The Walker Art Gallery is part of National Museums Liverpool. I’m lucky enough to live within a 40 minute train ride from this gallery and visit it regularly. The building itself is stunning – Liverpool also has the highest number of listed buildings outside London!
Sometimes I’m drawn by a particular exhibition; last year’s ‘Rolf Harris: Can you tell what it is yet?’ drew huge crowds and was mainly responsible for an increase in visitor numbers of 40%. However, I often drop into the gallery when I’m in the city simply to visit a couple of my favourite paintings; paintings that evoke a personal response.
The first of these is ‘Fantine’ by Margaret Hall, painted in 1886. A large painting, it hangs on the gallery’s magnificent staircase and my attraction to it pre-dates the popularity of the stage musical and latest film version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have a framed postcard of this painting hanging on my own, very ordinary, staircase because it reminds me of my grandmother. It’s not a physical resemblance, my grandmother was Spanish; it’s the look in Fantine’s eyes, a look that foretells tragedy.
I study Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Waiting: An English fireside of 1854-55’, for the same reason. Despite knowing it’s a topical painting about a wife waiting for her husband’s return from the Crimean War, I can visualise my grandmother, in Spain almost half a century later, as she nursed her sick son. The painting intrigues me; the position of the child on its mother’s lap looks unnatural and the red glow reflected on its gown makes me think of blood and death rather than hearth and home. A small painting, only 30.5 x 20cm, yet it has a big impact on me.
Another favourite is John Lee’s ‘Sweethearts and Wives’. Although this Liverpool dockside scene was painted in 1860, my imagination can make the leap forward to my own family’s connection with the seaport. My Spanish grandfather was a merchant seaman who sailed out of Liverpool and there must have been countless emotional partings with his wife and children. My husband also spent a short time in the Royal Navy, so I have experienced watching a ship sail out of port with a loved one aboard.
Frederick Cotman’s ‘One of the Family’ (1880) is a favourite of the whole family. Many years ago my late mother-in-law fell in love with this painting. We bought a large print from the gallery, had it framed, and it took pride of place on her dining room wall until her death. Sadly, it now languishes in our loft; we don’t have the space to hang the print but our family have forbidden us to dispose of it!
To enjoy visiting art galleries, I believe it isn’t essential to be knowledgeable about old masters or modern innovators; understand different techniques; or discuss the motivation behind the paintings; although these can certainly be an important part of the experience. But art appreciation can also be on a purely personal level, without being an expert you can love a certain painting because it ‘speaks to you’, as these do to me.