It’s late afternoon, summer light fills Portsmouth Cathedral, choral song sounds through the air and the Portsmouth and Hampshire Art Society’s (PHAS) annual exhibition is in full swing. Lucy Brown reports on this enchanting and atmospheric – yet also unexpectedly controversial – event.
The choir are rehearsing for the evening service ahead of them. The conductor indicates to his singers that their Mozart piece is up next and, when they strike up in harmony, the organist joins in with his awe-inspiring chords and layers of music fill the grand space of the Cathedral of St Thomas.
The reverence of the service hangs in the air, voices from the sermon float over to the exhibition goers as they move from one panelled area to the next. The multitude of meanings they absorb when they enjoy the art resonates with the sacred feeling of unity that rises in us when we listen to holy music. The depth of the music moves us as much as the art itself.
The works of art depict secret places and subjects with their backs turned. Like a peeping tom, the painter’s gaze steals a moment or captures a silence. Each artist bestows depth onto their canvasses: sometimes drawing us into their quietude; other times reaching out to us. The paintings that call on nature’s beauty are luminous, shining with sunlight, dappled, or painted at dusk, or sunrise. They offer places of imagination, and spaces in which to contemplate.
PHAS was created in 1909 by marine artist WL Wyllie, who became their first president. His portrait on a wooden easel overlooks the show. If he were alive today, Wyllie, who loved all things maritime, would be pleased with the current exhibition’s splendid paintings of naval ships and Portsmouth’s famous seashore.
One artist provides a glimpse of what the bridge outside today’s Bridge Tavern would have looked like in times of old. In the picture, the bridge stretches across the camber and moored sailing ships with wooden masts line the small dock. The two steam-powered gunboats make me think of the introduction of mobile phones and how new technologies bring intangible changes to the pace of life. I feel, for a moment, the silence of the houses, the cathedral visible just behind the old terraced houses, and I wonder how quiet it would have been many years ago when there were no engines, none at all, just wooden sailing ships with oars.
Above it a much larger painting looms, undoubtedly impressive and artistically accurate, but the grey metal warships filling the harbour are gargantuan in size and weigh heavily on the heart after the small-scale boats of the previous picture. These vessels are closer to what we’re used to seeing on television, or even first-hand in the Solent, and I remember that we are a nation not at peace, and we so rarely are. Growing up in Portsmouth, one never really forgets that.
The maritime theme continues with pictures of stormy seas and serene sunsets over water; secret dinghies tucked behind our modern tower of metal, the Spinnaker; and waterside drinking holes down at the point line Gunwharf Quay, just across the water.
Indeed, the local artists are quite a watery bunch with not only various pieces of Portsmouth coastline represented but also lakes, streams, crashing waves, estuaries, Venice, yachts, moorings, fishing villages, and a watermill. There’s even a large brown bear on all fours, standing knee deep in water on the edge of a waterfall, braced against the rush of water that almost envelops it. This piece is called ‘Alaskan Brown Bear’ by Bob Titley (£80).
My personal favourites include Jeanette Harding’s ‘Freshwater Bay I.O.W.’ pieces, as both are reminiscent of Cezanne’s ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’, but Harding’s are in pastel grey tones and framed in antique cream wood, priced from £225. The aquatic theme continues with a flower-bedecked riverside by Carole Carrell. The bright tones of her ‘Provençal Landscape’, not-for-sale, create a vivid country scene in portrait: a perfect modern pastoral piece with clear flowing water, diverse wildflowers on the shore of green reeds, a prerequisite field of golden-yellow corn behind and azure skies overhead. Below is Rodney Cox’s ‘Seascape’ which captures the foreboding of squalling skies as seen from dry land. The dark blue sky is dotted with seagulls scouring the shoreline for food as the tide rises.
There are land-based pieces, too, in which the artist invites us to savour the peace of uninhabited gardens, glades and clearings. Not many depict the urban grime or the monotonous grind of industry.
There are a few abstract pieces of note including a series of four square canvasses by Peter Missen lining one wall. They’re multi-coloured paintings that play with the natural gloopiness of the paint in layered disorder with Jackson Pollock-esque splattering and, juxtaposed in the centre, is a single geometric circle. The carefully chosen palettes make the artwork almost clash with itself in a challenging way that both intrigues and repels, just like nature itself. The vertical streaks of paint appear like a forest full of flickering lights, and fit with the works’ titles ‘Psychedelic Trees [Red/Blue/Yellow/Green]’. But the solid circle of colour in the centre of each is, for me, like a solid orb suspended in mid-air that symbolises the earth in the vast messy solar system: a solid mass against a backdrop of streams of changing energy; order out of chaos.
Around the corner is a spooky collection of six fantasy pieces reminding me of childhood dreams surrounded by the mysteries of adult life, where stuffed animals come to life to create a world of their own. The mixed media pieces are all in rich primary colours: navy blue, crimson, orange-gold and turquoise. African masks, a horned bull, a rooster holding a pig, a green rabbit wearing a pink tutu hanging upside down, a black mouse tip-toeing through the night: Jane Athron’s wonderlands in mixed media provide colourful dreamscapes that delight the imagination like no other collection here. But looking more closely, they contrast the playful imagery of childhood with death, fear, insanity and drugs; images of hearts, syringes and stethoscopes intermingle with the teddy bears to create a risqué series titled ‘Memoir to Mort’.
But it was a collection of nude paintings that caused controversy – locally and nationally – at the exhibition last week. The cathedral’s parishioners requested that the offending works be removed, including a four-foot full frontal piece that hasn’t been discussed in the media until now. PHAS, with advice from the cathedral staff, had arranged the work to ensure that it didn’t appear anywhere near the altar or congregation but this didn’t satisfy parishioners.
Depending on our age, background and upbringing we all have a different attitude nudity, as was proven by a passing toddler who found the work hilarious when he saw it. He pointed and laughed out loud. ‘Bottom!’ he exclaimed. From my perspective, in the midst of my contemplative reverie, the nudes were not missed. To remove them from an art gallery would be unthinkable, but from a church?
Many of us gain a sense of tranquillity when we go to either an art gallery or to church. We find that our imaginings, meditations and prayers are directed by a priest’s sermon or a painter’s self-expression. Their humanity mixes with ours. The artist’s skill in representing serenity and beauty invokes dreams and reality, and we lose ourselves in the many worlds of meaning, especially of such a diverse collection. Art creates unique space for contemplation, much like the church does. Art challenges us, just like the priest’s words, it can be both pious and daring. Sometimes art is clear about what it wants from us and other times it isn’t. There are ambiguities in art and religion, and they are precious.
Portsmouth and Hampshire Art Society
Summer Exhibition 2018
High Street, Old Portsmouth
Saturday 28 July to Wednesday 8 August
Daily from 9am to 5pm
Free entrance, but leave a donation if you feel moved to
Photography courtesy of Lucy Brown.