Wednesday 14 December 2016

Joash Woodrow – A Hidden Life in Pictures (Part 2)

Liz Kay continues her series of posts about artist Joash Woodrow 

(Catch up with Part 1)

Joash Woodrow and Cyril Satorsky - ‘Student Drawing’, 1944
Reading about the discovery of Joash Woodrow’s art, never exhibited and packed into a modest Leeds house, it would be easy to imagine him as an ‘outsider artist’. His style was uninhibited and he often used scrap materials. No-one who knew Woodrow as a young man, however, would have been surprised by his eventual success.

Woodrow’s parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants who ran a bookshop and gave their son a lifelong love of culture and progressive politics. With his sights set on an artistic career, Woodrow enrolled at Leeds College of Art in 1942 and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. In a class alongside future greats like Frank Auerbach and Peter Blake, Woodrow’s tutor marked him out as a rising star.

Someone who knew Woodrow well during this time was his childhood friend and fellow art student, Cyril Satorsky. Describing Woodrow as ‘extremely shy and ultrasensitive’, Satorsky also highlights Woodrow’s ‘hyper-real’ sense of humour and elaborate practical jokes. On one occasion, Woodrow carved an enormous ‘Easter Island Statue’ at a quarry in Leeds and convinced Satorsky it was an ancient monument. As cash-strapped students, they spent their time debating politics, reading Russian novels and visiting Leeds’ museums.

Woodrow’s earliest drawings include this collaboration with Satorsky, made while both artists were at Leeds College of Art. The drawing was initially torn up, but then given as a memento to their friend, J. Clark. Fortunately, Clark saved the drawing for over 60 years before donating it to the gallery.
The two young artists have adopted a style in which it is difficult to tell their hands apart, and which is quite different from both artists’ mature work. The tight lines and careful shading are in contrast to Woodrow’s more expressive style, while Satorsky has gone on to focus on bright and bold abstract painting..

Joash Woodrow –
‘Nude Female Studies’, 1944

Wartime and Inspirations

To explore this drawing in context, Satorsky’s recollections give a flavour of the times. The Second World War provides the backdrop, a time when ideas carried great power, laced with a sense of danger.

Horror and absurdity can be felt in Woodrow and Satorsky’s drawing, where one man points a gun at another who has a noose about his neck. The drawing’s violent imagery evokes powerful artistic statements about the brutality of war. The stylised figures and wide angle composition suggest an appreciation of Picasso’s Guernica.

Another inspiration may have been the anti-war ballet ‘The Green Table’, which Woodrow and Satorsky saw in Leeds. The performance by German political exiles Joos Ballet featured a dance of death in which the characters meet with grim fates. Impressed, the two students talked their way backstage to draw the dancers. Jotting the German names in their sketchbooks, the pair left to continue sketching near some anti-aircraft guns in a park, unwittingly leading the nearby military police to mistake them for German spies!  

Tensions were running high and art could be seen as a weapon. Satorsky describes how Woodrow ‘loved the combat’ of making art and could ‘lay down a mark like Mohammed Ali’s punch’, using ragged old brushes to stab at his canvases with unexpected precision.

Life Drawing at Leeds Art Gallery

 At art school, Woodrow’s approach to life-drawing class also caused controversy. Perhaps feeling stifled by technical exercises, Woodrow would change all the models’ poses in his drawings. This process of re-imagined life-drawing may be what we see in his drawing Nude Female Studies at Leeds Art Gallery, made in 1944, at Leeds College of Art. In this pencil drawing, two figures are rendered sharply, but ghostly figures also merge into abstract mark-making alongside these.
Woodrow’s studies were interrupted by national service in 1945, when he was posted in Egypt for three years as a cartographer.

Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1953, Woodrow worked in London as an accountant, painting only in the evening. During this time, Woodrow suffered with depression, and an argument with a friend brought on a crisis that led to his return to the family home in Leeds. The next post will explore his fruitful relationship with the city he came back to.

By Liz Kay, Volunteer Cataloguer, Leeds Art Gallery.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Dying Matters - New display and discussion

World Cultures Curator Antonia Lovelace gives a sneak preview of the new Dying Matters display at Leeds City Museum

Death is perhaps the one experience that unites people the world over. But even though every person experiences death and dying, we can often shy away from talking about it.

