This interview was conducted with Ben Thomas, the curator of Alfred Drury and the New Sculpture, by Joanna Barnes and Leonie Summers of Circumspice – the newsletter of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association.
1. The curatorial team – who was involved? How did the collaboration work – design, logistics, display, project management?
Jolyon Drury, Alfred Drury’s grandson, has been continually supportive throughout the process of putting on the exhibition in so many ways. He has provided contacts, advice, and logistical skills together with creative insights. There has also been a constant dialogue with him about the design and display and his contribution has been invaluable.
Studio 3 Gallery is an exhibition space supported by the University of Kent’s School of Arts, and therefore I aim to involve students as much as possible in the running of the gallery, including in curating exhibitions. Three undergraduate students assisted me in the initial process of research for Alfred Drury and the New Sculpture – Chloe Cheadle, Beth Nixon and Rhiannon Jones. Thanks to a curatorial research grant from The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art they were able to accompany me on research trips to Leeds and London. It was exciting to discover Alfred Drury letters together in archives! Other students have been involved in the logistics of the exhibition: for example, Vanessa Baradossa managed the rota of invigilators, and Frances Chiverton came up with the educational programme linked to the exhibition. The aim here is to provide students with ‘real life’ experience of how exhibitions are put on and managed.
Realizing this exhibition involved a huge number of people and I have tried to acknowledge them all in the catalogue – and of course the scholars who wrote the catalogue are among the key players shaping the concept of Drury that emerged (Jolyon again, Jane Winfrey, Brian Landy and Benedict Read). I should also mention the incredible support the project received from the Henry Moore Institute, where Betsy McCormick and Jonathan Wood were working on their own Alfred Drury exhibition; and also from Alexandra Gerstein of the Courtauld Institute Galleries. I had not curated a sculpture show before – one extra dimension, a thousand extra problems – and Alexandra kindly tutored me in the mysteries of plinths, lighting and sight lines, while the example of the HMI’s elegant show around Drury’s The Age of Innocence was my model for how to let this type of sculpture breathe.
2. What were the criteria for the selection of the exhibits?
The idea was to provide as representative a sample of Drury’s works on a smaller scale as possible – the large-scale public works being obviously out of the question. This proved possible due to loans from two private collections. An important gap was filled by the loan of a marble version of Lilith, Drury’s Royal Academy diploma piece, from Godinton House in Kent. Including works by Dalou, Rodin, Leighton and Stevens also helped to place Drury in context. There will be further loans from another private collection when the exhibition moves to The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds.
However, working within a tight budget and timescale means that the selection of exhibits cannot be a paper exercise but is all about what is possible. I have learnt a great deal in putting on this exhibition, not only about the generosity of private collectors, but also of the importance of their long-term vision in trusting to the quality of an artist’s work. Ultimately that is what made this exhibition possible.
3. How did you arrive at the design for the exhibition in – layout, display, lighting?
One of my goals was that the exhibition should feel like an ‘Art’ exhibition, and not like a didactic display where the art works serve as illustrations to a historical essay. Works like Griselda and The Age of Innocence have a quiet but powerful attraction that communicates itself slowly – Drury’s friend the critic Alfred Baldry was alert to this poetic and musical quality of his work – and I wanted the works to harmonize across the space of the gallery. Formal rhythms shaped the display more than chronology or some other organizing concept.
I was also taking my cue from Drury himself: a photograph of his studio c.1900 records a display put together for the benefit of visiting patrons and customers. Here was Drury essentially curating an exhibition of his own smaller works. I decided fairly early on to base my hang around the tableau recorded in the photograph, creating a mantelpiece in the gallery and as far as possible recreating the sequence and rhythms of Drury’s display. I have to say I wrestled with this idea, going back and forth with it for a long time – was it respectfully working with the grain of the artist’s vision, or simply a kitsch exercise in reconstruction? In the end I think it worked.
The idea of the two large and tall display cases was one I took from the Dalou exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris. In the context of Studio 3 Gallery, which has a very high ceiling, they served as internal walls breaking up the space and as a means of grouping together some of the works in terms of the ‘youthful’ and the ‘mature’ artist. They also allowed some interesting documents to be displayed – letters from Dalou and Alfred Gilbert etc. In a sense the cases divide the gallery diagonally into two sections – one more ‘domestic’ (sculpture in the home) and the other more like a gallery space for exhibition pieces. The walls are deliberately hung very sparely in order to preserve sight lines for the sculpture. There is a double-stopped rhythm of repeated facial profiles on three of the walls that is intended to give the room a quiet beat. Lighting is used to accent certain works, and to integrate the spatial arrangement.
I planned the display so that the visitor would take in the key works of Drury at a glance on entering the gallery – The Age of Innocence, The First Lesson, Griselda, Lilith, Knowledge & Inspiration – and then be drawn in to the more intimate arrangements of works in the cases and on the mantelpiece. On leaving the gallery the visitor sees a timeline in the corridor providing the historical facts: in other words I wanted to prioritize the aesthetic experience over ‘interpretation’.
