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The Wilson: Sealed with a Kiss

PUBLISHED: 14:19 23 December 2013 | UPDATED: 09:18 26 March 2015

The first floor gallery space

The first floor gallery space

© Thousand Word Media

The Wilson - Cheltenham's art gallery and museum - has reopened after a major rebuild costing £6 million. The result is a venue fit for art of the highest international standard as the arrival of Rodin's famous sculpture proves. Katie Jarvis reports

The sign above the doorway of the 1980's section of the buildingThe sign above the doorway of the 1980's section of the building

Will there be any heavy sculpture on display?” the architects asked Jane Lillystone on one of their many planning walks round the embryo of Cheltenham’s outstanding new art gallery and museum.

She took a deep breath and told them, “I really want to get Rodin’s The Kiss!” As Cheltenham’s museum, arts and tourism manager, Jane has had plenty of weighty decisions on her shoulders, but she laughs as she recalls this particular conversation. “They told me: in that case, they would reinforce the ground floor… which left me thinking, ‘Well, I hope we get it!’”

Her confidence was not misplaced. For in January, Rodin’s 1889 marble sculpture – depicting tragic lovers Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law, Paolo Malatesta – will be on loan to Cheltenham by the Tate. Indeed, it’s entirely appropriate that the £6 million project to transform the town’s century-old art gallery and museum should be sealed with The Kiss. The Wilson, as it has now been renamed, is a fitting venue for artworks of an international standard: four new floors – light, airy, expansive – will provide an outstanding space to showcase Cheltenham’s own fine art collection, as well as superb temporary exhibition galleries for touring shows.

When Rodin’s life-size 4.5 ton embrace (declared ‘obscene’ by some at its unveiling) takes its place in the atrium, it’s not just an embodiment of the town’s cultural status: there’s a meaningful connection, too. In 1914, as the Germans rolled into France, Auguste Rodin fled the atrocities of the war and spent six weeks in Cheltenham, living in an hotel on Winchcombe Street. There are few traces of his time here, “But he did look round the art gallery and museum and wrote in our visitors’ book,” Jane says. “He also sent a letter, afterwards, explaining that he’d left his hat behind in the building!” Whether it was an iconic beret – and whether or not he ever got it back – is sadly unrecorded.

Signage in the gallerySignage in the gallery

Undoubtedly, the bearded old master would entirely approve of the transformation the building has undergone. Although the design is spankingly up-to-date (London and Oxford-based architects Berman Guedes Stretton won the brief after an international design competition), it cleverly nods to its near-siblings: the 1898 library and the extension built 100 years later. That theme of linking the old and the new underlines the whole development, and is apparent from the moment visitors walk in. “A key part of the brief was that we wanted to create these two entrances and exits – one on Clarence Street, and the other going into Chester Walk,” Jane says. “And the reason is St Mary’s Church, which is now a minster [an honorific title given to important churches]. We noticed that all the other buildings have their back onto the church, which is almost neglected in this amazing little area inside the town; we wanted to open up that link.” The church – Cheltenham’s only survivor from medieval times – is visible through the vast glass walls of every storey.

Once inside the new building, visitors will discover a whole panoply of services. The ground-floor reception area houses Cheltenham Tourist Information Centre, making it a first-stop for holidaymakers. Along with the usual offerings of postcards, books and other gifts here, there’s also a new shop and gallery – The Guild at 51 – run by the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen, which has relocated from Painswick.

An app has been launched to coincide with the reopening, taking users out into the Cotswolds to see where the original Arts and Crafts pioneers lived and worked.

The ground floor also hosts a café-bistro which, along with other facilities, will provide a venue for hire; and there are areas for art installations and digital work.

The huge interior of the gallery space on the top floorThe huge interior of the gallery space on the top floor

Up the wonderful floating staircase, there’s a technical workshop, open-plan offices, a new education room for work with school-age and adult groups, public study areas and a huge array of storage.

The breath-taking galleries are the showstoppers, however: cleverly designed as vast spaces, or with moveable partitions for a flexible layout. The first of these will be dedicated to the in-house collection that’s been added to ever since 1898, when the third Baron de Ferrieres, a former mayor and MP for Cheltenham, gave 43 important paintings – mostly from Belgium and the Netherlands – to the town, together with £1,000 towards the building of a gallery in which to house them.

If you’re curious about the building’s new name – The Wilson – then look no further than one of Cheltenham’s most famous sons, the Antarctic explorer and naturalist Edward Wilson, whose father was also involved in the founding of the art gallery and museum. Letters, diaries and watercolour prints by Wilson, who perished on the way back from the South Pole alongside Scott, will be available for the public to study.

To start the celebrations, The Wilson will be launching a scintillating exhibitions-and-events programme, from a major retrospective (including new pieces), Casting Brilliance, by the Gloucestershire-based, internationally-recognised, glass artist Colin Reid, to a tour from the National Portrait Gallery; Dinosaurs Uncovered – a blockbuster family show – will run in the summer of 2014.

For Jane, who has overseen the whole project, it’s the culmination of more than six years’ work. What does she think of the result?

“Very exciting,” she says. “If I were to make a comparison, I think we’re a mix between [Bristol’s] M Shed and [Oxford’s] Ashmolean. M Shed is very much about local collections, local people, local voices, and we are definitely trying to encourage local people to come and enjoy the space.

“We’re not about being elitist – right from the word go, this has been about enabling access to the collections by a broader range. Even if you’re a mum with your kids, dashing into the library with very little time on your hands, you might just stop and look at Rodin’s Kiss.”

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The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, in Clarence Street, Cheltenham GL50 3JT (01242 237431) is open 9.30am-5.15pm, seven days a week, entry free. For more information visit the website:
www.thewilson.org.uk

For more from Katie Jarvis, follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/katiejarvis

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