THE SOCIETY WAS FOUNDED IN 1929, by Mrs J M Bull, as the Worthing and District Sketch Club, Initially there were 30 members. The name may have changed and membership increased but, 90 years later, the Society has retained its aims to build an artistic community in West Sussex and to provide a place for professional, semi-professional and amateur artists to attend artists’ talks, lectures and workshops in the company of like-minded people.
The Society own an archive of old catalogues, books of the minutes taken at committee meetings and programme leaflets which allow us to peak into the past to discover more about the history of the West Sussex Art Society. While there are not that many photographs, there are some faded newspaper cuttings that illustrate the genre of artwork that was most popular in those early days.
This is the earliest book of minutes that we have, starting in 1929. From the first entry we know that an offer had been received from Miss Lambourn’s Secretarial Training College to provide a secretary for the club. Miss Lambourn also offered a room at her college at 13 Heene Terrace in Worthing for club meetings. At that first recorded meeting of the committee a proposal was made by Miss Bloomer that ‘a small class should be formed to work from a model’ and Mr Watts offered his studio in Grafton Road for the purpose, at a cost of 5 shillings (or 5 shillings 6 pence to include gas fire). A Life Drawing class was arranged for January 1930, and this continued to be held at the studio on a monthly basis. The model was paid nine pence per hour.
The first exhibition was held in September 1930 for four days. Several venues were considered and the club finally decided on an ups
tairs room at Barnes’ café in The Arcade ‘where the cost of the room would be 15 shillings a day’.
It is interesting to read of the mundane matters discussed in relation to the exhibition, such as how and where to place the exhibition labels, how many picture hooks would be needed and the wording that should be used on the exhibition invites. Not much has changed. These issues are still discussed at committee meetings.
In July 1930 the Chairman read ‘a letter from Miss Lambourn, wherein she asked the members to discuss in committee, the question of charging for the use of her room for meetings’. The following month, and for the next 2 years, meetings of the Sketch Club were held in The Studio in Grafton Road.
In addition to the monthly life drawing sessions it was also decided to arrange outdoor sketching trips each month. In 1930 the club met at a variety of local sites including High Salvington chalk pits, the inside of Sompting church, the Forge at Storrington, Clapham, Tarring and Angmering. Local artists would then be invited to critique the life drawings and landscape sketches produced by club members. This pattern of sketching and criticism continued for many years.
In 1932 it was suggested by Miss Woodward that the club should adjourn each Thursday to Mitchell’s for tea, as she felt that owing to the length of meetings, new members had no opportunity for getting to know other members in the group.
By 1934 the Worthing and District Sketch Club were holding their exhibitions in The Old Town Hall. A reporter from The Sussex Daily News was very complimentary about the exhibition, writing ‘the Club is to be congratulated on the excellence of the exhibits and the townspeople should take an opportunity of seeing it’. However he described the venue as ‘entirely unsuitable’. It was indeed very cramped. He continued ‘they ought to have had the use of the Public Art Gallery’ . . . ‘it is to be hoped the club will receive consideration from the Town Council’.
This is the earliest catalogue in the archive, from September 1934.
The following year, in 1935, the club again had the use of the Old Town Hall. This photograph, which appeared in the newspaper, shows two connoisseurs of the arts visiting the Club’s exhibition.
The following year, in 1936, the Mayor, Alderman Tree, who opened the club’s exhibition in May, confessed that he too was an artist in his younger days. He complimented the club on the quality of the work. The newspaper reporter was still hoping that the council ‘might do the graceful thing’, and offer the club the use of the Public Art Gallery.
By 1939 the club had changed its name to the ‘West Sussex Art Club’ but it was still exhibiting in the Old Town Hall, with paintings hung ‘a few inches from the floor’. Again the newspaper report stated ‘Why the Public Art Gallery is not placed at the disposal of this lamented company of artists might form an interesting question for the Town Council’.
