The School of Art Museum at Aberystwyth University is the recipient of a significant and valuable collection of some 200 artworks gifted by Derbyshire County Council Schools Library Service.
Decades of pressure on local authority budgets have left many schools services without the financial and human resources necessary to care for their loan collections and to continue to make them publicly accessible.
Derbyshire Schools Library Service closed its doors in 2018 after more than 80 years of sharing its pictures and artefacts with schools across the county.
While other education authorities have dispersed their loan collections through public auction, Derbyshire has sought to re-home its artworks in accredited museums UK-wide.
Derbyshire’s large-scale distribution project is a laudable example of best practice. It has been guided by the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics, administered by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.
The School of Art Museum at Aberystwyth submitted an Expression of Interest form for each artwork it requested, and for each making a case for how it relates to its Collections Development Policy, how the artwork will used and displayed, and how it will benefit its audiences.
The Derbyshire gift is one of the most significant donations in the history of the Museum which celebrates its centenary this year. The transfer includes original prints by European greats Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn as well as 20th-century British printmakers such as Michael Ayrton, Edward Bawden, John Bratby, Elizabeth Frink, Alistair Grant, Anthony Gross, Gertrude Hermes, Patrick Heron, Charles Keeping, L. S. Lowry, Sidney Nolan, Eduardo Paolozzi, Victor Pasmore, John Piper, Michael Rothenstein, Robert Tavener, Julian Trevelyan and Clifford Webb.
There are paintings by Christopher Hall, Edward Middleditch, Ceri Richards, Fred Uhlman and Nan Youngman and well as drawings by Hablot K. Browne, Edward Lear, John Leech, George du Maurier, John Minton, and Winnie the Pooh illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard.
Derbyshire County Council Leader and Cabinet Member for Strategic Leadership, Culture and Tourism Councillor Barry Lewis said: “This is an exciting and pioneering project for us to be involved in and we welcome the confidence the Museums Association has placed in us to get this right.
“For a long time museums have been nervous about the disposal of objects so this is an innovative project which will see items being re-homed in a transparent way, considering what is the best place for the object while ensuring it is not lost to the public where possible.
“In an ideal world we would keep and display all the items at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, but this just is not feasible or practical.
“Across the country, pictures of great interest and in some cases great worth, are kept in storage. One of the aims of this project is to try to ensure that does not happen with the items from our collections.
“We are very pleased that the School of Art Museum at Aberystwyth University is able to receive these pictures, and to exhibit them in their galleries. It is all the more pleasing that a home has been found for so many works in a teaching institution, continuing the purpose these works were originally acquired for.”
The Museum also provides a supportive research environment for staff, external scholars and members of the public through exhibitions in its galleries, the curation of touring exhibitions, education and learning programmes, publications and websites. The Museum also offers free art-themed gallery talks and informal conversational language classes for the general public.
The School of Art Museum was established in 1920 as the Arts and Crafts Museum. Writing in 1925, its curators believed it would serve to broaden the students’ cultural experience with “a knowledge as well as a proper sense of appreciation of things of beauty, so that they may be able to instruct and inspire for the welfare of the coming generations.”
To this day, the Museum collects and displays artworks of educational and cultural value that are useful for teaching and research and enrich student experience through the first-hand study of historical and contemporary works of art. The Museum’s collections are unique in Wales and of international importance. They are used in training students who go on to become artists, art historians, museum curators and exhibition organisers.
School of Art postgraduate student Sarai David from Virginia, USA, has already started work on the new acquisitions. She commented: “I have really enjoyed documenting the oil paintings as a part of my MA Art History course, and I am excited to discover more about this important collection through my research. I have learned many new skills from handling and cataloguing valuable artworks to evaluating them in a methodical manner. I aim to stage a public exhibition of the paintings and to showcase my research on artists that have yet to be widely written about.”
Head of the School of Art and Keeper of Art, Professor Robert Meyrick, commented: “Displays from the Derbyshire collection will provide a stimulating environment for students and staff, for local audiences as well as for our national and international visitors. Our distance from major provincial art galleries means that Derbyshire’s pictures will have greater significance and impact here at Aberystwyth than among larger collections in urban settings.”
The School of Art Museum is committed to working closely with community groups and uses its collections as focus of outreach activities. These include semester-long courses on printmaking history, printmaking practice, art gallery education, and art in Wales through Aberystwyth University’s Lifelong Learning Department.
Assistant Curator and Tutor Phil Garratt, who delivers some of these courses, said: “Our lifelong learning students delight in their engagement with the School of Art collection. The Derbyshire paintings and prints will be enjoyed and analysed in great detail over the coming years. Indeed, prints by John Piper, L. S. Lowry and Edward Bawden among others will all be showcased in Proofs of Identity, a new module on twentieth-century printmaking starting January 2021.”
The artworks gifted by Derbyshire County Council Schools Library Service have been selected with their potential for public display and educational uses in mind.
As exhibition curator and Lecturer in Art History, Dr Harry Heuser commented: “New acquisitions are annually showcased in themed exhibitions that are co-curated with teams of undergraduate students. Student-curators research the objects, develop a narrative, and are involved in all aspects of designing, promoting and staging their show.”
“Drawing on our collections and on our unique position as a university museum, we also display works of art in our seminar rooms to create a hands-on learning experience for our students. Practise-orientated and public-spirited, our teaching of, with and through art ensures that these recently gifted works can continue to fulfil the mission of the Derbyshire County Council Schools Library Service.”
Fascinating archival footage of Derbyshire school museum service at work is available here in a 1962 Associated Television news broadcast.
Professor Robert Meyrick, School of Art, Aberystwyth University