For many years in England the only form of a gamble which didn’t involve going to a Betting Shop was the Football Pools where you had to predict the outcome of football matches. The main pools company was Littlewoods owned by the Moore’s family from Liverpool. The family have largely retired from business using their large cash pile for philanthropy. They endow and support John Moores University and today I was heading up the M40 Motorway to one of my favourite parts of England, South Warwickshire to see another fruit of the family’s philanthropy, Compton Verney Art Gallery.
The Verney in the title refers to the same family which own Claydon House and like many landowners they were attracted to the rich rolling landscape of North Oxfordshire and South Warwickshire which was rich farming country. Many tourists pass through this area on their way to Stratford on Avon to “do Shakespeare” oblivious to the many attractions of this charming area with a number of fine country houses such as Farnborough Hall, Charlecote Park and Upton House . As we turned off the M40 at J12 we went through Gaydon and another characteristic of the area became apparent for we passed in quick succession the Motor Heritage Centre, and then the headquarters of Jaguar / Land Rover and beyond them the sports car manufacturer Aston Martin. For Coventry, the county town of Warwickshire was the car manufacturing capital of England and the wealth created often was spent on substantial Country Seats. But Compton Verney is not marketed as a heritage property for it was virtually derelict when the Moores Foundation bought it with the express purpose of creating an Art Gallery and Collection. So they spent 10 years renovating the property and building a well crafted modern extension at the rear. This is a gallery of the highest standard with curatorial staff and a resource centre attached which means it can host major touring exhibitions. Anticipation was high as we went up the driveway which was designed to impress with Capability Brown grounds and a decorative bridge on an ornamental lake on the approach.
Compton Verney is a Grade 1 listed mansion house designed in the 1760s by Robert Adam. It is set in more than 120 acres of classical parkland which was landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown between 1769 and 1772. The estate was bought in 1993 by the Peter Moores Foundation when the house and grounds were in a state of decay. The Compton Verney House Trust was established to transform the mansion into an art gallery. Compton Verney is an award winning art gallery in Warwickshire which offers a unique opportunity to view art in the setting of a Grade 1 listed Robert Adam mansion located in 120 acres of spectacular parkland. Compton Verney houses six permanent collections and has a programme of exhibitions.
Until the early 20th century Compton Verney was home to the Verney or ‘Willoughby de Broke’ family for almost 500 years. It has now been transformed from a derelict eighteenth-century Robert Adam mansion into a gallery of international standing, offering a combination of high quality attractions and facilities. The project took ten years to complete and over twenty gallery spaces have been created. Compton Verney is unique in that it is a place where art, architecture, landscape and learning fuse, to offer the visitor an experience that is completely integrated and accessible.
This classic Grade II listed landscape, with trademark Cedars of Lebanon, is best viewed from the B4086 Bridge over the Compton Pools. The bridge, like the house, is the work of Robert Adam.
The Robert Adam mansion house and group of service buildings have been conserved and extended using contemporary architecture and design, and this transformation has been led by two architects, Stanton Williams and Leamington-based Rodney Melville & Partners. The sensitive combination of new and restored Grade 1 listed buildings and spaces have been realised in construction and craftsmanship of outstanding quality. Attention to detail on the use of appropriate materials, natural lighting and works of art on open display, compliment the collections and the site itself. The qualities of the materials chosen; handmade bricks, hand-tooled stone, glass and steel, reflect the spirit of the original buildings, while bringing a new dynamic to the architectural composition. The buildings are linked from a single point of entry and the family of service buildings have been developed to incorporate a Learning Centre and offices.
In common with the house, the grounds were badly neglected during the twentieth-century and returning the Grade 2 listed landscape to its former glory requires considerable restoration, for which Compton Verney has drawn up an extensive recovery and replanting programme. In 2003 the Trust re-acquired the historic south park and is restoring wildlife habitats by replacing crops with an eighteenth-century landscape of trees and grassland.
Compton Verney houses six permanent collections, focusing on areas currently under-represented in British museums and galleries. The collections are owned by the Compton Verney Collections Settlement and continue to grow, supported by funds from the Peter Moores Foundation. The temporary exhibitions programme offers both historic and contemporary shows and is designed to appeal to a wide audience.
Compton Verney has more than 800 works of art in its permanent collections, all of which have been gifted to the Compton Verney Collection Settlement. The collection is still growing today. The sense of Sir Peter Moores’ personal involvement with Compton Verney helps to explain the highly individual nature of its collection – or rather distinct collections. On the ground floor are paintings and decorative arts relating to Naples in the 17th and 18th centuries, German paintings and sculpture of the late Middle Ages and early renaissance, and British portraits and furniture from 1550 to 1750. Upstairs is Chinese art – largely bronzes – together with galleries for temporary exhibitions, and in the attics is the country’s largest public collection of British folk art.
