In March I was back in Bath – just shy of 10 years after my first visit. We (my mother, her best friend, and her best friend’s sister) visited the Jane Austen Centre, the famed Roman Baths, enjoyed afternoon tea in the pump room, and popped our heads into the surrounding gift shops. The tea, the cakes, the rain, the sun, the architecture, more rain, more sun. It was a pretty (typical) day in England.
After hitting up several of the more common tourist spots, we found ourselves with time before our dinner reservations at Sally Lunn’s Buns – one of the oldest pubs still standing in England – and the play we were attending later that evening. I pulled out my phone to search for the next-nearest attraction and found the Victoria Art Gallery, only a few minutes walk from the Bath Abbey.
The Victoria Art Gallery, established in 1900, is an impressive old building attached to the Guildhall, near the Pulteney Bridge, and along the River Avon. For reference, you enter on the corner of the street. I mistook a rather large and official-looking side door with an “open” button that set off an alarm for the entrance, emitting a sound like a truck backing up – a very loud ADA accessible way to enter a room it turns out. 10/10 would not recommend if you don’t need to.
Admission is free, except for whatever rotating featured exhibition is on display (also where the first door led to, turns out). While we were there, the Victoria Art was showing a photography exhibit on war called "Incite," and something no one besides me wanted to pay to see, especially with limited time. The main free gallery is found just up a grand staircase. The room is laid out like a timeline: starting on the right and following the room back to the entrance, displaying centuries of artists and styles through time – many of whom were from, inspired by, or worked in, Bath.
Three pieces that caught my eye – in order of oldest to most recent – were: “Death of Cleopatra” by Benedetto Gennari, 1686; “Canal Bridge, Sydney Gardens, Bath” by John Nash, 1927; and “The River Bank (Ophelia)” by David Inshaw, 1980.
The “Death of Cleopatra” painting’s most obvious characteristic is the naked woman portraying Cleopatra. For me, it was the fact that she is painted white. I found it beautifully painted and farcical: an identity erasure wrapped in beauty. As it turns out, the painter, Gennari, was a conservative religious person and most of his work did not feature nudity, but after being tempted with a stipend from King Charles II, painted this work:
It was only when a researcher came across an certificate on the back of this work that she connected the artist to Sir Francis Gwyn, a politician and womaniser.
It transpires that the painting was given to Sir Francis as a tactical gift by Gennari, in the hope of pleasing the lothario with its female sensuality.
It’s almost as if he adhered to his morals in painting such a scandal. Unfortunately for him, the stipend never materialized after completing the work.
Unlike Gennari, John Nash was “primarily a landscape painter. He had a great love for nature, and concentrated on painting natural subjects throughout his career. Nash was the brother of Paul Nash, a more celebrated artist, but Paul encouraged and supported John throughout his life.” John Nash’s canal painting is quite simple in subject, yet resonated with me for two reasons: the bridge being shown reminded me of the nearby Pulteney Bridge (from a pre-modern era), and the level of depth built into the painting. The lines are not sharp, yet the reflections, the shadows, drew me deep into the canal. Under the shade of the trees, and under the bridge. The direction and soft focus I found intriguing.
Almost at the end of the room, hangs David Inshaw’s rendition of the tragic Ophelia – it is one of the larger pieces in the gallery and my favorite of the gallery. My eyes were drawn to the bright red hat of the woman running away, and the slightly-subdued red hair of Ophelia washing up on shore. Everything else in the painting seems bright, green, and manicured, while the river that is Ophelia’s temporary grave is muddy, messy, and dark. The style of painting appears less like a real depth of landscape, and more like staggered slices of a cake, or layers of earth, each piece holding unique life. Worms and sugar. His other works can be seen in many other galleries, including “the Arts Council of Great Britain, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, the British Council, the Royal West of England Academy, Tate Britain and Wiltshire Museum.”
I found myself stuck on Ophelia. The style felt both modern and part of the past. In that way, the painting reminded me of Bath itself, and the maze-like garden something also akin to Alice in Wonderland. A mixing of old and new, fantasy and history. While looking over the painting, the docent at the entrance asked me a question from a few feet away, gaining my attention as I waited for the others to catch up. He began to wax eloquent on the painting, sharing insightful tips, pointing out subtle features in the muddy river, yet also trying to get my opinion. It was a nice change from being told what a painting was or wasn’t, and felt like more of a conversation, with a person full of stories.
If you ever find yourself in Bath, take a moment to explore the Victoria Art Gallery. There are pieces of time for just about everyone to enjoy. Like the city outside, the art inside is a map of the past meeting modern. History welcoming you.
PS: You can read about seeing “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time” that same evening at an old old theater in Bath here.