In that same year it is worth noting that three of the members, Mrs Randell, Mrs Carr and Miss Hancock all had paintings hanging in the Royal Academy Exhibition.
No doubt to the great relief of the journalist from the Sussex Daily News, the Club were indeed offered the Public Art Gallery, although not until 1943. This would be the first of many exhibitions that the West Sussex Art Club, later named the West Sussex Art Society, would hold at this venue.
Meetings carried on throughout World War II and it seems curious that there is little mention of it. The Secretary’s report for 1939 to 1940 states, ‘In spite of war conditions the club has carried on’. At least two exhibitions took place during that time and the minute book records members with a military background, Major H J Cheetham OBE and Colonel C de V Duff.
In the exhibitions of 1947 and 1948 views of Sussex were proving a popular subject. However some artists were thinking outside the box. The newspaper reports ‘Food for thought is given by R D Keyworth’s “Japanese idea of John Bull, life size and 43 years old” complete with bottle of rice wine’. It was priced at 15 guineas.
In a report on the 1950 exhibition, the journalist, rather unkindly divides the exhibitors into ‘nobility’ and ‘commoners’. Of the nobility he mentions the president of the club C A Morris, stating that he ‘contributes work of a standard sufficiently high to make the ordinary members puff a bit in their effort to keep up the pace’. He describes Morris’ water-colour, A Shoreham Backwater as being ‘delightful and makes one fairly itch to drop a stone into the shallows’.
This photograph is from 1951 and shows Mr Briggs and his sister visiting the exhibition. Mr Briggs had three paintings on show. One was priced at 12 guineas, one at 10 guineas and the third at 12 pounds 10 shillings. Unfortunately none appear to have sold although the club did sell 8 that year.
The exhibitions during this period produced many complimentary reviews. R T Hodges-Paul wrote a glowing report on the exhibition of 1958 choosing to single out this café scene by Margary Labram. She was quite a well-known artist in the town, in particular for painting the murals in the Wine Lodge on the seafront.
R T Hodges-Paul also identified this portrait for special praise, referencing ‘the bold lighting, vigorous brushwork and strong colour’. The portrait, ‘Gina’ is by Jan Korwin, a radiographer at Southlands Hospital.
Mr Claude Muncaster opened the exhibition that year and perhaps in an effort to be topical, his opening speech drew everyone’s attention to the communist threat and the controversial artwork of Graham Sutherland. Mentioning Communist infiltration, he stated ‘When we look into the art world we now see this same infiltration. When we see it we should do something about it if we can’. He fails to mention just what people should do.
Despite praise from R T Hodges-Paul, by the 1960s the Club discovered in him, a critic who didn’t pull his punches. In the Herald, in 1961 he wrote that while admitting ‘the level of technical skill is, of course, remarkably high’, he longed for ‘something other than the picturesque corner of the fishing village, the oft recorded beauty spot and the bunch of flowers straight from the garden. Oh for an artistic rebel of some kind!’
The following year, in 1962 the exhibition headline stated ‘An exhibition that pleases but does not startle’. In 1964 the report said ‘There are too many “pretty pretty” views and too few adventures in colour and line. Only a few of the members have ventured beyond the conventional scene’. In 1965 not much had changed. While ‘a high degree of competence is immediately evident . . . . one could hardly say there were many (or any) daring spirits in the club who like to experiment. No one chances his arm, or brush, on anything remotely off-beat’.
It is to the credit of the Club that they kept these newspaper cuttings, which were often far from complimentary.
Despite giving very mixed reviews, throughout the 60s, and occasionally commenting favourably on a limited number of artworks, by 1973, in The Herald, R T Hodges-Paul was thankfully full of praise again, stating that ‘with this exhibition ‘the club has reached a new level of vitality and individual quality far exceeding previous occasions’. He continued, ‘Broad in it’s spectrum of artistic styles, from pure abstraction to strong naturalism and with an underlying appreciation of the nature of creativity and painterliness, one cannot imagine that any other similar art clubs would be able to put on a better show. High Praise? Yes – and deserved when one looks back to the doldrum years, when endless “Sompting Church” and “Houghton Bridges” dominated the walls’.
