Leeds Picture Library - the innovative scheme that makes art accessible to everyone

Jane, Pete, Maisie and Joe Zanzottera (and Jigsaw the cat) with their borrowed artwork, Common Chimp

Jane, Pete, Maisie and Joe Zanzottera (and Jigsaw the cat) with their borrowed artwork, Common Chimpanzee, Plains Zebra, Walrus and Wildebeest Mounts by Sara Porter - Credit: Archant

Like a lot of great art, the true beauty of Leeds Picture Library is its simplicity. It’s open to anyone who lives in Yorkshire; you simply have to register, pay a small subscription (£16 a quarter or £48 a year) and then take your pick from around 1,000 artworks at quarterly selection weekends or via a catalogue in Leeds Art Gallery’s gift shop.

And that’s it. One day all you’ve got on your wall is dodgy magnolia and a nasty stain, and the next you have a Hockney or a Lowry.

We’ve spoken to three people who play integral roles in the scheme: the curator, an artist and a borrower (an artwork lendee, not a small person who lives under the floorboards). Although, to be honest, the curator and artist are borrowers too – how could they resist when the choice is so tempting?

The curator

Theodore Wilkins is happy to take his work home with him. As curator of Leeds Picture Library, he has the chance to study the collection quite closely – but that doesn’t mean his choices always go down well with his partner, Natalie.

‘The scheme began in the 1960s which, of course, was quite an optimistic time. Other places – Wakefield and Bradford, for instance – offered similar schemes but, while others faded away, ours fell out of fashion for a time then came back stronger than ever.

‘It’s quite an unwieldy scheme to deliver but it seems more relevant than ever before. I think art today is incredibly accessible. There are more documentaries on television, discussions on the radio, talks by artists and more people are visiting art galleries. There is, generally, a really broad understanding of art.

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‘Buying art can be quite daunting, but borrowing is different. It gives you the freedom to explore and try things out without having to make a heavy investment. And if you do discover you’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t matter too much because you can swap it again in three months’ time.

‘Art really changes spaces and makes an impact. It changes the conversation at home. I want people to find the experience enjoyable and challenging and perhaps a little perception changing. It’s rare that we get to spend time with an artwork. In a gallery, it’s a fleeting moment. Encountering the same piece over several days, weeks and months is much more satisfying.

‘I currently have a work by Royal Academician Paul Huxley at home; an abstract made of jostling triangles, which, thankfully, my partner likes. Occasionally, however, she’s found my choices quite disagreeable. I took home a lithograph by Graham Sutherland that was pretty bleak, with fallen trees that were twisted and mangled and looked like human forms. I thought it was interesting but I think, perhaps, it was little dark for her tastes.’

The artist

Print-maker Helen Peyton, based in the Dales where she’s artist-in-residence at Craven Museum & Gallery, is thrilled that her work is in the Picture Library’s collection alongside the likes of Hockney, Goya and Hepworth – and even more thrilled that ordinary people are spending quality time with extraordinary art.

‘I first became involved when Grassington Festival asked the picture lending library to take part. I’m not sure many people were aware of its existence outside Leeds, so it was great they made the effort to come to us. The curator spotted my work at the festival and asked if I’d like to be involved as an artist.

‘I’ve also started borrowing pictures too. I’ve currently got two artworks at home – a Victor Pasmore and a Jean Cocteau – but I’ve had a Matisse and a Picasso in the past. It’s great for dinner parties; you can casually drop your Picasso into the conversation.

‘At first I went for big names, but now I tend to choose work that challenges me. I don’t go for something immediately pleasing as that can soon pass. I borrowed a Matisse, for instance, and rapidly realised I didn’t actually like it. I also borrowed a Goya that was so brutal I felt I was living in a very dark – but interesting – place for three months.

‘I know I work in an industry that doesn’t have a function as such. Sometimes I wish I grew grain or baked bread – something practical and functional. But I also know that art is vital. It gives us a chance to think and meditate on what it is to be human. Bringing art into your home adds a new level of creativity. I think, on a very important level, it makes us better people.

‘But even if you’re just borrowing a picture because it matches your furniture, that’s OK. I like this scheme because there are no rules or judgements. No one tells you which book to read in a library and the same principle applies here.’

The borrower

Jane Zanzottera has subscribed to Leeds Picture Library for three years and takes it in turns with her husband Pete and children Maisie, 12, and Joe, nine, to choose which artworks adorn the walls of their home in Armley, Leeds.

‘We don’t discuss our choices and there’s no veto available – we always take home whatever is chosen. It’s very empowering, especially for the children. What they pick might not be what I might pick, but we don’t have to live with it forever. It’s a short-term relationship.

‘We tend to put the picture in our living room – our shared space – so we can all get something out of it. If nothing else, it’s always a starting point for discussion.

‘Children’s choices are always surprising. My son, for instance, once chose an oil painting of a clown which he was just drawn to for some reason. It’s not about the name of the artist for us, we just choose what we like.

‘I hate to admit it but we probably wouldn’t go to the gallery as often if not for the picture lending experience. It’s something that our family does together. It also makes choosing art feel accessible. It demystifies it and makes it about passion, not money.

‘There’s still a perception that art is not for ordinary people, but this completely disproves that. Art is for everyone.’ n

:: If you would like to find out more about Leeds Picture Library, visit thepicturelibrary.org or call in at Leeds Art Gallery on The Headrow. The next selection weekend is April 25th and 26th.