Friday, 30 March 2012

Jerwood Gallery opens in Hastings.

I visited the new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings a couple of weeks ago. I’d seen it during various stages of construction and was very curious. For those of you that know Hastings the gallery is located right on the beach on the Stade next to the Staithes, the towns famous old fishing huts.  In front of the museum  is Hastings Old Town (which most people are familiar with from the TV series Foyle's War) and behind it a boat yard used by local fishermen.

View from the gallery over the boat yard.
Hastings needs regeneration. It has suffered the two prong attack of a downward spiral due to declining visitor numbers and the unfortunate policy of governments past of dumping the long term unemployed often junkies and mentalists into cheaper B&B’s on the coast.  Even on my bus journey from the train station on a Friday morning I was accompanied by a couple of stinky smelly alkies. On the other hand the Old Town is charming and quaint, the town has a considerable history and other parts of the city are bohemian and attractive. It’s a schizoid place.

View out of ground floor window
An accepted route towards regenerating a seaside town has become the opening of a gallery, the Tate in St Ives blazed the trail. The South Coast has the Turner in Margate and the re-vamped De La Warr pavilion just down the road in Bexhill on Sea.  The fact that Hastings desperately needs regeneration but has an artistic community  would seem to make it a perfect candidate for a new gallery. The building, erected on the site of an old coach park is sensitively designed in a style that quotes the nearby fishermen’s huts and its environment. As a result,whilst it is a statement building the statement is sympathetic to its surroundings.

From my window at Ditchling. Frank Brangwyn.
 
Yet there was opposition, foolishly in my view. I can understand the argument that the coach park brought in customers.  However I cannot believe that people really felt an unsightly coach park in the picturesque part of town was really going to be allowed to survive in any place with ambition or a view to the future? 
 
I suspect an element of the objection is more related to a feared culture clash. Hasting’s down at heel recent history has at least preserved an element of bohemian down to earthness and the place is affordable, a rarity on the South Coast.  The chattering middle classes of Southern England do not realise that they can be insensitive, braying and annoying with their Kidston bags, badly behaved children and sense of entitlement. The locals understandably don’t want Notting Hill day trippers pushing their rents up or pricing them out of the market. Look what happened to Cornwall. On the other hand who wants a town that is dead in the Winter with businesses that have problems staying open? The fishermen selling their catch should make money from this year round, having the Petersham Nurseries crowd yomping around your boatyard is a small price to pay. 

Ed Burra Churchyard in Rye.
The Jerwood has therefore had a difficult time of it. But they have tried hard, it has introduced a much reduced entry fee of £2.00 for locals and will open for free once a month.  It is a good piece of architecture and well located.  The building essays local traditions and has a collection of largely but not exclusively 20th century art.  Entering the ground floor I was not as impressed with the interior as the exterior with its beautiful faintly iridescent dark tiling. God save me from the convention of big cold unfriendly white rooms. The art hung here was not particularly to my taste to be fair, but was again an entirely conventional selection. I do like Terry Frost but the example of his work was chilly and lacked the emotive power of most of his paintings. It was all a bit chilly for a warm lively place like Hastings. 

View of the Staithes from the Gallery.
Things improved dramatically once you tripped up the stairs to the first floor. The architects stated that  here they had been purposefully more ‘domestic’, still more white walls but with softer wooden floors. This idea of ‘domestic’ is interesting, a large amount of art is domestic, a lot of my favourite stuff is anyway. Once you have huge canvasses in white rooms you get art as statement, as corporate gew gaw, as institution. The Stuckist hiding inside me bridles at this and I felt a real relief to be in smaller more intimate spaces with their squeaky wooden floors.

Exterior of Gallery.
Here there were several really very good paintings including a fine brawny Maggie Hambling portrait and an excellent Edward Burra painting of Rye churchyard.  The selection in the second floor was I felt well-chosen and suited both the gallery and Hastings. Although these paintings, more figurative as they are might seem more accessible and conventional in reality they were far more radical and left-field than anything downstairs. A faintly hallucinogenic painting of flowers by Cedric Morris looked fresh in its oddness and lack of trendiness. Interspersed throughout the gallery were full height picture windows which acted to convert the splendid views of town, sea and fishing boats into live landscapes and further make the connection between the art within, British, and the world without. The views through these were unsurprisingly more impressive on the first floor.

Big White Square (like the skylights though).
Another pleasure was the small café, basically in a small glass box with a terrace overlooking the sea. They are concentrating on fresh fish, much bought from the fishermen around them and it would be worth paying the two quid just to secure a table on the terrace on one of this country's rare sunny days.

Cafe (yes, it sells wine!)
Generally I am optimistic that theJerwood Gallery will ultimately be good for Hastings and good for the South Coast in general as there is certainly now scope for a small art tour along the coast. It joins the other small pleasures Hastings has to offer which combined make it well worth a visit and might tip the balance in persuading those who might otherwise pass it by to visit.

Vintage Hastings post here: http://redlegsinsoho.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/hastings-is-wonderful-place.html
Jerwood website here: http://www.jerwoodgallery.org/

18 comments:

Sissy said...

Looks like a cool spot to visit, thanks for the travelogue...

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LollyWillowes said...

As a Foyle addict I love the look of what one sees there but I realise it's only the "nice" part. Such a shame when places go to seed, it really bothers me. I hope things look up for this area soon. Would be wonderful to see it being regenerated in a really positive way.
I know where you're coming from about the braying crowd, too. We get them here, the locals priced out as they buy up their twee holiday homes...pet hate of mine....and they can be such patronising annoying pricks!
And we get our share of the council dumped addicts etc. They deny they do it but I've worked in the sector so I can tell you it is done, absolutely. And it has an extremely detrimental effect on an erea, especially when they get housed at the expense of low income families, young working single men etc. Have seen it often.

RedlegsinSoho said...

Thank you for your comments, I think Hastings will be on the 'up' sooner rather than later. x

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