The Shipley Art Gallery is a public art gallery on the southern side of Gateshead, a town which hugs the southern bank of the River Tyne, in the north-east of England. The town faces off against its more illustrious neighbour, Newcastle. The Shipley is one of those galleries that could easily be described as a “hidden gem”, there are other galleries in the region which are better known, but the Shipley has it’s own strengths which make it worth a visit. In the interest of full disclosure, I should record that part of the reason why I like the gallery so much is because I used to work there and, like most of my ex-colleagues, I have a big soft-spot for the place.
First impressions of the gallery are not that remarkable. A chunky, classical exterior – steps, columns and a pediment with a pair of allegorical statues which you would expect of any venue of a similar pedigree. The gallery was opened in 1917, to house and display 504 paintings from the bequest of Joseph Shipley. Shipley had acquired 2,500 paintings in his lifetime, but the rest were sold off to pay for the construction of the gallery. This is all very straightforward but think about the date… 1917. The gallery was built and opened during the Great War when supposedly no such buildings should have been constructed.
Phil Deans, a PhD student in the School of Arts & Cultures at Newcastle University, carried out a placement at the Shipley during its centenary year. One of his goals was to delve into the archives at Gateshead Local Studies centre to see if he could resolve the circumstances surrounding the gallery’s foundation. Construction of the gallery had started in 1915 but, in 1916, the government issued an order to the builders requiring them to halt construction, under the Defence of the Realm Act. This was an oppressive piece of emergency legislation first passed by Parliament four days into the war. Intended to prevent invasion and preserve national moral, it ushered in numerous social control measures. Under the act, people were prevented from doing things such as fly kites, feed wild animals, buy alcohol for friends and whistle. Civilians could be court marshalled under the act and imprisoned without trial. As the gallery was almost complete, however, the organising committee were, understandably, not very happy with this demand. Consequently, they protested and, remarkably, persuaded the government to change its mind. The Shipley Art Gallery thus was opened on Thursday 29 November 1917. What remains unclear is just what the gallery’s organising committee said that persuaded the government to change its mind.
Assuming that you make it past the gallery’s stony exterior, you can enter via the steps or the accessible ramp on the side, leads you into the entrance foyer and shop. Ahead one finds the entrance to the main gallery space. The gallery is made of a large, central rectangular space with 4 smaller gallery spaces directly adjoining it; 2 on each of the long sides. The central space is used for displaying large changing exhibitions and events. At the moment, it houses an exhibition of the Shipley’s permanent collection of paintings.
The Shipley’s collections are what makes it distinct in the region. The core of Shipley’s bequest is pretty much what you would expect from a late 19th century collection – mostly figurative, some Dutch Golden Era, a bit of Pre-Raphaelite and some nice landscapes and still lives. The collection is typical of the sort of thing you see in pretty much every municipal gallery in England. Although the far wall of the main gallery is dominated by an enormous painting of Christ washing the disciples’ feet which is likely attributed to Tintoretto. The reason why the Shipley’s collection was recognised as having national significance is that, back in 1977, the gallery staff started to collect contemporary craft. Contemporary craft is a funny art form: less well-known than contemporary fine art and not to be confused with traditional crafts either. Roughly speaking, contemporary craft is an art-form which builds on traditional crafts and retains a focus on materiality but emphasises concept and aesthetic over function. The Shipley has a fantastic collection of contemporary craft objects.
Once you’re in the main gallery space, the two smaller galleries on your right are where the contemporary craft collection is displayed. The Shipley was, at one time, renowned for its exhibitions of quilts and you’ll see a few of those, but the whole gamut of contemporary craft can be found there. The display favours a conventional focus on materials and construction but also reveals how makers have explored form and concept. The collection is deeply lovely; the objects embody skill, beauty and provocations - I told you I had a soft spot! For a long time, the Keeper of the collection kept a careful and informed eye on up-and-coming craft makers so there are lots of works by established makers, but from early in their careers. The gallery staff continue to acquire new pieces for the collection. Back in the 2000s, the gallery learning team also acquired a handling collection of contemporary craft objects, for use with school groups and the like, on the conviction that contemporary craft objects are best understood in the hand. This is one of the unintentional ironies of all contemporary craft exhibitions – you can only hold the objects in your imagination.
Up the road from the Shipley is Saltwell Park, a large municipal park. The park was opened in 1976 and incorporates the grounds and mansion of the Saltwellgate estate owner, William Wailes. The mansion, also known as Saltwell Towers, had also been the home of Joseph Shipley and, between 1933 and 1969, housed a museum. Items from the collection were redisplayed in the Saltwell Park Museum exhibition at the Shipley Art Gallery. It’s in the first of the small galleries on the left-hand side of the main space. The immediate impression is one of a cabinet of curiosities but it was carefully curated to tell a mixture of stories and to address local feelings of loss concerning the closure of the museum in Saltwell Towers. I really enjoy the display even after repeated visits – it has a striking visual style and is filled with intriguing objects.
The second of the smaller galleries on the left hand side has had a mixed history. At the moment, it is being used as a sort of craft/maker space with materials for making things and inspiration from objects in cases around the space. It offers a good chance to try your hand at an activity or engage younger visitors if you’re travelling with children.
If you go back into the main gallery space and then into the foyer/shop, take a left and follow the short corridor to the Rothschild Study Space. Henry Rothschild was an avid collector of studio ceramics – a branch of contemporary crafts – which involves pottery with a distinctive exploration of form and colour. Henry Rothschild had begun making gifts of ceramic pieces to the Shipley back in the 90s, but the studio centre named in his honour was only opened in 2006. It’s quite a visually stark style of pottery but worth checking out.
The gallery does not have a café but there is a decent café, Bewick’s coffee shop, in Gateshead Central Library, which is a very short walk along Prince Consort Road.Visitor Information:
Biography: Bruce Davenport was the Assistant Learning Officer at the Shipley & Laing Art Galleries between 2003 and 2006. He now works as a Research Associate in the School of Arts & Cultures at Newcastle University. His research is largely about the impact of engaging with cultural heritage on older people, especially those with dementia. Inspired by many hours of leading object handling sessions at the Shipley, Bruce is also fascinated by what happens when you give someone an object to hold, which he has written a blog about and published an open-access paper on (if you’re interested please see https://objecthandling.wordpress.com/ and https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol23/iss9/16/ ).