The Burton Art Gallery

I am not a royalist, but I am curious. On a 3-day visit to the West Country (Devon and Cornwall) why do the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall wish to go to the Burton Art Gallery in Bideford, North Devon? It is a tiny building on the edge of the park, set back from the busy road, shaded – almost hidden from view – in large leafy trees. Have I taken for granted what is on my doorstep? Have I cast it a glance of familiarity that has obscured from me a treasure worth exploring? I decided to take another look and as a result, I have to admit now that Charles and Camilla are on to something.

The exterior of the building is an art exhibit in its own right. I noticed that the building was freshly painted (and not, I believe for the purpose of a royal visit – the Queen once said that the smell of fresh paint often accompanies her tours….). A pattern of monochrome leaves across a white background, serves to emphasize its rural location, and as the large trees dance real-life patterns across the façade, the whole building seems to be a living and moving part of the environment. The unusual pillars painted to each side of the door adds a hint of exotic mystery and suggests that once inside you will be transported all around the world. It is true to its promise.

I wanted to see what the royal couple would see, and the main exhibition currently running, is Face Value. This demonstrates a beneficial partnership between the gallery and the Art’s Council, who have brought together more than forty-five artists’ paintings and drawings of ‘the face’, including Lowry, Hepworth and Henry Moore. Each picture has space in which to stand and consider it, with a little information for reference about each one. The variety of artistic styles, subjects portrayed, and varying sizes of the images produced an absorbing experience.  The depictions of faces, what each communicates and how different we all are left me with the buzzing sense of having met lots of interesting people from around the world, and through history, in that single small room.

Some of the most striking faces that you will meet include the nameless ‘oil on canvas ’face depicted by Lynette Yladom-Boakye. You will find a strong, fiery countenance staring down with a sense of personal pride and ability: I move on but look back; I would have liked to meet the person behind those eyes. Then there are the twinkling eyes of the bespectacled Father Christmas figure of ‘The Bideford Postmaster-Poet’, a local figure who used to write poetry during his mail rounds back in the late 1800’s – another person who I would like to step down from his frame and talk about himself. Howard Hodgkin’s abstract portrait was very striking – Mrs K is depicted in bright colours and seems to be both hiding behind a half-closed door, and sitting sideways to the artist, arresting the attention as the brain tries to make sense of the impression of a person. Overall, it is an extremely engaging exhibition, so many famous artists on the doorstep; so many faces depicted by talented artists. Their worlds collide in a small room to amuse, interest, and provoke.

As well as the ‘Face Value’ exhibition that runs until September 26th, The English Eye will be open in Gallery 1 and 2 from October 6th which will show some of the best photographs from the local back and white rural photographer, James Ravilious. All exhibitions (entrance to the museum, housed upstairs) is free: If it is good enough for Royalty, it is good enough for us too – and well worth a visit…

Annemarie Munro