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The North has some of the best museums in Britain. Why are we letting them close down?

Culturally, the North-South divide is getting worse as the Conservative government’s cuts take their toll on museums outside London.

The North-South divide is real. It exists, more tangible than the increasingly nebulous concept of a Northern Powerhouse, more durable than The Big Society (Rust In Pieces).

A consistent critic of the North-South cultural imbalance, Melvyn Bragg is the latest to angrily react to the closure of another museum, Bede’s World in Jarrow, which employed 27 people and had a footfall over 70,000 visitors, but whose recent funding cuts have deemed it no longer financially viable. “Again and again, when authorities are in trouble, they take it out on culture, which they see as a soft target,” said Bragg.

It’s this phrase – “no longer financially viable” – that is surely the epitaph to be chiselled onto the tombstones of the many museums and galleries across the North of England that have suffered under the Conservative government’s cuts. Once again we are faced with an administration that singularly fails to judge the value of culture in anything but fiscal terms.

“What is totally depressing and gives no service at all to this generation and offers a bleak inheritance to the next generation and for generations to come,” added Bragg, “is the regularity of hundreds of years with which London has kicked the North in the teeth.”

With Lancashire County Council recently announcing the closure of five museums in towns including Preston, Fleetwood and Lancaster, there are plenty of statistics to back up this bleak decline. A report entitled Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital from late 2013 suggests outright discrimination. It revealed that the combined spending of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England amounted to £68.99 per head in London and a meagre £4.58 per head in the rest of England. Lottery spending on the arts in the previous two decades was judged to be £165.00 per Londoner and £46.77 elsewhere.

Some might argue that the regions only get what they put in. Not true. A follow-up report found that citizens of Westminster had contributed £14.5m and received £408m on cultural expenditure – a 28-fold cultural return. Meanwhile in County Durham, a Labour heartland whose ex-pit villages contains some of the UK’s highest rates of unemployment, £34m in lottery spending garnered just £12m in spending on the arts. Meanwhile, £60m in public funding has gone towards the capital’s new garden bridge alone.

Personally I’ve been to more local exhibitions since I left London for the North that I was previously unfamiliar with. Museums and galleries have been my gateway into towns – Rochdale, Burnley, Oldham – I had little reason to otherwise visit; places that, with all due respect and sympathy, need all the help they can get. Here exist collections that offer an insight into history and character, where one can unearth the oddities and eccentricities that make each unique. This fact should not undervalued. Many’s the time during my sporadic tour I have stood in a town centre shopping precinct, usually built in 1960s or 1970s, their ceilings feeling a little low and oppressive, the interior tones a little too autumnal for towns often starved of sunlight as it is, and completely forgotten where I am. It’s alarming to look round and briefly not know if you are in Wakefield or Keighley, Blackburn or Burnley.

Culture is what distinguishes these towns, and the North has some of the best museums in Britain. Yes, some are faded and tatty and their coffee non-frothy, but that is half the appeal and they are free. This bears repeating: they are free. For everyone, whether you went to a Young Offender’s Institution or Eton. I challenge any cynic to go to Whitby museum with its Hand Of Glory (a candle made from a human hand) and Tempest Prognosticator (a devise that used live leeches, hammers and bells to predict incoming storms) and not think: isn’t Britain weird and wonderful?

Or what about Bradford, once at the heartland of the industrial North, and still  architecturally fascinating, ethnically diverse and full of generous people? Continually overlooked for nearby Leeds, attempts to turn it into a desirable retail destination haven’t entirely succeeded. Stoic Bradford does culture well however, and the National Media Museum (and nearby Impressions Gallery) always worth making the visit for. Between these two I have studied photographs by the likes Don McCullin, Martin Parr and Siirka-Lisa Konttinen at close quarters. Inspired, great chunks of my last two novels were written yards away in the NMM’s cafe.

But now, in a devastating move, it is giving away its renowned Royal Photography Society collection to the V&A in London. Writing about it in an open letter Simon Cooke, Conservative leader of the opposition at Bradford Council, was apoplectic: “We don’t have much up here and it fills me with a kind of sad rage that you felt able to visit this act of cultural rape on my city...a plague on you and your metropolitan cultural fascism.”

Cultural rape, plagues and fascism are harsh words but this move yet again reeks of metropolitan dominance. The North remains forever the whipping boy for the bad decision-making of those in Westminster, for whom culture is forever reduced to a diagonal on a graph.

Editor's note, 17 Feb 2016: this piece originally stated the RPS collection was being sold to the V&A. This has been corrected

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

Picture: IWM Art
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The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.

TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.

The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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