Compton Verney has the largest collection of British folk art in the country, acquired for the gallery in 1993 to prevent it being split up and sold abroad. It is made up of a mixture of paintings and objects such as trade-signs and weathervanes. The term ‘folk art’ describes work produced by people with no formal art training – for example, some works in the collection were made by travelling salesmen such as sign-painters.
The Marx-Lambert Collection is a bequest from Enid Marx, who was a graphic artist and textile designer. The items she left to Compton Verney include her own designs, and other pieces of folk or popular art that she and her friend Margaret Lambert collected, and which inspired her designs. One display which caught my eye was a “Stevengraph” - a woven picture showing a steam train inscribed Lord Howe pulling two railway carriages. It is an example of the fashion for mechanically woven ribbon pictures, known as Stevengraphs in the period 1850-1900, which was a speciality at Thomas Stevens's firm in Coventry. Ribbon weaving had been an important industry since 1800, but by 1850 the industry began to decline. Production of Stevengraphs however, continued with the introduction of new subjects and both Marx and Lambert had a number of Stevengraphs in their home. The reason it caught my eye was on the moonlit night of Thursday 14 November 1940 the old city of Coventry was destroyed and a new word was invented 'Coventration'. Over 500 German bombers massed for the biggest raid of the war to date - their target Coventry - a city at the industrial heart of Britain's war production engine. The inhabitants of Coventry sheltering from the Blitz in rudimentary air raid shelters that night included my father who as a 10 year old boy was in the cellars of the Stevengraph factory. They were moved at 3.30 am to another shelter and when the all clear was sounded in the morning they emerged to find that the Stevengraph factory and the shelter had been totally destroyed.
The touring exhibitions when we visited were Constable Portraits and Surrealism and Contemporary Art.
John Constable (1776 - 1837) is renowned as a landscape artist, yet his portraits are rarely seen and far less well-known. Spanning thirty years and featuring over 40 works this exhibition for the first time takes the viewer deeper into Constable's landscapes, revealing the people who occupied his world. The exhibition contains paintings and drawings of his family, close friends and children, interspersed with Constable's landscape paintings of the areas surrounding his homes. The exhibition will set out to support Lucian Freud's claim that Constable was a key figure in the history of English portrait painting. For me the revelation was the closeness he maintained to family and friends and his 7 year courtship of his wife Mary who he married despite concerted opposition from her family.
The exhibition on Surrealism and Contemporary Art brought together the pioneers of Surrealism and a generation of younger artists who continue to find inspiration in the intellectual and aesthetic origins of the movement. The exhibition looks at two areas: Wandering the City and Psychic Interiors. The first of these examines the artist walking through the city as a means to discover hidden social spaces as well as unconscious fears and desires. From Brassaï's atmospheric night-time photographs of an unfamiliar Paris to George Shaw's melancholy depictions of playgrounds and the Coventry estate where he grew up, attention is drawn to the derelict, disused spaces of urban environments. Within this section, ideas of social and political exclusion, regeneration, borders, margins and journeys are explored.
The visitor facilities are like the Gallery first class. The exhibitions have full step free access throughout and are displayed to the highest standard. Each gallery has a leaflet with the details of the exhibits so you don’t cluster around labels to get the details. There are excellent toilet facilities throughout with once again very good disabled provision. The bright shop has an excellent selection of Art related merchandise and publications. The catering facilities are first class including an excellent coffee shop and an award winning restaurant. As it was a special anniversary we went for lunch there. The restaurant was bright with a compact menu featuring local seasonal produce. Like the rest of Compton Verney it was unfussy and the service was excellent. For mains I had a wonderful plate of a Pork fillet with wholegrain mustard mash, served with fresh seasonal vegetables & Hogan's cider sauce. Her indoors had a main salad of smoked trout and prawns which was served terrine like on a beetroot salsa. Both were fine plates of food where the freshness of the ingredients made for a highly satisfying experience. For puds (deserts in the rest of the world) I enjoyed my selection of local cheeses, a Berkswell sheep’s cheese, a Hereford Hop and a Sage Derby served with excellent oaten biscuits, grapes, celery sticks and apple chutney. The carrot cake was top class and the restaurant has a selection of “proper” cakes, all freshly baked on the premises. An excellent pit stop with high standards of preparation and presentation and it was obvious looking around the crowded restaurant, a loyal following of repeat customers.
We didn’t know what to expect and sometimes places like these can be a rich man’s vanity project which speak more of their sense of self importance than of anything else. Well if Peter Moores is vain he carries it lightly. Rather we felt this was a place well worth visiting, high on interest and where visitors are not patronised but made welcome and treated with respect. It was noticeable the positive impression that the staff gave throughout from reception to the restaurant to the galleries that they enjoyed working here and wanted to make you welcome. So when you bought your tickets the staff member made a point of explaining the layout and where to go, the gallery staff were helpful and engaged with visitors and staffing the restaurant were helpful and engaged in conversations with the customers. Overall a very positive impression and a place well worth the trip in this interesting and somewhat overlooked corner of England’s green and pleasant land.
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