Over the last three years we’ve been working on rehanging the collection so that it’s more introductory, more open, and takes you from the very beginning of the collection right through to the end. You can see yourself walking through time. We actually have dates on the floor so you see how you walk from 1660 to 1670 and so on, right through to now. Because we’ve used chronology very simply and very straightforwardly, you see how things happen at the same time, and often quite different things happen at the same time.
We’re in the room which is devoted to the very early twentieth century and I think this is a very good room for showing what we’re able to do in terms of the chronological circuit because we can put things which normally would get separated, the old and the new, the Victorian and the modern. This sculpture always used to get put in the late Victorian sculpture displays but actually it’s from 1908 so it’s very much early twentieth century and it’s very much the same period as the works in the corner by Eric Gill and by Gwen John.
This was a pairing which Chris Stevens and I worked out and we were very pleased to put them together, not just because they’re pretty much the same year but also because you have that sense of the naked body. The naked body alone and the naked body in unison and the combination of putting a painting next to a sculpture and finding that they have actually quite a lot to say to each other. They’re both very emaciated and very thin and there’s a kind of surface sense of them being quite close to you.
Gwen John was the sister of Augustus John, who was a very flamboyant and successful society painter. She lived a much more isolated life. Went to Paris, had a very tragic affair with Rodin and ended up in an asylum. If you’re a female viewer and looking at the Gwen John, I think it’s hard not to feel some kind of sense of empathy and the sense of loneliness which that painting exudes.
I think in this room you begin to get a sense of the politics and perhaps partly because it’s closer in time to us, so we’re in Thatcher’s Britain at this time and artists are beginning to speak about the things that are troubling them. I think these work really nicely together in different ways. You have that sense of oppression. This is a work by Mona Hatoum down here, which is on the floor, which just expresses really strongly the idea of someone being oppressed, being bound by the force of time, by the baggage that they carry with them. This kind of sense of slavery or shackledom.
Next to that is a work by Sonia Boyce, which again is speaking about the position of a young black woman in Britain in 1985 and the relationship between politics and religion. This is a work that’s very carefully drawn in crayon, rather like a child’s drawing. I think this makes a really interesting connection with this work through here.
This is a famous work by Richard Hamilton which talks about the troubles in Ireland and about the protests in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland and that sense again of this Christ-like figure. It seems to link both to the religious questions in Sonia Boyce but also to the Mona Hatoum and the idea of the missionary, or the pilgrim. This Christ-like figure has no shoes, the bare feet, the basic way in which he’s wrapped and these dirty protests in which prisoners in the Maze prison smeared their own excrement on the prison walls to protest against the oppression of the British Government.