The Towner Art Gallery

Rating: 4

By Hugh St Clair

Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, founded by Alderman John Towner in the 1920s, is one of the largest public galleries in the south east of England. From an original bequest of 22 pictures, the collection has grown to nearly 5,000 works – with a large range of British 20th-century art including works by Ivon Hitchens, William Nicholson, Christopher Wood, John Piper and Alfred Wallis.

Along with many public art galleries, the Towner has had its government funding cut by a third in the past few years. But director Joe Hill and chairman of the trustees David Dimbleby are doubling down on efforts to attract not only tourists to the South Coast but also locals who love British art.

This month the gallery has decided to open four new exhibitions at once. A new gallery and study room has just been unveiled to show off the extensive collection of the work of Eric Ravilious in the possession of the Towner. The space will show, on rotation, watercolours, wood engravings and ceramics.

Joe Hill has mined the Towner storeroom to mount a display of work spanning the last 100 years. He says he didn’t look at the labels but chose things on first reaction. The exhibition, Figure Study II – the name is taken from a Francis Bacon painting from Hill’s hometown of Batley – is a fascinating glimpse into the variety of British work held by the Towner. No Bacon picture is in the exhibition, but there is a blurred collotype photograph by Richard Hamilton taken from an original photo by Francis Bacon. Sculpture and abstract paintings jostle with portraits by Graham Sutherland and Walter Sickert and landscapes by Clive Mills, John Piper and Harold Mockford.

Artist and photographer Anne Hardy has selected a range of works from the Arts Council collection under the title The Weather Garden. Included are Barry Flanagan’s hessian sacks, Roger Ackling’s impressions burned by sunlight into wood, and a Sarah Lucas sculpture of stuffed tights on a plinth. The fourth exhibition is a video work by Carey Young, who secretly filmed the Palais de Justice in Brussels; the camera pans along corridors, peering through doors and windows at female judges. I found the surreptitious nature of the filming doesn’t achieve an impact or a clear message.

 But that aside, the Towner is to be congratulated for showing such a variety of original and aesthetically pleasing  British artwork from the past 100 years.