Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"Pure Gold": an exhibition celebrating 50 years of the FBA

Today is the first day of the Pure Gold Exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. The exhibition is to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Federation of British Artists.
The Federation of British Artists (FBA) is comprised of eight of the UK’s leading art societies, all of whom hold their Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries. A unique national resource, the FBA is comprised of over 500 artist members and serves as a national focal point for contemporary figurative art by living artists working in the UK. With the aim of promoting and encouraging contemporary works in different media and subject themes, FBA exhibitions attract both well-established artists as well as emerging talent.
The Exhibition - Pure Gold

The Federation was founded in February 1961.  However many of the societies which comprise the Federation actually date back to the nineteenth century with the earliest dating back to 1823.  These are the Eight Societies that comprise the FBA. All the exhibiting societies are represented in the exhibition.

The exhibition comprises eight works by past artists who have exhibited with the Societies - some of whom are very famous artists - and eight of the contemporary members.

One can imagine that an enterprise like this might have been quite difficult to create.  However the Federation very sensibly elected to have an independent curator - Anthony J Lester - who has chosen the works for the exhibition from those on offer.

He set criteria for inclusion that work should be (1) high quality and (2) should also represent the diversity of styles to be found in each Society.  Each of the Presidents were then allowed to nominate artists.  I have to say that my impression of the exhibition is that it lives up to both criteria and is also well hung in terms of getting a flow between different subject matter, different styles and the variations in colour which occur over time.

One of the things which will be interesting for visitors to the exhibition is to see which artists were nominated and got in.  NEAC, for example, decided to favour its younger artists rather than artists who have already made their names.  Elsewhere you can find old favourites and stalwarts of more than one society within the the Federation world - such as Ken Howard, Daphne Todd, Moira Huntly and David Curtis.

It was particularly nice to see that some of the Societies and/or artists had also chosen to have an emphasis on British Life and panoramas of scenes in London and elsewhere.

Two of the exhibiting artists from the Royal Society of British Artists
- the one at the top will please Arsenal supporters
What is even more interesting is to see the names of those who have exhibited with the Societies in the past.  Some of the artists even managed to be past Presidents! The exhibition is very fortunate in being able to enlist the support and co-operation of the Tate, National Portrait Gallery and the Government Art Collection in addition to a number of dealers who were holding relevant works.
  • I was particularly pleased to see a charcoal drawing of a dancer by Degas and an etching of Rotherhithe by Whistler.
  • there are portraits on loan by John Singer Sargent (who exhibited in the 1886 exhibition of the New English Art Club)John Lavery and Augustus John
  • a large landscape by Walter Sickert dominates the East gallery; 
  • it was fascinating to see a tiny pastel landscape of Venice by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon 
  • I saw my first urban landscape by Rowland Hilder for a long time
  • there's a tiny pencil and watercolour painting by the English children's book illustrator Kate Greenaway.
  • Wildlife artists and ornithologist will enjoy seeing the oil painting of mallards by the conservationist Sir Peter Scott

One of the interesting painters whose work is included in the show is Sir William Orpen KBE RA.  Many visitors to the Mall galleries over the years will know his studio well as it it's now Ken Howard's studio.  In the North Gallery - alongside a painting by Ken Howard are Orpen's chair and the concave mirror used in the portrait painting by Orpen on loan also feature in the exhibition and a photograph of the studio in Orpen's day.

The Mirror by Sir William Orpen (Tate Collection)
Influenced by the concave mirror in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage
and Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black (his painting of his mother)- 

Painting of the Orien Studio by Ken Howard OBE RA.
Chair and mirror belonged to Sir William Orpen who used to own the same studio.
There's also a fascinating archive section in the North Gallery with a timeline of what happened when and facsimiles of old exhibition catalogues and places which have been important in the past - such as 190-195 Piccadilly Place which was home to the RI for may years.  It's amazing to see how old some of the art societies are and how they got started.

There's a talk by the curator and Phillip Mold (who will be familiar to many from the Antiques Roadshow) tomorrow evening.  Otherwise those members artists and Friends of the FBA who weren't at the Champagne Reception last night will probably having tea with Princess Alexandra next Thursday!  I'm going to that so if anybody else is planning to go please let me know.

For members of the public the exhibition continues until 19th February at the Mall Galleries - 10am to 5pm daily (except Thursday 17th when it closes at 1pm) and admission is free.
Pure Gold: Curator's Talk Thu 10 February 2011, 6 - 7.30pm
Anthony Lester, Curator of Pure Gold, and Philip Mould, Paintings Expert on BBC's Antiques Roadshow, lead a talk on the history of the FBA’s art societies, focusing on prominent former exhibitors, their relationship with the FBA and the contribution of member artists to the wider British art scene of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Admission £5 (£2.50 concessions, including FBA Friends, students and over 60s). Booking essential. Please call 020 7930 6844 for tickets.


  1. Went to listen to the talk there last night - it was great. Through focusing on selected pictures from the show the speakers went through the FBA history. Makes me look at the Mall galleries through clearer lenses.

  2. I would absolutely LOVE to find out who painted the portrait gracing the cover of the "Pure Gold" Exhibit brochure. Can anyone enlighten me?

  3. Interesting you should ask. That's actually going to be the subject of a blog post.

  4. The painting is by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, PPRA (1879-1972) and is a portrait of 'Saw Ohn Nyun V'. It was painted in 1932.
    Anthony J Lester, AICA, Hon.RMS, FRSA
    Curator, 'Pure Gold'

  5. The painting on the cover of the 'Pure Gold' brochure is by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, PPRA (1879-1972). Painted in 1932, it depicts Saw Ohn Nyun V, the sister-in-law of Rajah of Thi-Paw.
    Yours in Art,
    Anthony J Lester, AICA, HonRMS, FRSA
    'Pure Gold'

  6. Thanks Anthony - I was otherwise preoccupied yesterday and didn't have the cayalogue to hand.

    Anthony told me a fascinating story about the artist when I was at the preview and I'm going to do a feature on him this week - probably Wednesday

  7. Well, 'Pure Gold' is coming to an end and what an amazing success it has been. Thousands of people have attended and showered the Mall Galleries with complements. It was a great deal of work but was all worthwhile. On Thursday HRH Princess Alexandra made a visit and loved the event so much she stayed much longer than anticipated.
    I would like to thank all those who so kindly lent pictures for the exhibition.
    Yours in Art
    Anthony J Lester (Curator)

    Anthony J Leste


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