You have a new picture. Where to put it? Take something down, shift things around, a radical rethink, or what? Imagine if you have 29 works of art from the 1950s — rarely-seen paintings, photographs and sculptures — on loan from the Arts Council Collection to hang around the house. This was the task facing Donald Ramsay when the National Trust-owned Georgian mansion, Basildon Park, near Reading, was chosen as one of five properties to host loan pieces from the Arts Council Collection as part of the Trust New Art programme promoting contemporary and modern art in its historic places.
House and Collections Manager, Ramsay said: “This is not a conventional exhibition with artworks gathered together in one place. We have chosen one piece of 1950s art to display in each of the show-rooms so that visitors can enjoy the work in the context of the rest of the house.” Lord and Lady Iliffe restored the house in the 1950s. The exhibition aims to reflect some of the spirit of that period, and what was going on in the art world at the time.
“We also wanted to be a bit provocative, challenge the expectations of visitors coming to a Trust property,” Ramsay said. There are two aspects: the 1950s art itself — and the ways it relates to the art in the Iliffe collection, and themes such as landscape and portraiture. So, visitors see a fiery landscape that appears abstract, David Bomberg’s Trendrine, Cornwall (1947) next to classical landscapes in Lord Iliffe’s library; a striking Roger Hilton abstract contrasted against figurative wallpaper in the cloakroom; Dame Elisabeth Frink’s bulbous bronze Head echoing rounded vases on a hall table; and Sidney Nolan’s Kelly, Spring lording it over the Red Stairs. Meantime, Jack Smith’s Night Sky with Stars (1957) explodes in line and colour above a bedroom fireplace; Patrick Heron’s The Round Table sets off a dressing room corner so perfectly I think they should leave it there; and to cap it all, temporarily displacing one of Pompeo Batoni’s apostles (prize paintings of the permanent collection), Robert Colquhoun’s Picasso-esque The Gardener strangely but not inharmoniously complements in attitude and attribute Batoni’s St James the Less above it.
Ramsay has a good eye. These tricky juxtapositions are mostly successful, bringing a retrospective look at 1950s art — not often done — and a fascinating extra layer to a visit to this grand house. British Art from the 1950s is at Basildon Park until November 3. For information see: www.nationaltrust.org.uk