The curators and community team at Leeds Museums and Galleries have linked up with the Leeds steering group of the national Dying Matters initiative to bring this topic to the fore for a seven month display in the Leeds Gallery at Leeds City Museum. The topic of death and dying is a very sensitive one, so we are working hard to deal with it appropriately, and promote positive debate.

The display, situated at the contemporary end of the Leeds Gallery, will look at funerals, preparation, sorting the deceased’s effects, memorials and the afterlife.

The museum’s collections host a huge variety of material, from Neolithic cinerary urns to 19th century bier carts, wills and funeral tea adverts, Chinese ancestor tablets, Chinese dolls wearing straw and white funeral clothes (pictured above), African memorial figures, winged angels and Mexican Day of the Dead paper cuts.

The curators have also collected new items, and borrowed a contemporary basketry wicker coffin, to modernise the selection.

Community Curator Marek filming an interview for one of the new Dying Matters films.

Two new films have also been commissioned, one with interviews taken at St Gemma’s and Wheatfields hospices, the other showing five Leeds people talking about Death and the Afterlife, which includes interviews with Xina Gooding of Hugh Gooding Funerals, and with the humanist bereavement counsellor and funeral officiant Bob Bury.

See the Dying Matters display at Leeds City Museum, 16 Dec - 30 July 2017. 

Learn more about the national Dying Matters initiative.

(A version of this blog post was previously published in the Friends of Lawnswood newsletter) 

Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Preservative Party's Top Ten Tips for Curating an Exhibition

Ellie Smith and D’arcy Darilmaz from the Leeds City Museum youth curators group the Preservative Party share their tips for curating an exhibition!

The Preservative Party, pictured at the opening of the In Their Footsteps exhibition (2016).

1. Get to know the people you’re working with
Play pictionary and eat cake!

2. What is your exhibition about?
Decide on the purpose of your exhibition. Do you want it to be formal and factual; fun and exciting; or emotionally evoking. Pick an interesting and relevant topic but also something feasible. Make sure you'll have enough objects and information to fill an exhibition.

3. Select objects and stories to display in your exhibit
Make sure to pick are a few key objects that really stand out.

4. Construct an identity
You need a name and initial design ideas. If you have the budget to hire designers write a design brief to send to out. The deigners will send back their initial ideas. From this you can select your design company and begin working with them to create the 'look' of your exhibition. Your final design should show what your exhibition is about and appeal to your demographic.

5. Research, research, research!
Explore the history of your objects.

6. Layout/curation
Decide whether you would like a led path which instructs visitors to go a certain route; or an open space. You will need to plan where all of your object cases, wall mounted objects and panels will go. Make sure there are enough display cases to fit your objects in. You may want to categorise your objects into sections. Your exhibition must be accessible to all members of the public, so plan enough space for wheelchairs and prams to move through with ease.

7. Write your object panels
All your text should read in the same voice so decide what tone you would like. Be sure to have a word limit as large amounts of text might intimidate your audience.

8. Interactives
Come up with some fun ways to engage your public with your exhibits. Try to include interesting pieces of research which you gathered that didn't make it onto the panels.

9. Install
Bring your creation to life! Learn how to use a paint roller. You'll need one! Decorate the gallery and arrange your objects.

10. Opening night
Plan drinks, caterers, speeches and performances. Open up your exhibition for a private viewing for all those invited to the night.

Find out more about the Preservative Party and how to join.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

A Kitchen Cabinet of Curiosity

 Pamela Crowe explores the contents of a 1950s kitchen cabinet
and the origins of museum collecting

The wooden space-saving kitchen cabinet at Leeds Discovery Centre (pictured above) dates from the mid-twentieth century and incorporates a fold down enamel worktop, ironing board and a series of green painted cupboards and drawers to store cutlery, table linen, tableware and food. It sits at the far end of the main corridor in the Discovery Centre, just slightly beyond the Store entrance. To find it you must postpone entering the store or remember to double back before you leave. 

Today we display a collection of food packaging from our social history collection within it. I’ve chosen three of my favourites items.

Dried eggs used during 1940s-50s food shortages

Label: 'This can contains 12 Eggs'
This is a small cylindrical gold tin containing 12 pure dried whole eggs in powdered form supplied by the United States and issued by the Ministry of Food for distribution in Great Britain as a response to a wartime shortage of fresh eggs, c.1940-50. 

Users were instructed to store them away from anything with a strong smell and when required, to mix one level tablespoon of dried egg with two tablespoons of water making sure to “work out lumps with a spoon against the side of the bowl”. 

