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Review: ‘still small voice’ at The Wilson Gallery

PUBLISHED: 15:22 04 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:55 17 March 2015

The second floor, with Eric Gill’s sculpture of Christ illuminated. Stanley Spencer's 'Angels of the Apocalypse' is visible behind

The second floor, with Eric Gill’s sculpture of Christ illuminated. Stanley Spencer's 'Angels of the Apocalypse' is visible behind

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How has Britain’s art reflected the shifting attitudes towards the Bible over the last century? ‘still small voice’ at The Wilson encourages this debate, as Joe Meredith found out.

The 'still small voice' team beside Eric Gill’s sculpture of ChristThe 'still small voice' team beside Eric Gill’s sculpture of Christ

The interplay between religion and art has always been fascinating. It’s a cultural conversation that is no less relevant today as it was when Europe tumbled into the period of rapid change we refer to as the Renaissance.

The curators of ‘still small voice’ hope to provide a platform for that conversation in their exhibition of an internationally-held private collection, featuring work by a number of influential and beloved 20th Century British artists. The exhibition explores ideas around creativity, crisis and the human experience – both through works associated with ecclesiastical commissions and through deeply personal responses to tragedies.

‘still small voice’ stretches across two floors of The Wilson gallery, with work ranging from drawings and paintings to prints and sculptures. Consideration has been paid to the arrangement and presentation of the artwork, with each piece responding to and contrasting with another. The second floor is particularly suited to the theme, its high ceiling echoing the interior space of a church and Eric Gill’s sculpture of Christ an illuminated centrepiece.

Joe meeting the team behind the exhibition, including Angus Pryor, Head of Fine Art & Design at the University of Gloucestershire, and Julie Finch, CEO of The Cheltenham TrustJoe meeting the team behind the exhibition, including Angus Pryor, Head of Fine Art & Design at the University of Gloucestershire, and Julie Finch, CEO of The Cheltenham Trust

A particular draw to the exhibition is Stanley Spencer’s ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’, which provides a welcome whimsy to its religious subject. The titular angels are depicted in Spencer’s recognisable style; rotund women in casual dress glide over lush pastoral land. Originally, Spencer intended to depict the avenging angels in the sky above Christ in judgement. However, he later stated: “I wanted some measure of mercy and so hoped it could be thought that some less potent poison was being poured on the wrongdoers.” He decided instead to depict the ‘harbingers of doom’ assisting God in sowing the earth with seeds. Perhaps ‘fertilisers of doom’ would be more of an apt description?

There are a couple of underwhelming pieces in this small collection - but I enjoyed how eclectic the art on display was; the vibrant and eye-catching paintings of Graham Sutherland and Edward Burra, the tactile, bold sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and controversial artist Eric Gill. Various 20th Century art movements are represented in some capacity, albeit chronologically muddled, which itself makes the exhibition an interesting reflection of the shifts in styles across the period.

The first room of the 'still small voice' exhibitionThe first room of the 'still small voice' exhibition

The show is in partnership with the University of Gloucestershire, and a special lecture series, led by experts in the fields of fine art and theology, is accompanying the exhibition. The series includes talks by Professor Ben Quash, Professor Philip Esler, Assistant Professor Lyrica Taylor, Dr Jennifer Sliwka and Dr Chloe Reddaway.

Angus Pryor, Head of Fine Art & Design at the University, also provides his unique response to the exhibition with an ambitious wall-length artwork entitled ‘God’s Wrath’. The playful and macabre piece is displayed on the ground floor of the gallery.

After you’ve wandered around ‘still small voice’, there’s the opportunity for the public to leave their responses to the exhibition on paper in a separate room. When I visited, the majority of the messages on display were from schoolchildren writing or doodling about Jesus Christ - but a particular piece of paper caught my eye, with ‘Je Suis Charlie’ scrawled on it. The allusion to the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year was a poignant reminder of how religion is still shaping the headlines and impacting upon our culture. I was suddenly reminded of how privileged we are to be able to discuss, celebrate, challenge and criticise religion through art, literature and music, and how important it is to exercise our freedom to do so.

Responses from visitors in The Wilson displayed on the wallResponses from visitors in The Wilson displayed on the wall

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still small voice: British biblical art in a secular age (1850 – 2014) runs until May 3 2015.

Entry to the exhibition is free. Tickets for each lecture cost £7 (£5 with concession)

For more information, visit: www.cheltenhammuseum.org.uk/Default.aspx?page=296

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