going to visit the Bournemouth Arts Club celebratory 100 years of existence in July 2020 at Russell-Cotes, this exhibition 'A Mirror of Our Times: 100 years of British Art' . This exhibition, curated by Dr Gill Clarke and including some 9 works loaned from the Swindon Collection has been postponed until the 14 July-11 October. More details here.

I do hope we can visit this year, and thank you Gill for giving us such a fabulous insight into Evelyn Dunbar.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Desmond's Day in the Guardian today

 There was a lovely piece in today's Guardian's Culture section reminding us that while we are missing being able to visit art galleries during this third lock down, the Guardian are doing what they can to bring art from collections around the country into our homes. Today was the turn of Desmond Morris's painting 'The Mysterious Gift' presented to Swindon Museum and Art Gallery in 1965, Katie Ackrill, engagement officer wrote the lovely article which can be found in full by clicking on the link below:

Excellent publicity for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and of course our Patron, Desmond Morris.

A reminder about the 3 works we have of Desmond's work we have in the collection can be found here:

Above The Mysterious Gift 1965, and below 'Girl Selling Flowers', reputedly a painting of Morris's one time girlfriend, Diana Dors painted in 1946 when according to my calculations he was 18!!

and here's a recollection of collecting our latest work which Desmond Morris gave us as a Christmas present in 2019: