YORK Art Gallery had to curtail the Miller’s tale of Pop Art book covers in its ground-floor galleries when Covid-19 brought a sorry end to son of York Harland Miller’s homecoming show.
Those galleries have opened once more, however, Miller’s York, So Good They Named It Once making way for a celebration, or two celebrations, of the YAG collections from August 20.
Senior curator Dr Beatrice Bertram has chosen the works for Views of York & Yorkshire, ranging from L S Lowry’s Clifford’s Tower to a dozen newly conserved works, courtesy of the Friends of York Art Gallery, never seen on public display previously.
As the second exhibition title Your Art Gallery: Paintings Chosen By You would suggest, you have indeed made the choices from “some of York Art Gallery’s most well-known paintings” for the walls and floor of the two side Madsen galleries .
More precisely, more than 400 people took part in an online poll, when choosing ten works from 20, Parmigianino’s Portrait Of A Man Reading A Book(c.1530), Richard Jack’s Return To The Front, Victoria Railway Station(1916) and Barbara Hepworth’s drawing Surgeon Waiting (1948) among them.
William Etty, the 18th century York artist whose statue greets visitors in Exhibition Square, inevitably features too. “We always have to show Etty! We have the largest repository of his works in the world,” says Beatrice.
Other favourites were selected through a week of five head-to-head clashes on Twitter and by a Friends of York Art Gallery online poll.
To qualify for selection, the works must have been in storage, returned from a loan elsewhere or not been shown for a number of years; none of them being on display when the gallery was closed for the lockdown.
The poll and Twitter choices are complemented by artworks with chronological or thematic links, alongside new YAG acquisitions by John Atkinson Grimshaw (Liverpool Docks At Night) and Scarborough artist Jade Montserrat, plus some of the gallery’s Twitter #CuratorBattle contenders in lockdown, most notably Grayson Perry’s ceramic, Melanie.
Explaining the philosophy behind the linking exhibitions, Beatrice says: “These exhibitions were a perfect chance to engage with our audience, as having to close the gallery from March to August was so frustrating when we so want to connect with our visitors.
“To celebrate the reopening of York Art Gallery, we wanted to showcase our rich collection by bringing artworks out of store. These two new exhibitions do just that.
“We hope visitors enjoy viewing the beautiful topographical landscapes of Yorkshire and admiring the paintings which they voted for display in Your Art Gallery: Paintings Chosen by You.
“Thank you so much to everyone who got involved, and for telling us why the works you chose resonated with you by writing labels. We’ve loved reading your submissions – variously heartfelt, humorous, perceptive and poignant – and it’s made the curation of the show a wonderful experience. We hope visitors will enjoy these personal accounts as much as we did.”
Involving the public in curating a show was “innovative, fun and hugely enjoyable, both for those who took part and for us,” says Beatrice. “It’s been incredibly rewarding and revealing to read people’s comments on their choices, expressing their feelings, how a particular work resonated with them, how they connected with them.
“It was noticeable how they were drawn to works depicting nature, or depicting gatherings or live performances, such as L S Lowry’s The Bandstand, Peel Park, Salford, because of wanting to experience the buzz of a performance again.
“They were looking to works from wartime too, connecting with another time of terrifying, unprecedented change, and the surgeon’s mask in Barbara Hepworth’s Surgeon Waiting struck a chord because of Coronavirus.”
Summing up her reaction to the selections, Beatrice says: “While there were some I expected them to choose, there were surprises too. All the women artists went through from the choices, which I was particularly pleased to see.”
Aside from the public choices, Beatrice is keen to highlight the York Art Gallery acquisitions on show, such as a series of works by Jade Montserrat (born 1987) acquired through the Contemporary Art Society in 2020.
“We’re always looking at our collections policy, always seeking to achieve a more diverse representation, though that doesn’t preclude the Grimshaw acquisition, because we’re also always looking out for great works too.
“Jade Montserrat is a contemporary artist, whose work is inspired by growing up in Scarborough. She’s brave, bold and fearless and we’re excited that she’s represented in our collection.”
Look out too for a work with a new attribution: St John The Baptist, now accredited to the 17th century Flemish artist Hendrik de Somer. “Art Detective have come up with a very persuasive attribution for that painting,” says Beatrice. “There are not many examples of his work in this country, so that’s exciting.”
In the central Madsen gallery is the Views of York & Yorkshire exhibition of city, country and coast: Beatrice Bertram’s choices of topographical paintings and works on paper, the latter selected with her exhibition assistant, Genevieve Stegner-Freitag, the Friends of York Art Gallery MA Research Scholar.
Works on show span William Marlow’s The Old Ouse Bridge, York, painted in 1763, to Ed Kluz’s View Of Exhibition Square, York, from 2012. At the heart of the show is York Art Gallery’s W.A. Evelyn Collection, donated to the gallery in 1931 from the estate of philanthropist Dr William Arthur Evelyn (1860-1935).
As his collection of 1,500 prints, watercolours, drawings and engravings focused on York and Yorkshire, the gallery has since added further works of York and beyond the city walls, expanding the collection to 4,000, aided by the Evelyn Award annual competition that elicited new works too.
Among the highlights is the gallery acquisition on show for the first time, Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding’s Rivaulx Abbey. Shouldn’t that be Rievaulx Abbey? “Artistic licence!” says Beatrice.
Along with works by JMW Turner (Fountains Abbey), Letitia Marion Hamilton, John Piper, Thomas Rowlandson, Ethel Walker and Joseph Alfred Terry, Grinton artist Michael Bilton’s Approaching Storm Over Calver Hill leaps out too.
“Combining canvas, oil, enamel and paper, it shows a disused quarry with post-industrial marks and pits from former lead mines, and by using different materials, Bilton makes it look like it’s constantly moving, and you can really feel like a storm is approaching,” says Beatrice.
Exhibition assistant Genevieve set to work on selecting 12 works from the Evelyn Collection for conservation. “For the most part, the prints were in pretty good condition but not exhibitable but with the Friends’ help, 12 have been restored that had never been exhibited before,” she says.
“I was looking for works that were not only in good condition but also works from the same period, the mid-19th century, in three specific genres: Picturesque, Realist and Topographical.”
Genevieve, from Washington DC, is studying on the Art History programme at the University of York, arriving in the city last September, when her first experiences had an impact on her subsequent choices for restoration being dominated by York Minster (or York Cathedral, as several works call Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral building).
“The first thing I did when I came to York was to view the Minster. I’d seen pictures before, but we just don’t have buildings like that in the United States,” she says. “To see living history is so powerful, and I then wanted to pick out works in different genres that treat that history very differently.
“One of the nice things about the timing of working on the show is that it coincided with people not being able to go into the city since the March lockdown and that makes our appreciation of the Minster really come alive.”
Now, once more we can appreciate that history, that architecture, the city’s art collections, in person, as Beatrice acknowledges: “The real pleasure is to be able to show the public engagement in the gallery, becoming the curation voice of an exhibition, resonating with our current times,” she says.
“We’ve missed our audience so much, and it’s lovely for everyone to be able to stand close to artworks again, to breathe art in again. There’s no replacement for that experience.”
York Art Gallery has introduced free admission to its permanent collections, with timed tickets available at yorkartgallery.org.uk, and a Pay As You Feel initiative for Views of York & Yorkshire and Your Own Gallery, recommending a sum of £3, £5 or £7. Please note, booking is essential, along with the wearing of a mask or facial covering.
“We are in a challenging financial situation, as is every gallery in the country, so we would welcome contributions on a Pay As You Feel basis,” says Beatrice. “We are excited to be open again and to present exhibitions, but if we are going to be able to keep doing this, we shall have to fund-raise.”
VIEWS of York & Yorkshire and Your Art Gallery have opened against the backdrop of York Museums Trust warning that it would “run out of cash in January 2021”, if more financial support were not forthcoming.
The trust runs York Art Gallery, York Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum and York St Mary’s but revealed in a report to the City of York Council executive last week that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about an “immediate financial threat to YMT’s continued existence”.
