Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

New Jerwood Gallery

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

A Postcard from Hastings

Review of the new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings for AXISweb in . 

photo of the Jerwood Gallery
view of the Jerwood Gallery

The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings is the latest gallery along England’s south coast. Press releases often use a lazy metaphor to describe the line from the Towner at Eastbourne via the De La Warr in nearby Bexhill to the Turner at Margate as a string of pearls. In Hastings it is quite appropriate.

The finance behind the Jerwood Foundation came from John Jerwood who created one of the world’s largest artificial pearl businesses. His school friend and legal advisor Alan Grieve has been involved in the Foundation from 1977 as its first director and chairman.

The Jerwood Gallery is the culmination of the Foundation’s support for the visual arts. Their prizes – for painting, drawing and contemporary makers – have been generous and have subtly shifted since the first painting prize in 1994. That was overtly critical of the Turner Prize and conceptual art and, controversially, was a purchase prize.

The Foundation’s visual arts programme now takes direct action through the prizes and their exhibitions, the Jerwood Space (galleries and rehearsal room) behind Tate Modern and now a home in East Sussex. Their Warwickshire Sculpture Park is due to close.

The Jerwood Gallery opened amidst controversy on 17 March 2012 right on the shore of Hastings Old Town in an historic area known as The Stade. Hastings has the largest beached (as opposed to harbour) fishing fleet in Britain and nets have been stored since the 19th century in distinctive sheds. With the footprint and profile of a beach hut, these black wooden sheds are twice, even four times, that height and fish is sold direct from some by “Boys Ashore”. Standing in rows between Hastings’ cliffs and the sea the sheds look like a mini Manhattan and are such a symbol of Hastings that the introduction of a private, contemporary gallery was seen by many as an intrusion, at best.

Like most wrangles of this kind there are many facets to the story. The Stade is very special and precious but where the Jerwood Gallery stands was previously an ugly parking area. Coaches still drop off tourists so trade for the fish shops and cafés should not lessen but there is certainly much less space for cars. The Jerwood Foundation has paid for a multi-use hall and large café which, together with the gallery, form three sides of a new public outdoor performance space.

All the new buildings are modestly designed to integrate and are covered in dark grey ceramic tiles which glisten or blacken like the sheds as the light changes. The gallery has been designed by HAT Projects, a partnership of two young architects. One, Tom Grieve, is on the board of The Jerwood Foundation and, like Lara Wardle the Foundation’s Director, is an offspring of Alan Grieve so the relationship between architect and client should have worked well.

And so it would appear. All feels serene inside. The interior is divided into top lit ground level exhibition galleries and a series of smaller rooms, upstairs and down, to house the Jerwood’s collection and offer spaces for hire.

The collection is primarily Modern British on a domestic scale and was originally bought by Alan Grieve to decorate the walls of the Foundation’s offices in London. There is a lovely early Ivon Hitchens and two unusual works by Winifred Nicholson and Christopher Wood. The more contemporary examples – Callum Innes, Lisa Milroy and others associated with the Jerwood Painting Prize – are relatively small and more suited to a private house than a public gallery. Hastings likes to celebrate its links with the tranquil Sunday evening TV series Foyle’s War. Foyle’s elegant house is a few minutes’ walk away and he would have felt quite at ease with the permanent collection here.

Rose Wylie’s exhibition is another matter and the choice of artist was astute. She is a celebratory painter, born nearby in Kent in 1934 and much overlooked. These paintings, all from the last decade, are big, bouncy and rambunctious. The summer season’s exhibition will be the Arts Council’s touring show of Gary Hume, followed by the Jerwood Drawing Prize, Gillian Ayres and a local artists’ show.

Some people in Hastings remain cross. It costs £2 for locals to visit the Jerwood Gallery but £7 for tourists; the gallery café can only be reached with an entry ticket. The best landscapes in the gallery are undoubtedly those from two picture windows: one over the roofs of the lovely Old Town; the other over the working beach.

Hastings and its Regency neighbour St Leonard’s, once known as Little Bloomsbury on Sea, need more visitors with money to spend. The many serious artists who have moved to the area hope that more attention will be paid to them by visiting curators and critics. All sorts of groups are hoping that the Jerwood will bring benefits. But if the Foundation’s history is anything to go by, it will always have its own plans.