The front façade looks much the same, guarded by the artist William Etty. There is a hint of something new at the side with new ceramic rooftop cladding along the façade, but what a welcome surprise to find a stunning collection of modern and contemporary British ceramics as the centrepiece of this refurbished and extended art gallery. Said to be the most representative in the UK, York Art Gallery and museum is home to the Centre of Ceramic Art’s collection of over 5,500 works of over 600 British ceramic artists, including a long-term loan from the collector Anthony Shaw which is arranged as if in two rooms in his home. Not only is a selection of the ceramics by artists such as Grayson Perry, Gordon Baldwin, Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie on display in the first floor galleries, but they are cleverly intertwined in with the older paintings elsewhere so that a ceramic jug showing the Madonna and Child sits alongside historic works of a similar representation.
At the centre of the main gallery is an installation of 10,000 bowls by the artist Clare Twomey to celebrate the ceramic collection and its new home – each bowl takes around an hour to make and the 10,000 hours represents the time it is said to become a master craftsman.
This mixing of the old and the new continues throughout, for example a modern digital portrait of HM the Queen by Chris Levine is surrounded by four older paintings of other ladies.
Originally created to provide a permanent building for the second Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1879, it came under the wing of York City Council in 1892 when it became the City Art Gallery. Architects Simpson and Brown, working with Ushida Findlay Architects, have stripped out the 20th century alterations which concealed the historic qualities of the building for the sake of modern gallery environments, celebrated the character of the old building and breathing new life into it with sympathetic new extensions and a first floor terrace that leads to new gardens connecting through to Museum Gardens and the River Ouse.
Elsewhere in the building is a new café, a project room which currently shows projects from local schools, carried out while the Art Gallery was closed and inspired by Lowry’s painting of the historic Clifford’s Tower which is on display alongside other representations of York in the Marsden Galleries.
The Lumber Room is an installation by the artist Mark Hearld, having rummaged in the attics and stores of the York museums and gallery to find objects of interest, which he has curated and supplemented with his own work and, with a high proportion of ceramics, links creatively across to the adjacent ceramic galleries.
“An outsized Staffordshire jug; dappled horses from a disbanded carousel; a flight of Victorian capes and resplendent military jackets all bring form and colour to the space. Animals, always a love of mine, abound. The painting Falcon by an Unknown Artist dating from 1677, a fragment of a much larger canvas that is as beautiful as it is enigmatic. A shoal of river fish, caught at the turn of the nineteenth century and a golden seahorse are among the treasures.” (Mark Hearld)
At only £8 million, this is a refurbishment which has given the Art Gallery and its collections a new lease of life and an art gallery which, at last, the citizens of York can justly be proud of.