So much so that the trustees have registered a serious incident report with the Charities Commission, placing all four at risk of closure after the Coronavirus lockdown led to a “drastic loss of income at the very start of the peak visitor season”, leaving the trust facing a £1.54m deficit.
At present, the city council provides £300,000 a year to the trust. The report, however, states the trust requires funding support of £1.35m this year and up to £600,000 in 2021 to ensure the visitor attractions remain open and the trust collections continue to be looked after.
The council has proposed to write a letter of guarantee, promising to provide the trust with up to £1.95m of the funds needed. One factor in what sum the councillors might agree will be whether the trust receives Government funding from the Culture Recovery Fund for cultural organisations to cover October 2020 to March 31 2021. The deadline for applications is September 5.
YORK Art Gallery is inviting you to choose the paintings you love and have missed the most during lockdown to feature in a new exhibition from August 20.
From Barbara Hepworth to Henri Fantin-Latour, Paul Nash to Bridget Riley, Your Art Gallery – Paintings Chosen By You will showcase a selection of works from the Exhibition Square gallery’s rich collection of paintings, voted for by the public, alongside further works chosen through Twitter polls.
There will be an opportunity too to write short labels for the painting you like the most, with the favourite responses being printed and displayed next to the work itself.
To choose your favourite works, visit yorkartgallery.org.uk and click on the Your Art Gallery – Paintings Chosen By You page. You can then rate the paintings from one to five stars, and those that prove the most popular will be included in the show. The deadline to make your choices is next Wednesday, July 29.
The Twitter polls are up and running already, beginning on Monday (July 20) and ending today (July 24). Each day, two paintings are pitched into battle against each other from 5pm for you to make your choice.
Senior curator Dr Beatrice Bertram says: “We’re really excited to be re-opening our galleries and welcoming people back to come and see the wonderful art in our collections.
“We thought what better way to re-open than by giving our audiences the opportunity to choose the paintings they want to see. We hope as many people as possible will vote for their favourites through the online survey or the Twitter polls and also write a few words about one specific work, telling us why it means so much to them.
“We can’t wait to see which choices you make in what will be a truly fascinating exhibition of work curated by you.”
The online vote will involve 20 of the “most famous and popular works from the gallery’s permanent collection”, but none of them on display prior to lockdown, from L S Lowry to David Hockney; William Etty to fellow York artist Albert Moore.
The ten most popular works from the poll will feature in the show, with accompanying labels written by voters. The winners will be announced online on July 30.
These works and the Twitter top five will be shown alongside five paintings chosen by the Friends of York Art Gallery from ten works, as well as a new John Atkinson Grimshaw acquisition and curators’ favourites.
Several entries by the gallery into York Museums Trust’s Curator Battles on Twitter, run throughout lockdown, also will be included.
A second show will open on August 20 too, Views of York & Yorkshire, curated by Dr Bertram for the central Madsen Gallery.
Much-loved paintings and works on paper depicting York and the surrounding countryside will go on show. L S Lowry’s Clifford’s Tower, William Etty’s Monk Bar, York, William Marlow’s The Old Ouse Bridge and Michael Angelo Rooker’s Layerthorpe Postern, York, present contrasting views of the heart of the city.
Ethel Walker’s Robin Hood’s Bay In Winter, J M W Turner’s The Dormitory and Transept of Fountains Abbey – Evening and Joseph Alfred Terry’s Underhill Farm, Sleights, capture picturesque rural and coastal scenes beyond the city walls.
The Friends of York Art Gallery have provided the funding for the conservation of prints of York Minster dating from the first half of the 19th century, now to be displayed for the first time, revealing shifting perspectives of the cathedral.
Look out, too, for a new acquisition, Rievaulx Abbey by Yorkshire-born artist Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding. “We acquired it last year and have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to display it,” says Beatrice.