The egg had to be used immediately after mixing and was most suitable for scrambled eggs or omelettes. Uptake of the dried eggs was slow and the Ministry of Food issued posters to promote their use.

Co-op Ground Ginger
 'Co-op Ground Ginger'

Dating from the late 1960s, this small jar of ground ginger features the distinctive ‘cloverleaf’ Co-op logo on the side. In 1968 The Co-operative Working Society (CWS) worked with the co-operative societies around Britain to rebrand under a single Co-op logo in a move to unify branding across all the retail shops. 
Stores that wished to use the new logo had to undergo refurbishment. In 2016 The Co-operative Group announced that it would return to a refreshed blue version of the cloverleaf logo.

Label: 'For the relief of Asthma, Hayfever & spasmodic affections of the respiratory tract'

Potter's Asthma Remedy
Potters’ inhalation products were well known and widely used throughout the early to mid 20th Century. Users were instructed to inhale a heated teaspoonful of the powdered herbal remedy on a daily basis. 

This product continued to be manufactured until 1988 when the UK’s Department of Health refused to renew the product licence. Recent research has shown that the products may in fact have posed similar health risks to smoking.

The Cabinet of Curiosities
Back in April 2015 I gave my very first tour of the Discovery Centre. Nerves aside, it was great fun but I recall spending too long talking about this 1950s kitchen cabinet. It still draws me in though, I think of it as a Kitchen Cabinet of Curiosities, the Discovery Centre's Küche Wunderkammer (Kitchen Wonder Cabinet).

Wunderkammer (translated, Wonder Chamber or Room) is a German term dating from the sixteenth century to describe a personal collection of extraordinary objects that was amassed by noblemen, men of science and the merchant class, cabinet then being a term for a room rather than a piece of furniture.

Drawers opened enticingly at Leeds Discovery Centre
From Renaissance times through to the late nineteenth century, men and women of stature could exhibit their knowledge and status by assembling all manner of exotic natural wonders, art, treasures and items from distant lands and cultures. 

These collectors believed that by identifying invisible and visible similarities between the objects they could arrive at a better understanding of God's purpose and man's place in the universe. 

Over time the significance of these Wonder Chambers grew, private spaces became public with the larger royal and aristocratic collections developing into grand public museums and institutions. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) donated his library and collection to the University of Oxford and these formed the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, founded in 1683. 

Leeds Discovery Centre stores the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections

The awesome and the ordinary
It's not a huge leap to view the entire Discovery Centre as a vast Cabinet of Curiosities, after all we're still trying to make sense of our universe and our place within it. The most common reaction from visitors entering the store for the first time is one of awe and my own brain still emits a little 'wow' each time I enter. Our collections comprise both the familiar and unfamiliar: the pleasure in viewing the bones of a dodo or 4.5 billion year old iron meterorite can be met in equal measure by the sighting of a familiar washing machine from Grandma's house or a gold tin of egg powder.

The breadth and of depth of these collections provide each of us with an opportunity (conscious or otherwise) to evaluate our own very personal past within a greater, complex shared one - just as the Renaissance collectors sought to do with their Wunderkammers.

By Pamela Crowe, Volunteer Tour Guide and Blogger, Leeds Discovery Centre

Further Reading/Sources: on Cabinets of Curiosities 

British Library Learning: Cabinets of Curiosity
Cabinet of Curiosities and The Ashmolean Museum

Leeds Discovery Centre Store Tours
Come and explore our collections at the Leeds Discovery Centre every Thursday at 11am and 2pm in our Store Tours. For more information about visiting our store, please visit our website. 

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Joash Woodrow – A Hidden Life in Pictures

Joash Woodrow - ‘Three Figures’ c.1965

At the turn of the millennium, Joash Woodrow’s life’s work lay undiscovered in a house in Chapel Allerton in Leeds. For forty-five years he had lived and worked there, making art with a singular passion that eclipsed more everyday concerns.

Woodrow lived alone, becoming increasingly reserved after experiencing a mental-health crisis as a young man. For a long time however, he was content and purposeful in the pursuit of his artwork. Paintings, drawings and sculptures blossomed and came to rest in teetering piles, crowding every corner of his house.

Joash Woodrow -‘Female with Red Lips, Male in Black’
Woodrow grew into old age, surrounded by his art, until a house fire tipped his life’s balance precariously. Supported by his family, Woodrow agreed to move into sheltered accommodation, on one condition: his family must promise to take care of his art.