4. What were your aims for the outcome? – what did you want a visitor to experience and gain from the exhibition?
The main aim was to reappraise Drury’s art and to argue that he played a key role in the New Sculpture Movement – drawing together the influences of Stevens and Dalou in a way that only he was equipped to do. That case is made through the research presented in the catalogue. I hoped the visitor to the exhibition would be convinced of the quality of Drury’s art, and be left with a lasting impression of beauty created by the mutual communication of sculptural works across space.
5. What did you regard as key challenges and problems? How were they resolved? please also consider a) the design, b) the physical installation c) split site -Stevens drawings) d) were there any “health and safety” issues?
In terms of the installation the main challenge was how to place works whose ‘natural habitat’ is the sideboard in the sitting room or a shelf in the study in a high-ceilinged, concrete-floored, austere ‘white cube’ space without overwhelming them. Experiments in the empty gallery showed that smaller pieces like Spring would just be lost if placed separately on their own on plinths. There needed to be a strong and simple design, therefore, to bridge that discrepancy of scale. Of course, Drury was himself a specialist in reconciling sculpture to architecture and so he was again a good guide to follow in spirit.
In doing this exhibition I learnt a lot about the various ways of fixing sculpture to plinths so that it is secure, and thanks to Julian Doyle, an excellent art technician, unobtrusive solutions were found. Putting together the cases was a dramatic logistical problem involving scaffolding towers and a team of six workers from Kent’s Estates Department (who are brilliant at installing exhibitions). Working with scaffolding towers, ladders, power tools etc. always has ‘health and safety’ implications and everyone has had the relevant training. Planning the installation was an exercise in project management and I left plenty of time so that it was not rushed, so that different jobs were not occurring simultaneously in the space, and so we could rehearse certain problems in advance.
The possibility of an exhibition of Alfred Drury’s collection of Alfred Stevens drawings was something that arose during the course of research – as someone who principally works on graphic arts I was profoundly impressed by these great drawings. Stevens was a Victorian who drew like Raphael! Canterbury has now got a dedicated gallery space for works on paper in The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, and so this seemed like a more appropriate setting to show these fragile works for both aesthetic and conservation reasons. I was also determined that Drury remain the ‘star of the show’ in Studio 3 Gallery. Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz did a great job of curating the Stevens drawings, with expert advice provided by Teresa Sladen. The two exhibitions are conceived of as discrete but connected shows – it is not necessary to visit both but it enhances the experience of both if you do. I also have a very practical problem of luring visitors away from Canterbury city centre and up the hill to the University of Kent campus and I hoped the Stevens exhibition in The Beaney (with its much higher footfall) would act as a signpost.
The exhibition was also a research project and that aspect of it raised a different sort of challenge. The catalogue has advanced our knowledge of Drury’s art, but even in the final stages of editing new discoveries, theories and clues kept emerging. There is so much more still to do. I did engage in quite an extensive campaign of research in regional archives and libraries over a couple of years and it is clear that there is much unexamined material out there. Unfortunately this sort of research is becoming more difficult as funding cuts bite and access to documents becomes more restricted. I also traveled quite widely around the country to see as much of Drury’s work as possible and it is striking how much standards of site maintenance and states of conservation vary. I suppose preserving our cultural heritage and maintaining access to the historical materials that allow their meaning to be continually investigated and renewed are key challenges for all of us.
6. Are there any areas you think could be improved?
Two legitimate criticisms have been raised of the exhibition so far. One is that everything is hung too high. The other is that a stronger interpretative steer would have been helpful to some visitors.
The first problem is caused by the half wall on the right hand side of the gallery, where air vents along the floor line effectively raise the base of the wall. This architectural quirk – which I would like eventually to fix – has a determining effect on how you work in this particular space. It is odd how the peculiarities of what seem like regular spaces can drive exhibition design almost as much as the works themselves! In order to preserve clear and unbroken sight lines against the wall, the sculptural works had to be on plinths high enough to raise them above the line of the vents. The plinths also had to be quite high in order to locate works like Griselda spatially within a room that spans two storeys, and this then had a knock-on effect on where paintings and reliefs were hung on the walls. The plinths were actually exactly the same height as the ones in both the HMI and Petit Palais exhibitions – but visitors who had been to all three shows perceived them as higher in Canterbury.
The second issue is one of curatorial style. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of interpretative panels and explanations anyway – and with an artist like Drury, whose work while profound is not ‘difficult’, I think the art can be left to speak for itself to a large extent. I also think it is one of the roles of a university gallery to foster a slightly more challenging exhibition experience. For example, although I included an enlarged photograph of Drury and his praticiens with a statue of Queen Victoria, I deliberately did not provide a label explaining which member of the group was the artist – that was left as a problem for the visitor to resolve, and hopefully in the process think about collaborative working practices in the sculptor’s studio. The catalogue is always there for those who want to know more.
Perhaps these are issues that can be revisited when the exhibition moves to Leeds…