Autumn 2022

Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

Art & Why It Is Important – A Personal View

One of the most valuable private UK art collections is the Royal Collection, housed in royal palaces across the UK, and owned by the royal family. Today’s royals continue to buy contemporary art, as well as the old masters, Impressionists, the Dutch Masters, Leonardo da Vinci and Canaletto (the Queen has one of the largest collections of Canaletto paintings in the world). But there is also Art UK, or the government owned art collection, held in trust for the nation, in public art galleries, government buildings and our UK embassies overseas. There is an excellent website at the online home for every public collection in the UK, and a vast database. And, of course, there are extensive archives in UK local authority settings about our national art collection. I have often thought that it would make a perfect subject for a research thesis – the accessioning of art for public buildings, and the stories, and archival documents, behind this story. Art, for example, especially in London, was used as a means of promoting national pride and morale, during WWII.


As well as museums and art galleries, the other place to see art is at auction houses. There are specialist sales, every year, by Sotheby’s, Christies, Bonhams and others, in London and across the world. Prices may start at just a couple of hundred pounds through to tens of millions of pounds.

And, finally, the 9 professional artist’s organisations, which together make up the RBA (Royal Society of British Artists), and based at the Mall Galleries, London, hold annual exhibitions for groups such as the ROI (Royal Institute of Oil Painters). These exhibitions feature the work of members, but also offer an open call out, which means emerging artists can submit their work for inclusion in the annual exhibitions. It is through doing this (and their work being accepted, and shown, for at least 3 consecutive years) that artists may become elected to the ROI, RSMA (Royal Society of Marine Artists) or NEAC (New English Art Club). Election to one of these prestigious art groups is not a guarantee of commercial success, but is a well-respected professional accolade.

Throughout history, some of our most acclaimed artists have, in fact, been self-taught. Their archives – diaries, sketch books, letters – make fascinating reading because they tell a story. These stories, artists’ documented heritage, tell us about an individual’s artistic development, their influences, relationships, any commercial success in their lifetime and the contact they had (if any) with the art establishment. Art history, today, can tell us so much more about the artist and their works, especially forensic art history; if you have ever watched BBC TV’s Fake or Fortune, you will know exactly what I mean!

The most highly valued indication of peer reviewed success, for living artists, is to be elected as an RA (a Royal Academician, or a member of the Royal Academy, in Piccadilly). The number of members is restricted to around 50 or so in any one year, reflecting the best of contemporary British art, sculpture and architecture. You will have heard of many of the current RA members – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Anthony Gormley, Grayson Perry to name but a few.

What I also find interesting about our 9 national art societies is their archives. The archives for the ROI, for example, are largely held at the V&A, and members of the public and researchers can only consult these records by appointment. They tell a fascinating story of how the ROI came into being in the 1880’s, and what issues were important to the founding members, all of them now artists of international importance. Likewise, the archives of the NEAC (New English Art Club), founded in the 1860’s tell the story of how a group of then prominent British artists challenged what they regarded as the “stuffy” approach of the Royal Academy, and set up their own professional society, independent of the RA, to rail against the strictures of what was then regarded as “good” art, worthy of critical acclaim.  It offered a much more inclusive, some would say experimental, approach and fellowship to professional artists, offering educational programmes, mentoring and a range of other practical means of ensuring art could flourish beyond the confines of the then revered Royal Academy.

So why is art important? Human beings have always sought to create, to adorn, to decorate and, above all else, to construct meaningful narratives. From the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France, to Anglo-Saxon treasure hordes in the English countryside, 18th C West African tribal masks, the Bayeux tapestry, to the earthenware vessels of Ancient Rome or the highly ornate hieroglyphics in Ancient Egyptian tombs, every culture and society in the world has sought to create art, often with materials close to hand and plentiful – earth and other organic pigments, wood, glass, metals. Why is this? In part, I think, it’s about celebration, but it’s also about creating beauty and about making sense of the world around us. Above all, it is about telling a story, about communicating with others, about expression and interpretation as well as figurative representation. The visual and decorative arts are all about narratives. Archives, of course, tell their own narratives – through letters, diaries, minutes of meetings, correspondence, photographs – although there are gaps in the art world’s archives, but the art works always speak for themselves. The archives can tell us things we would not otherwise know; for example, that a particular artist (now famous) restricted their palette to just 7 colours during their career. Archives – the historical record – give us enormous insight and understanding about the art works we look at, but they also provide provenance, which is essential in the art world.

Talking about art works speaking for themselves, I was intrigued, a few years ago, to read a novel by Hannah Rothschild (a former trustee of the National Gallery) called The Improbability of Love (published 2015), in which the main character is a painting several centuries old, having changed hands many times and having witnessed some of the great historical events of the last 300 years. The painting speaks, it tells of turbulent events, and it very much tells a narrative of its life and times. In many ways the novel is an exploration of the art world, art history and is, in a sense, a love letter to the enduring power of art. The Improbability of Love, in its fantastical premise, is as delightful as the gender non-specific eponymous hero Orlando, in Virginia Woolf’s novel.

In terms of art, we all know more than we think. Most British people, for example, whether readers of The Times or The Sun, would have no problem naming at least 5 or 6 internationally known artists – Van Gogh, Picasso, Constable, Monet, Rembrandt, etc – although they may be hard pushed to name 5 or 6 internationally known authors. Why has art pervaded our collective consciousness in this way? Most people are not exposed to art through museums or galleries, but through popular culture – posters, prints, greetings cards, even utilitarian items like tea towels with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers printed on them, or decorative biscuit tins with out of copyright images of famous paintings on the lid. In this sense, art has the power to be democratic – we may not own it, but we can see it all around us; on mugs, placemats, calendars, and therefore we all have an opinion; we either like it or we don’t. We respond or we do not. And so what if you own a mug with a version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, printed on it? It matters not at all. It is no different than having a large-format, glossy coffee table book featuring works by those artists. In this way – yes, even if seen by some as a little kitsch – art is accessible to all of us.

We are all consumers, whether we like it or not, and the visual arts – however we “consume” them – are a delight. The influence of mass media, culture and popular art forms has been the source of many academic studies in post-WW2 Britain, most notably explored in The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (published 1957), and Ways of Seeing (published 1972), by John Berger. But the celebration of post-war popular culture – in terms of art and design for the home – found its apotheosis in The Festival of Britain, on London’s Southbank, in 1951. Only 6 years after the end of WW2, it was a celebration of design and all that was good about the new wave of British talent, despite a grey and drab Britain still recovering from war, with everything from ceramics to furniture to lighting. It was colourful, it was new wave, it looked to a better, more hopeful future, and it defied the prevailing mood of early 1950s austerity and continued food rationing. It echoed, in its entrepreneurial spirit, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, although the focus in 1851 was very much on empire, and on new technologies. Imagine if we could have a new “Festival of Britain” in 2051, continuing two centuries of home-grown artistic and design innovation. What would feature? Your guess is as good as mine.

Art can be priceless and iconic (we can all picture the Mona Lisa), it can be a proudly tagged piece of teenage graffiti in your local park, or it can be a colourful crayon sketch that your 8-year old has created. But the one thing that unites it all – the essence, if you like, of its importance – is that it is created in an effort to communicate. It speaks to us. It says something to us. This is why art, in all its forms, is important, as it helps define (and seeks to express) the human condition.

Sally Middleton


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