Behind the scenes of the Masterstrokes exhibition at the Preston’s Harris Museum

Phil Yates, Matt Yates (M&G Transport and Technical Services) and Mark Fox (Harris Technician) hangi

Phil Yates, Matt Yates (M&G Transport and Technical Services) and Mark Fox (Harris Technician) hanging a painting - Credit: Archant

A collection of 33 exceptional paintings have crossed the Pennines to form a must-see exhibition in Preston. Martin Pilkington went to the unveiling

Most of us have attended art exhibitions. We naturally focus on the pieces on show, unaware of all the effort needed before the doors open. An invitation from Preston’s Harris Gallery to witness such preparations was intriguing.

‘People don’t think about basic things like the need to repaint a gallery for a particular exhibition, to make the most of what goes into the space,’ says Alex Walker, Head of Arts and Heritage. We stand amid scaffolding, paint-pots and wiring, the work between shows not a Hirst installation.

Development Manager Hilary Machell is delighted about the exhibition we are discussing, Masterstrokes, conistsing of 33 pictures from York Gallery touring while their home is out of commission. ‘Preston is the only place this side of the Pennines where the pictures from York are being shown during their two year closure.’

Alex Walker adds: ‘It isn’t a man with a van who moves the works! There are specialist companies who do this – in unmarked trucks given the load they carry. They are temperature and humidity controlled, and sprung to protect their cargo. We will use a specialist company to hang some of the works – there are special skills needed in handling some of the pieces.’

Hilary adds: ‘As regards preparation, beforehand people from York check our standard of care and security, look at the gallery and the conditions here – we have data-loggers all over the galleries that record the temperature, humidity, and in some case the light levels.’

When the pictures arrive what were black walls are now deep blue and a beautiful rich red. Mark Fox, a technician at the Harris, says that needed three coats – some 40 litres of red required. As he helps Matt Yates from M&G Museum and Gallery Technical Services unpack the hermetically sealed pictures from their custom-built cases he explains that they must acclimatise for three days, so any environmental changes will not shock them.

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Jenny Alexander, York’s Assistant Curator of Fine Art, the Harris’s Lindsey McCormick who is curating the exhibition, and trainee Kathryn Rogerson pore over each picture delicately placed by Matt in his surgical gloves on a felt-covered table. ‘We have to do detailed condition reports on every painting, just looking for any changes – scratches, or any paint issues,’ says Jenny. ‘The pictures are touring six venues so we have to keep a close eye on them for any signs of damage.’

Once inspected, a picture is carried to where it will hang, resting against the wall on thick foam blocks. Unpacking and inspection will take two days, then what the curators call the hang needs another two. Time is tight, with the preview four days hence.

But this is just one stage in a process that began many months ago as Lindsey explains: ‘York came to us quite early in the year and we talked about the timings and worked through that. Then once the formalities were sorted out – all the paperwork we need to go through for this type of event – I and some colleagues looked at the works at the previous venue in Lincoln.’

That visit helped them decide on how to group the pictures. ‘We have four themes – still life, narrative themed paintings, a lovely selection of portraits, and landscapes. The nice thing is we can, for instance, juxtapose some early Dutch paintings alongside 20th century ones.’

The exhibition includes works of types absent from the Harris’s collection, like a 15th century religious panel-painting and an early Elizabethan portrait. But it also throws new light on pieces they do possess. ‘We have in several cases works by artists in this collection, so it’s nice to get those as points of comparison,’ says Lindsey. One such is Clifford’s Tower by Lowry, very different from his mill scene at the Harris.

An adjoining room is being readied for various hands-on activities. ‘We are calling it “the artists’ studio” – it’s an opportunity for visitors to create their own masterpiece, sketch and draw and be inspired by the paintings from York. Families will be able to come and have a go at creating their own still life for example,’ says Lindsey.

She is still to decide on whether the vast roof-light will have a grey blind or a darker one – artists need light, but seepage into the main gallery could be a problem for viewing – and the pictures. The light on each picture will be checked and adjusted to a set level before the preview.

When the exhibition that began in early September closes on November 30 the work begins anew for curators and technicians removing these beautiful works by painters from Hockney to Hogarth. And spare a thought for those other painters: Mark Fox estimates his colleagues will need four coats to return the red walls to white.

Masterstrokes: Great Paintings from York Art Gallery is at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Market Square Preston until November 30.

Exhibition Tours and Talks

September 26 1-1.40pm: Matthew Smith and other 20th century works in York’s collection

October 17: Faces through the Ages - Portraits from York’s collection

October 24 1pm: Masterstrokes Talk by Jennifer Alexander, Assistant Curator of Fine Art, York Art Gallery [Free event – booking essential]

November 16: Still Life - Ordinary objects? Symbols and Meaning

November 28: Religious and Narrative paintings in York’s collection

Family Events and Workshops

October 26, 1.30-3.30pm: Hands On, drop in

October 30 1.30-3.30pm: Big Draw event, drop in

November 15 2.00-4.00pm: Still Life workshop

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