So modern at 70

The Norwich 20 Group exhibition at the Theatre Royal which celebrates 70 years since it's founding.

The Norwich 20 Group exhibition at the Theatre Royal which celebrates 70 years since it's founding. . PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

Aghast at the public outcry against a touring modern art exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum in 1944, a group of artists gathered in a city pub to discuss ways to promote understanding of the largely unrecognised movement.

It heralded the start of Norwich 20, a pioneering group of contemporary modern artists – and now, 70 years on it is marking the anniversary with a host of fantastic exhibitions and events.

The group is no longer limited to 20, with more than 80 members across Norfolk representing a huge variety of styles and practices, but its core principles remain the same.

Chairman and artist Julia Sorrell says that the exhibitions are a fantastic way to not only celebrate the work of current members, but also to learn more about its history and connect with the local community.

“It was the brainchild of art teacher Walter Watling. When the modern art exhibition arrived in Norwich it would have been a really big deal. Norfolk was quite traditional at the time so it would not have been easily accepted.

“The artists wanted to counteract that negativity and show how fantastic modern art could be. By the following year, they had a constitution and a name and the Norwich 20 group was born.”

She says the original idea of the group was to create a forum for discussion, where people could talk about art, critique work and seek inspiration, and that ideal has continued today with meetings every month.

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“Some of the people who were there in the early days during the 1960s are still active today. So it must be really interesting for them to see all the changes that have happened, both within the society, and also in terms of modern art generally,” she says.

There are three major exhibitions in Norwich in March, at the Theatre Royal, The Forum and The Undercroft, and all offer a different perspective of the group’s work – including paintings, drawing, photography, textiles, sculpture and print. There is also a further exhibition at the Bridewell Museum curated by Clotilde Wang, which will also tell the history of the society.

“There is some amazing work to see, we have a pistol showing butterflies being fired from it and another artist who has mixed mud with printed materials to great effect. There are also more traditional drawings and paintings, and of course sculptures. It is incredibly diverse and the artists cover a wide age range.”

Over the years, members have included nationally known artists such as Michael Andrews, Bernard Reynolds, Jeffrey Camp and Mary Newcomb – who was famous for her visionary ruralist paintings and whose work, which once sold at exhibitions for around £20, can now change hands for five figure sums.

See the Norwich 20 exhibitions at Norwich Theatre Royal, now until April 23, 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday; The Forum, Norwich, March 17 to March 31; The Undercroft, Norwich Market, March 17 to March 31; The Bridewell Museum, March 18 to May 24;