Life of Fry: 30 years showcasing the finest art work of North West Essex

PUBLISHED: 08:51 30 March 2015 | UPDATED: 08:51 30 March 2015

Fry Art Gallery Society trustee Tony White and chairman David Oelman.

Fry Art Gallery Society trustee Tony White and chairman David Oelman.

Archant

Tucked away in an unobtrusive passageway in Saffron Walden lies the Fry Art Gallery, home to the most comprehensive collection of north west Essex artists in existence.

Eric Ravilious: Two women sitting in a garden, watercolour, 1933Eric Ravilious: Two women sitting in a garden, watercolour, 1933

It was 30 years ago that a society formed to save the building of the former Gibson Gallery and showcase the work of the Great Bardfield Artists.

“That collection has grown almost beyond our imagination,” Iris Weaver told the Reporter. Along with her husband Nigel Weaver and Olive Cook, Iris was a founding member of the group which refurbished and reopened the Castle Street gallery in 1987.

“Not only has it grown in numbers and quality, the country has taken these artists to its heart.”

Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious were at the heart of the community of artists who would later become known as the Great Bardfield Artists. Friends from the Royal Academy of Arts, they came across an imposing Georgian house in the village when cycling there in the 1920s.

The Brick House became not only a subject of their works but a place of residence, when the pair let out half of the house in the 1920s for holidays and visits, before Bawden moved in with his wife in the 1930s and settled there permanently until 1970. Bawden – now acknowledged as the master of the linocut – was also an illustrator and painter, producing murals, posters, wallpaper designs, ceramics, lithographic prints and watercolours.

Many of his subjects are iconic English locations, such as his 1961 linocut Liverpool Street Station, or Brighton Pier (1977).

“I like their marvellous Englishness,” said Iris of the artists on display. “Their design sense is just amazing and it’s still very fresh now. They are just exceptional.”

Indeed, the collection is remarkable for the breadth of mediums and styles employed. Alongside Bawden’s famous linocuts, book covers and prints are Ravilious’ iconic ceramics, precise woodcuts and lithographs, the avant-garde works of Michael Rothenstein RA, Marianne Straub’s sumptuous textile designs and the abstract landscapes of Keith Vaughan.

Visitors will also be able to enjoy the centenary exhibition of Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997) in the collection’s 30th year. Rowntree, who lived from 1942 to 1949 in Great Bardfield, was one of 60 artists commissioned by the government to record the face of England between 1940-1943 in a project known as ‘Recording Britain’. He concentrated on capturing the essential character of old buildings and interiors in Essex, as well as Bedfordshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Wales.

Amazingly, the collection has managed to keep growing in reputation and quality, despite receiving no regular funding. There are 100 volunteers and a committee of 16 involved in the running of the gallery, which runs an annual sale in November.

The concentration and depth of the collection is a constant surprise, even to those who know its contents intimately. The words of former Bardfield inhabitant Grayson Perry, whose Whore of Essex features prominently above entrance, sum up its impact well.

“The Fry Gallery is a concentrated burst of loveliness, a shrine to the art of my home county,” wrote the Turner Prize winner following a visit to the gallery in 2012.

Admission to the Gallery is free. ‘From Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry’ opens next Sunday, April 5 and runs until October 25.

‘Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997): A centenary exhibition is open from April 5 – July 12. A third exhibition, ‘The Art of Acquisition - Looking at the Artists Houses’, will run from July 26 – October 25. The Gallery is open from 2-5pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 11am-5pm on Saturdays and 2.15pm-5pm on Sundays and bank holidays.

For more information go to fryartgallery.org or call 01799 51377.

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