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Box of delights

The seemingly sleepy county town of Bedford hides a treasure trove of art, discovers William Cook

Behind the humdrum high street of an unassuming market town, a new gallery has just opened, built to house one of the country’s best collections of British art. If it was anywhere else in Britain, this treasure trove would be impressive, but here in sleepy Bedford, it seems downright surreal, rather like finding a huge stash of old Masters in a drab suburban semi.

On the top floor of this two-room gallery are landscapes by Constable, Turner and Sisley, alongside a royal flush of pre-Raphaelites: Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown. Bedford Gallery has a rich array of British modernists (including Graham Sutherland and Patrick Heron), a still-life by Walter Sickert and a hypnotic portrait by Lucien Freud, all squeezed into the same room. If you could do a supermarket sweep through Tate Britain, this is what would end up in your shopping trolley. It’s like the Tate in miniature, a potted history of the past 200 years of British art.

Downstairs there are more superb pictures by David Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, alongside their American counterparts, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. On the opposite wall are works by Picasso, Munch, Bonnard, Goya, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, plus a trio of German expressionists: Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix. Incredibly, this is just a fragment of the complete collection, embodying a tantalising glimpse of things to come. There are hundreds more masterpieces packed away – from Canaletto to Kandinsky – awaiting the revamp of the original gallery next door.

This compact gallery is just the start of this new exhibition space. When the main building (currently closed for renovation) reopens in two years’ time, Bedford will be able to exhibit a complete cross-section of Britain’s greatest artists, from William Blake to Howard Hodgkin, from Stanley Spencer to Elisabeth Frink. The continental roll call is even more impressive, a virtual A-Z of European art. So how on earth did the good burghers of Bedford manage to assemble such a remarkable collection? And what on earth is it doing here, tucked away down a quiet backstreet in this modest county town?

The fact that Bedford has a collection which would flatter a city ten times its size is thanks to a canny local brewer called Cecil Higgins. When Higgins died, in 1941, he left his collection of ceramics to his hometown, and £100,000 to buy more artworks to go with it. Shrewdly, he stipulated that all future purchases must be overseen by a panel of experts from blue riband museums like the V&A. But what did these boffins know? Quite a lot, it seems, for since then they’ve amassed a collection worth £100m.

The way these art buffs made a 100,000 per cent return on Higgins’s investment was by doing exactly the opposite of modern bankers. They bought things which were first-rate, but happened to be temporarily out of fashion. They bought prints and watercolours, rather than more expensive oils. They snapped up pre-Raphaelites when the school was out of vogue. And they made the odd howler. A sketch purchased in 1965, purportedly by the 19th-century pastoral painter Samuel Palmer, turned out to be the work of the notorious (and prolifically talented) forger Tom Keating. Yet since Keating’s forgeries are now attracting decent prices, even this slip-up may eventually prove a sound investment. If only Fred Goodwin and his pals had been so astute.

Like a rolling snowball, this collection has attracted bequests from other collectors, keen to give their treasures a good home. The artist Edward Bawden donated the entire contents of his studio, more than 3,000 items, which will form the basis of a major retrospective this autumn. Bawden’s relationship with Bedford began when he designed a tapestry to mark the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Bunyan came from Bedford and wrote his nonconformist classic in the local jail, where he was banged up for 12 years for preaching without a licence. His church, museum and library are all just across the road.

When you start to nose around, you realise there’s more to Bedford than meets the eye. Bedford Contemporary Arts, on the high street, is a lively, modern gallery, and for a few years Bedford was Britain’s cultural mecca. During the Second World War, the BBC broadcast from here (“Somewhere in England,” said the announcers, furtively) after the corporation was bombed out of London and Bristol. Thomas Beecham, Adrian Bolt, Malcolm Sargent and Glenn Miller all played the local Corn Exchange.

In the afternoon, between the press launch and the private view, I went to visit Parvez Akhtar, a Conservative councillor in Queen’s Park, a multiracial district on the other side of town. Parvez’s father came here in the 1960s, and his Kashmiri family is part of Bedford’s constant cycle of immigration: eastern Europeans, then Italians, then Asians and West Indians, and now eastern Europeans again. Bedford is one of the most ethnically diverse conurbations in the country, and as we sip fruit juice in his tidy living room, Parvez talks enthusiastically about the integration between local Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. Yet it’s telling that while he’s on really good terms with the local vicar, he’s yet to visit his local gallery. Like a lot of galleries, Bedford’s gallery has much to do to reach the people who pay its bills.

Back at the gallery that evening, I meet Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain. He’s travelled here from London to open this new exhibition space, and this exhibition. It’s a super little show, but this is really just a taster. It’s frustrating that Bedford has so many fine artworks, and still so little space to show them. Even so, it’s a start, and when this ambitious building project is completed, Bedford will finally have a gallery worthy of its splendid works. In the meantime it’s a treat to marvel at the greatest hits of the Cecil Higgins collection, and toast a brewer with the good sense to leave his money in the hands of people who really knew a thing or two about fine art.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.