“The city of York and the beautiful coast and countryside beyond have long been a source of inspiration for artists,” she adds. “We wanted to mark our re-opening with an exhibition of some of our most famous topographical scenes, such as L.S. Lowry’s striking painting of Clifford’s Tower, which York Art Gallery commissioned for the Evelyn Award in 1952.
“Thanks to the Friends of York Art Gallery, we’re able to showcase a selection of characterful watercolours and prints by artists including John Varley, Thomas Rowlandson and Thomas Shotter Boys, which illustrate York Minster and its environs during the first half of the 19th century.
“Collectively, the artworks featured in the show paint a picture of the city and its locale from 1758 to the present day – peaceful vistas which have an enduring resonance during these turbulent, challenging times.”
Beatrice stresses: “We may have been closed but the work here hasn’t stopped, and we saw these two exhibitions as an opportunity to think about the past, present and future of collecting.
“We did have to look at our programming for when we would re-open as there were shows that were due to go ahead, such as Bloom [for the York flower festival], that had to be cancelled, and due to the complexity of so many loans, we couldn’t seek to extend the run of Harland Miller’s very successful York, So Good They Named It Once show.
“The good news is that Bi-, his 2017 work from that show, will continue to be shown, in the Burton Gallery, and we’ll have some Harland Miller retail available, which we’ll be deciding by August 1.”
The Gillian Lowndes: At The Edge exhibition will resume in the Centre of Ceramic Art, where the run of the Children Curate show in the Anthony Shaw Space is being extended too. The Aesthetica Art Prize show will remain in situ until next spring in the Upper North Gallery.
Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years should have been the ceramics highlight of the CoCA summer, but the June 12 to September 20 run was crocked by Covid’s intervention.
“We’re still hoping to host that exhibition down the line, with further details to come,” promises Beatrice.
The Pre-Therapy Years brings together 70 Perry early works made between 1982 and 1994, now re-united through a “crowd-sourced” public appeal that will put these “lost pots” on display for the first time since they were made. Themes to be found in his later work – fetishism, gender, class, his home county of Essex and the vagaries of the art world – appear in these nascent pieces, suffused with kinetic energy.
For more information on the new displays and how to visit, with booking required, go to yorkartgallery.org.uk.
The 20 works that must be whittled down to ten in the public vote:
Barbara Hepworth, Surgeon Waiting, 1948, oil and graphite on paper
Albert Joseph Moore, A Venus, 1869, oil on canvas
Richard Jack, The Return To The Front, Victoria Railway Station, 1916, oil on canvas
Spencer Gore, The Balcony At The Alhambra, 1911-1912, oil on canvas
Paul Nash, Winter Sea, 1925-1937, oil on canvas
Bridget Riley, Study 4 for Painting With Two Verticals, 2004, watercolour
Stanley Spencer, The Deposition and Rolling Away Of The Stone, 1956, oil on canvas
Barbara McKenzie-Smith, The Bird Cage, unknown date, oil on canvas
Giovanni Antonio Burrini, Diana And Endymion, 1681-1691, oil on canvas
Alfred Walter Bayes, Day Dreams, 1902-1903, oil on canvas
Henry Scott Tuke, The Misses Santley, 1880, oil on canvas
Paul Maitland, Cheyne Walk In Sunshine, 1887-1888, oil on canvas
David Bomberg, The Bath, 1922, oil on canvas
L S Lowry, The Bandstand, Peel Park, Salford, 1931, oil on canvas
Bernardo Cavallino, St Agatha, 1635-1645, oil on canvas
Henri Fantin-Latour, White Roses, 1875, oil on canvas
David Hockney, Egyptian Head Disappearing Into Descending Clouds, 1961, oil on canvas
Harold Gilman, Beechwood Gloucestershire, 1914-1919, oil on canvas
William Etty, Venus And Cupid, c.1830, oil on canvas
Eugene-Gabriel Isabey, Boat In A Storm, 1851-1857, oil on canvas
ALAS, here is not-so-good news on Harland Miller’s Coronavirus-stymied exhibition, York, So Good They Named It Once, at York Art Gallery.
