Observations on culture in a small town

Growing up in Nuneaton in the 1970’s and 80’s there wasn’t much by way of visual culture, so the paintings I did notice made more of an impact on my young mind. There are 2 pictures I really remember from those days, one was a painting in the town’s small Museum and Art Gallery and the other was a print of a painting on the wall in the corridor outside my Maths class in Secondary school.

The first painting impressed me due to its sheer size – it is about 2 1/2 metres by 3 metres and it was by far the biggest picture I had seen. It is called ‘Before the Deluge’ and is by the Flemish born artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639).  It still hangs in the Museum and Art Gallery. When I went back there for a visit (May 2018) looking at it for the first time in many many years, it brought back so many memories of my childhood. Although I didn’t really like the style of the work when I was young (and still don’t) I did like the skill used to make such a large piece. Also the detail in the picture means you get drawn into looking at it for a long time. The other paintings in the Museum’s collection were small portraits of local dignitaries and landscapes and even though they were not bad paintings, they did not impress as much as this large ambitious picture.

The second picture which I just loved and still do, was much smaller. I saw it nearly every day for 4 years, but never found out who the artist was until I was in college. No internet to ask in those days! The reason I liked this painting was because the woman in it was someone like the people I knew. A humble servant doing a mundane task, who the artist still felt worthy of recording in paint. The woman was not pretty, not dressed in fine clothes, but she was painted with sensitivity and a lightness of touch. A couple of years after I had left college I saw this painting and others by the same artist in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and I was just blown away by their exquisite beauty, even though the subjects were ordinary, everyday places and people. They have an air of mystery, who were they, what did they think, feel, what did they do when not in the pictures? I think I’m not the only one who reacts to these paintings in this way! The paintings of this artist are now very well known, even though not a great deal is known about him or his life. Of course, the painting which I am referring to is ‘The Milkmaid’ (circa 1660) by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

When I did get to study Art full-time, we did Art History and I finally got to discover many, many more artists. As I read the ‘Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer at that time as well, I also discovered feminism – all things combined it was a great deal for an adolescent brain to take in!