Never before exhibited, few had ever seen these artworks. His brother felt these paintings and drawings were almost as private to Joash as a diary. Now they were blanketed by dust; their colours obscured by smoke damage.

Many of the canvases were stacked so high they had become stuck together. The family’s promise to rescue this huge body of work posed a daunting challenge. Only a chance discovery would kick-start the chain reaction that snatched Joash Woodrow’s artwork from the brink of obscurity.

A year later, artist Christopher P. Wood was browsing a second-hand bookshop, when he stumbled across every book-hunter’s dream, something more unique than the rarest first edition. The issue of the Victorian ‘Magazine of Art’ that he picked up was intriguing in itself, but this copy had belonged to Joash Woodrow, who had reworked every page by hand. Using paint, collage and drawing, Woodrow had reinvented the old magazine as a book of completely original artworks. They were funny, clever and brimming over with personality.

Wood bought the unusual artefact and showed it to the conservator and gallery-owner Andrew Stewart, whose interest was piqued. Stewart contacted Woodrow’s family, who were shocked to discover they had accidently sold one of Joash’s artworks and explained the dilemma of the houseful of art that needed a new home.

Arranging to visit, Stewart found portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes of contemporary Leeds. Vividly rendered, their lavishly thick paint clung to all manner of rough-hewn supports. From sackcloth to advertising signs, anything Woodrow came upon could become part of an artwork.

As these unconventional pieces were brought out and painstakingly cleaned, brilliant colours emerged, to reveal a style that combined expressive vigour with insightful clarity of purpose. Woodrow’s work showed a deep knowledge of 20th century artistic movements, while his exuberantly direct approach animated everyday subjects in a way all his own.

Joash Woodrow’s first solo exhibition was arranged by 108 Fine Art Gallery in Harrogate in 2002, while Leeds Art Gallery was the first public gallery to show his work soon after. Further exhibitions crystallised Woodrow’s reputation as one of the great undiscovered talents of 20th century art. Though his health had become fragile, Joash Woodrow attended one of the first exhibitions of his own work, just a short time before his death in 2006.

Joash Woodrow -‘Leeds Landscape with Chimneys’ c.1980

Some of Woodrow’s drawings are now part of Leeds City Art Gallery’s collection and they span a wide period of the artist’s life. In my role as a volunteer cataloguer, I have been intrigued to study Woodrow’s drawings. He drew constantly - amongst the discoveries in Woodrow’s house, the kitchen table alone was submerged beneath over 1000 drawings.

In other ways Woodrow is enigmatic. He left little writing, joined no artistic groups and hadn’t attempted to exhibit his work since the early 1970s. Without these familiar building blocks it can be challenging to fit someone into a conventional art history, but Woodrow’s drawings give us a first-hand account of places he visited, people he saw and what was on his mind. This short series will highlight the illuminating details of Woodrow’s life and work that these drawings capture.

By Liz Kay, Volunteer Cataloguer, Leeds Art Gallery.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Childhood in the collections: New study days at Abbey House Museum

Next month we will be holding our first ‘Childhood’ study day at Abbey House Museum.

The day itself will be split between talks and presentations, handling sessions from the museum collections, and gallery tours – with an introduction to a variety of topics around the theme of childhood.

Researching for this day has been a lot of fun – with so many different avenues to explore and so many possible topics to consider. That has, however, also made it difficult to decide what we should include. For example, talking about the different types of schools in Leeds over the last 150 years is a massive subject – with so many changes to education over the years.

We will have a closer look at Reformatory schools in the area with a little help from Lucie Wade, PhD student at Leeds Beckett University, who will be coming to talk about some of her research, and there will also be a chance to browse images of a variety of schools in the area from the museum collections, including a few images from Leeds Children's Day.

Discover historical toys and games!

Not everything about childhood revolves around school, so we will also have a little look at toys and games, and how they have and haven’t changed over the years, with a chance to handle a few examples from our collections.

 We’ll also talk about the working life of children, particularly in the nineteenth century, including the factory children and the campaign for improvements to their working conditions by people such as Richard Oastler.

Book a space:

If you fancy joining us on 17 November, there are still a few spaces available. The day runs from 11am - 3pm, and costs £10 per person including lunch in the Gatehouse Café.

To book, either give us a call on 0113 3784079 or email us at If you can’t make it this time, we will also be running it again on 27 April 2017.