British Biblical Art In A Secular Age Explored At The Wilson

Still Small Voice: British Biblical Art in a Secular Age (1850 – 2014) is on show at the Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum, until 3 May. Presented as a collection of (mostly) 20th century biblical paintings, drawings and sculpture, on paper the exhibition sounds familiar– perhaps what you would expect to find in a regional gallery. In reality, this is not so. The exhibition presents an exciting platform for us to consider a wide range of responses to faith, art and humanity which are presented in an unusual and thought provoking way.   Each work is isolated against a backdrop of colour encouraging the viewer to take their time with the work and to contemplate on the themes, and subject matter more intimately.  Viewing art can be a curious experience, as often what is reflected back to you is as much to do with you rather than the art on display.

I’ll admit to initially being apprehensive about seeing an exhibition focusing on biblical art, as I have seen so much of it in galleries lately. But, the exhibition is about much more than that, and I would urge people to understand the broader apparent intention of the exhibition, which seems to me to be to look at faith generally, and not just Christianity.  Rather than representing pleas for the viewer to convert to Christianity, or indeed any religion, the works seem to me to represent the power of reflection, creativity and the imagination. Each one is unique and shows how different we all are in our responses to deeper issues such as suffering, loss and the sacred.  The artists’ responses reveal huge range and depth which although varied, feed off each other due to clever selection and curation. Some of you may recognise the names of the artists for example Stanley Spencer, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein.  There are many more to discover some of whom I had never heard of nor seen.  The pieces contain figures, lines, colour, and shapes in a wide variety of styles, including vibrant abstraction and realism.   

The works have been displayed on backgrounds of colour, which makes for enthralling viewing and goes against the typical stark white walls of many contemporary galleries.  The curator has said the colours are there to mimic the reflections seen when light falls through a stained glass window.   For me, the backdrops provide another frame, and draw attention to the tonal range within the painting, or drawing, as both are made up of colour.   The positive illumination of each work provides uplifts to the sometime dark topics contained within, and they create continuity amongst seemingly different reactions to faith.  As a volunteer at The Wilson, I have had the opportunity to get ‘behind the scenes’ and speak to the curator, who explained that part of the intention of the wall colours is to create the sense of a ‘sacred’ space. It took a while for me to fully understand this – the idea of a contemporary gallery space transforming into a religious space, or prompting me to have a religious experience, didn’t sit comfortably. The more time I have spent in the exhibition though, with its soft lighting, high ceilings and hushed atmosphere, the more I appreciate the intention of the ‘sacred’ – as a viewer I have come to engage with the exhibition in a multitude of ways – it has made me ask questions; of myself, of humanity, about sacrifice, personal experience and global experience, tragedy and joy. Viewing this exhibition, both behind the scenes, throughout the install and now it is open to the public has been a privilege; but even more of a privilege is seeing and experiencing the works on show time and time again, and really exploring my own personal responses to them, and the artists who produced them. 

“Surrounding this exhibition, there has been a variety of exciting workshops for schools and a lecture series involving speakers from a range of academic institutions and museums for example the National Gallery and Kings College, London.”

I attended a lecture by Professor Philip Esler, who packed in an abundance of information – I went away buzzing with ideas surrounding art history.  If you feel like a dose of the contemporary, then catch Angus Pryor’s ‘God’s Wrath’ in the Atrium, which contains playful imagery from joke shops such as Space Hoppers and is inspired by Stanley Spencer’s ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’.  It seems to me that if Still Small Voice is an example of how Cheltenham’s iconic venues The Wilson, Pittville Pump Rooms, the Town Hall and Leisure@ are approaching programming within the new Cheltenham Trust, Cheltenham is really making its mark as the cultural centre of the Cotswolds.

Words: Camilla Metcalf Photo: Courtesy Wilson, Cheltenham art gallery and museum

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