The West Sussex Art Club continued throughout the remainder of the 20th century holding an annual exhibition, producing catalogues every year, such as this one from 1985.
From the 1980s onwards, no press cuttings have been saved and the ‘minutes’ consist of discussions about future exhibitions, choice of speakers and general committee business. The handwriting is often difficult to read and more time is needed to study the minutes from this portion of the Society’s history.
What did come to light was the story behind the Silver Rose Bowl that is awarded at every exhibition to an artist selected by a visiting judge. In October 1990 the Chairman, Valerie Shepherd, received a letter from Juliet Pannett, in which she expressed her wish to resign as President, a role she had held since 1977. Juliet’s doctor had advised her to cut down on her commitments. Included in the letter was a donation to the club of £100. Discussions then took place as to the best way to use this money and it was decided to award a cup for the “Best Painter of the Year”. It was pointed out that a cup would be very expensive and other suggestions included an engraved glass goblet. This was ruled out as it might easily be broken and the subject was left for further discussion. It was reported in March that the chairman had been in touch with Juliet ‘eventually after making several telephone calls to her and getting the answering machine’. Juliet said that she would like a Silver Rose Bowl, not glass because it might break, and the July meeting reports that this had been approved and the cost would be £92.60. The remainder of the £100 would be used for Certificates.
In 2001 the West Sussex Art Club became the West Sussex Art Society. By then the programme of events had evolved to include artists’ talks, demonstrations and lectures, with the Society made up of as many professional artists as amateurs. Between 2001 and 2010 lectures and demonstrations were given on a wide variety of subjects, including ‘The Magic of Handmade Paper’, ‘Trekking and sketching in Nepal’, Early Sussex Wall Paintings’, ‘The Contemporary Style’, ‘The riches of Russian culture’, and ‘Islamic Art in India’. In addition, artists came along to talk about or demonstrate their work – Stuart Geddes, Paul Cox, Piers Ottey, Bridget Woods, Emily Ball, Antony Cooke and Claire Phillips.
In 2002 the sculptor Philip Jackson became President of the Society. Despite being a very busy and renowned artist he has devoted a considerable amount of time to the Society by giving several presentations about his latest projects. For this we are really grateful.
The programme today includes a vibrant and exciting range of artists’ talks, lectures and workshops; in 2016 the Society hosted a lecture on Caravaggio by the art historian and TV presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon.
In recent times we have enjoyed hearing from the land artist Chris Drury, the highly respected painter Tom Hammick, the artist and historian Julian Bell, painter and printmaker Chris Aggs, chainsaw sculptor Dave Lucas and the art forger David Henty.
The Society currently has over 50 members, producing a wide variety of artwork from realistic representation to abstract and conceptual work. A higher proportion of the members now are semi-professional or professional artists than they were 90 years ago.
Our next exhibition will be held for 6 days starting on 12th March at the Colonnade Creative Hub in Worthing. We also have an exciting programme of talks to enjoy this year. To celebrate our 90th year we are embracing some new ideas. The Society produced a calendar to showcase some of the member’s artwork, we have booked a group visit in May to Farley Farm, the former home of Lee Millar and Roland Penrose and we have planned an evening of candlelit sketching in March. We will also be visiting a London Gallery later in the year. We also have a new website, which will continue to be developed throughout the year. www.westsussexartsociety.com
We have two levels of membership – Associate Membership for all and Full Membership for those artists who would like to exhibit their work in the annual exhibition. Full Membership is by selection. Please contact us at the above address if you would like more information.
The next exhibition is 12-17 March at Colonnade House in Worthing, with an exciting programme of talks and events this year. More info.