Islington on Canvas: Islington Museum’s new exhibition recalls borough’s lost buildings – and green space
- Credit: Archant
A new exhibition at Islington Museum celebrates the borough’s rich art heritage. Curator Mark Aston tells the Gazette that without these paintings, there would be massive gaps in our history.
A few days ago, a property company tagged the Gazette’s Twitter account in a garbage PR post that concluded: “Islington has still managed to maintain its traditional village feel.”
Islington in 2017 is many things, but a village is not one of them. It might be more accurate, though, if you were to go back 200 years – as a new exhibition at Islington Museum in St John Street shows.
The exhibition, called “Islington on Canvas”, features original oil paintings from the council’s archives.
One of the most fascinating is a piece by William Westall, circa 1840, of Archway Road. It’s far removed from today’s scene. There are no double-decker buses doing uncomfortable U-turns in a dual carriageway, for a start. The backdrop is also dominated by trees.
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Right at the back, you notice a bridge. It’s the Highgate Archway, built in 1813 and later to become Archway Bridge. At the front is a tollhouse, which stands on the site currently occupied by the shell of the Archway Tavern.
Museum manager Mark Aston, who curated the exhibition, explains why works like Westall’s are so vital to Islington’s heritage.
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“In the days before photography, some of these artists’ snapshots have become incredibly important in telling us what Islington was like.
“Some of the buildings shown in this exhibition are long gone, like the Whittington Almshouses in Westall’s work. This makes the paintings very valuable.”
The exhibition, which opens today, also features paintings and artefacts from famous artists such as Walter Richard Sickert and Geoffrey Fletcher.
“Artists like Fletcher and Vera Skinner painted pieces important to them,” Mark adds. “Fletcher was incredibly prolific in the ’60s. He recorded buildings about to come down, or ones he felt would be lost in the future.”
The exhibition’s paintings are rich in variety, from George Belton Moore’s depiction of Sadler’s Wells, also in about 1840 (before Rosebery Avenue existed), to Roger Fry’s 1926 painting of a garden at 7, Dalmeny Avenue, Holloway.
Mark says a reason for this diversity is because Islington in the 1800s and 1900s was an artist-friendly zone: “It had a lot to offer artists. Islington was a relatively cheap place to live in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it was place of great contrast, which artists are always drawn to.
“In the 19th century, the south was relatively built up, whereas north of Highbury Corner was very rural. It wasn’t Belgravia or Mayfair, but it was a nice place for artists to live.
“The 20th century was the same, especially post war. The artists loved the run-down facades, when parts of Islington had become shabby. It was something to record before the gentrification started in the ’80s.”
The exhibition runs until February 24 next year. It has been backed by Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Islington’s community development leader, who said: “The exhibition also brings to light some very skilled – but perhaps not as well-known – artists, and introduces them to a wider audience. It’s a celebration of Islington’s very strong tradition of art and culture at all levels.”
Mark adds: “One of the paintings in the exhibition is by Arthur Hickman-Smith. He started Islington Art Circle in 1941, simply because he was sick of all the bombs in the Second World War. It just goes to show, art comes to the rescue.
“We’re really proud to have these pieces. There’s something relaxing about looking at them, and they tell an important part of Islington’s history.”
The museum has also organised two guided history walks around Islington, telling the stories behind paintings in the exhibitiion. The free tours take place on January 13 and January 27. To book a place, visit bit.ly/2iniw8G