Government pandemic strictures meant the show ground to a halt little over a month into its run from February 14 to May 31, and now confirmation has come that there will be no second life in Miller’s home city for the tragi-comic Pop artist’s biggest-ever solo exhibition, once the gallery re-opens.
Tentative exploratory discussions had been held with exhibition partners White Cube, his London agents. However, today York Art Gallery announced: “Unfortunately, because of the complexities of arranging an exhibition of this kind, it has not been possible to extend the run of the show.
“The team at York Art Gallery are working hard behind the scenes to bring you fantastic, thought-provoking and inspiring art when we reopen in the coming months. More details of these exhibitions and events will be published on our website and social media very soon.”
Today should have marked the opening of Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years in the Exhibition Square gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA): a show of the earliest works and “lost pots” by the Turner Prize-winning, transvestite Essex artist, potter, writer and broadcaster, latterly the host of Channel 4’s “boredom-busting” lockdown art-making series, Grayson’s Art Club.
Talks are “on-going” with York Museums Trust’s exhibition partners over what may happen to Perry’s show, not least because The Pre-Therapy Years is scheduled to move on to other venues.
Whenever it hopefully does still run in York, Perry’s show assembles lost creations for gallery display for the first time, not least 70 ceramics crowd-sourced after a national public appeal: a cause for celebration for the Royal Academician Perry.
“This show has been such a joy to put together, I am really looking forward to seeing these early works again, many of which I have not seen since the Eighties,” he says. “It is as near as I will ever get to meeting myself as a young man; an angrier, priapic me with huge energy but a much smaller wardrobe.”
Watch this space for news of the fate of Perry’s pots and indeed the delayed progress of the Richard III portrait from the National Portrait Gallery to the Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens.
Harland Miller’s York, So Good They Named It Once was four years in the talking and curating, bringing together his best-known series, the Penguin Book Covers and the Pelican Bad Weather Paintings, complemented by his Letter Paintings and new works.
At the heart of a show full of deadpan humour and one-liners were works referring directly to the 56-year-old artist’s relationship with York, the city where he was born and grew up before moving to London, as well as making wider reference to the culture and geography of Yorkshire as a whole.
“If you’re wondering why I’m wearing dark glasses inside in February,” he said at the launch, “It’s because these works are so bright!”
Alas, York Art Gallery went dark, shut down as Coronavirus took hold. In April, Miller revealed he was “nursing mercifully mild symptoms of Covid-19”, coinciding with White Cube selling all 250 editions of his print, Who Cares Wins (2020), created in the familiar style of his mock Penguin dust covers, for £5,000 each, raising £1.25 million in under 24 hours for carers working on the pandemic frontline.
Sale proceeds have been donated to the National Emergencies Trust in Britain, the New York Community Trust and HandsOn Hong Kong. Part of the UK funds have gone to the York Teaching Hospital Charity to support NHS staff in hospitals across Yorkshire – a positive ending to this particular Miller’s tale.
THIS week should have been the last chance to see York tragic-comic Pop artist and writer Harland Miller’s largest ever solo exhibition in his home city.
Four years in the talking and curating, Harland Miller: York, So Good They Named It Once was due to run at York Art Gallery from February 21 to May 31 2020, but then Covid-19 determined that the shutters should come down in the latter pages of March’s diary.
All artistic eyes may now be on Grayson Perry’s Channel 4 Monday night series Grayson’s Art Club, but here is one last opportunity to hear Miller’s tale, if you alas never saw the show featuring his best-known series, the Penguin Book Covers and the Pelican Bad Weather Paintings.
These works directly refer to the 56-year-old artist’s relationship with York, the city where he was born and grew up before moving to London, as well as making wider reference to the culture and geography of Yorkshire as a whole.
The titles are all sardonic statements on life: for example, York, So Good They Named It Once; Whitby – The Self Catering Years; Rags to Polyester – My Story and Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore.
In these works, he marries aspects of Pop Art, abstraction and figurative painting with a writer’s love of text, using his own phrases, some humorous and absurd, others marked by a lush melancholia.
