“If Jesus was alive, he’d tell you not to drive cars”.
A grotesque head, a Hippopotamus skull, a whelk woman and a furious smallholder – it’s another afternoon in Coventry.
Coventry’s The Herbert is one of those fine hotch potch local museums that mixes art, gas masks and taxidermy. It is a fabulous attic of multiple families.
Lady Godiva gets her own small gallery as she remains the Midlands’ most famous naked lady to parade through the town. As well as various painterly interpretations, the shape of her flesh depending on the era of the artist, sometimes thin, sometimes robust, there are clips from three films of her adventure. The most recent is 1955’s Lady Godiva starring Maureen O Hara and George Nader, who you probably remember from Robot Monster and The Female Animal.
“A naked woman was arrested inside Coventry Cathedral, just yards from Princess Michael of Kent”.
One wall has press cuttings of Godiva-ish escapades in Coventry, including the story of a 28 year old who disrobed at a cathedral service attended by Princess Michael in protest against the number of people killed by cars, her mother was sadly one of those statistics.
The press pump up the melodrama of a Princess being so close to nudity. As confidential, but leaked studies have shown, royalty are like dolls and action figures and have no genitalia, so they must be kept from exposure to the exposed for fear they will start to ask questions of the man who manufacturers them. Before long, they start asking about their repeated dreams of unicorns and chaos ensues.
Two Jacob Epstein sculptures sit side by side, one of Rabindranath Tagore, the other is simply labeled “A Grotesque Head” and is not definitely the work of Epstein. Raymond Mason’s Belsen Head remains is the truly grotesque head in this room, a reaction to the diabolical revelations of Belsen concentration camp, it is a mouth stretched back into a scream of devastating anguish, the head’s socket’s wide and eyeless. Münch’s The Scream is a saucy Donald McGill postcard next to this.
Jack Greaves’ Old Ladies on a Park Bench was the museums first sculpture purchase in 1957. His aim was to create “heroic visions of common people”. I think he succeeds. While one old lady, her perm hard set in metal, is slumped and relaxing into a magazine, her friend sits upright and straight, her face mournful. Are they both widows now? Or has she just found herself in one of those moments when you feel truly alone?
The Enchanted Road by Frank Salisbury is from a point of view we are
familiar with in the movies, but it is the first time I can remember seeing it in a painting. We are sat in the backseat of a car, the headlights illuminating the track ahead, a rabbit looks at us, frightened, will it run forward or back into the woodland? This was a commission by John Siddely of Armstrong Siddely Motor Company and the car was one of theirs. A little bit of automobile fetishising for the boardroom.
LS Lowry is featured, as he must be in all local English galleries, this time it is the Ebbw valley. Graham Sutherland, painter of a Churchill portrait that so infuriated the war leaders that he had it destroyed, has a painting of Christ’s crucifixion on display. This formed part of the design of tapestries for Coventry’s cathedral. There are also a variety of representations of an England recently gone, and whatever the “BREXIT means BREXIT means BREXIT” murder of crows have in their heads, I don’t think we’ll see the return of a London Whelk Woman with quite such a forbiddingly bolshy expression as the one painted by Ruskin Spear.
Don’t miss out the What’s in Store room which is an almost gallery that stacks up some of the treasures that are forced into the store room due to lack of space. In What’s In Store you’ll find a fine frame full of bee specimens, two big Hippopotamus skulls, a stuffed Coypu, a 1960s Chemistry Set (from Merit) and a collection of irons, as well as further paintings and collected memorabilia and taxidermy.
The painting that would make me return soon is another commission.It is also a Stanley Spencer.
It is both very wonderful and very sad. Commissioned by Mr and Mrs Ashwanden, neighbours of Spencer in Cookham, it is a portrait of their 17 year old daughter, the red brick houses of Cookham behind her. Their daughter had just returned from hospital, she knew she was dying as did Spencer. The fringe is frayed and cut in a way that is acceptable in youth. This would also be Stanley Spencer’s final painting.
Wandering through galleries, I have those contrasting sensations of walking amongst the dead. You look at the walls and either think your own thoughts on mortality or just borrow Morrissey’s from Cemetry Gates, “all those people, all those lives, where are they now”.
You wonder if it is fortunate to be dead, yet still alive, being looked at on a daily basis by interested eyes, at least until you find yourself placed in store room number 3, like the Ark of the Covenant.
And you think, can you see all the ambition and hopes in those painted eyes?
How long did they have?
How much did they manage?
What would she think of being looked at by strangers for so much longer than the years she was alive?
Next up on Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles it’s Nick Offerman, and this week it is Helen Czerski. Also on series 4 there’s Alan Moore, Lisa Dwan, Noel Fielding, Simon Ings and Sarah Bakewell.