In addition to the dust-jacket paintings, Miller was showing works from his recent Letter Painting series: canvasses made up of overlaid letters to form short words or acronyms in a format inspired by the illuminated letters of medieval manuscripts.
“I wanted to go as far the other way as possible and use just one word, one short word at that, and see if that word would convey as much as a whole sentence,” he says. “I hoped the answer to this would be ‘yes’. In fact that was one of the first words I painted. YES.”
Significantly, Harland has not done a NO: testament to all that positivity the new works exude.
“If you’re wondering why I’m wearing dark glasses inside in February,” he said at the launch, “It’s because these works are so bright!”
Here Harland Miller answers a series of questions on York, art and more besides.
What do you recall of growing up in Yorkshire?
“Well…for me…looking back on it, it seems like it was great! Idyllic even. But can it have been? Really? I dunno. I understand nostalgia – the way that works, because it’s one of the main themes in my own work – so, when I look back, I do try not to get caught up in it. I think it’s just inevitable that you do, though.
“I mean I think its counter-intuitive to reminisce about the bad times…isn’t it? I think the key phrase is ‘growing up’ because – yes, there were definitely things happening that were not great and must have worried my mum and dad… like, say, the power cuts for instance
“But as a kid – growing up I only remember the [Three Day Week] black-outs as being great! I even looked forwards to them and was sad when the power came back on and showed up all the cracks.
“I think it was because, y’know, mainly, it was a time when the family were all together. I was the youngest of three. My brother Baz was ten years older (still is), so when I was like eight, he was 18 and out on his motorbike with his gang of biker mates called The Ton Up Gang.
“The Ton was slang for doing 100mph and back in those days wearing a helmet was not yet compulsory… so pretty stressful for my mum, I think.
“My sister Helen, she was five years older than me (and sadly died at 46, so is now not still five years older – in fact I’m now ten years older than she will ever be – but in my mind she is still my big sister, just as she was when she was 13 and seemed like quite the grown-up, going to discos and the like).
“The Bop, I recall, in New Earswick was one such spot. And the Cats Whiskers up Fulford Road way. Such evocative names. I used to think, ‘Wow, Cats Whiskers! The Bop…Thee Bop! Wow! Must be so wild!”
“Maybe it was. I never went. I was too young to even hang round street corners then. So, I’d be in watching telly. Watching one of the three channels, one of which was BBC2, which didn’t ever seem to really broadcast anything apart from the test card.
“A young girl with a toy clown, I think. She’ll be getting on now, I imagine, that girl. But a little like my sister, she’s frozen in time – not just at that age but frozen in an era.
“Anyway, the point is that as a family we were all doing different things, and so I remember the ‘black-out’ bringing us all together round the kitchen table, playing these never-ending games of Monopoly by candlelight.
“I loved that but, like I say, that was my experience of it. If that were happening now, I’d spend the whole black-out thinking, ‘Where is this heading?’ and my younger self might be in a bad mood because he couldn’t charge his phone.
“There were unadulterated good times too though, like ‘Factory Fortnight’. My dad worked at Rowntrees on Black Magic and in the summer we would go to Scarborough for a week and take a chalet on the front. That really was magic.
“I feel so sad when I go back and see some of those chalets all boarded up or vandalised – I mean who’d vandalise a chalet? How tough do you have to be to vandalise a chalet? Go and vandalise the offices of the person who decided to concrete over one of the best Art Deco pools I’ve ever seen on the South Bay – that was a criminal act! It’s now a roller-skating rink and I’ve never seen anyone on there roller skating.
“Anyway, apart from that, it’s hard to summarise a childhood in a few words but if pushed, I’d say – on very careful consideration and without bias – Yorkshire was the best place to grow up in the solar system!”
What are your memories of your early life as an artist?
“It began when I was at school. I was in a kind of remedial class called Peanuts and the aim was just to get through it. There were only two of us in it and we both liked and had some aptitude for art, so the school at some level decided to make every lesson an art lesson.
“But because there had to be a practical application to everything, I was asked to turn my talents to making some ‘Keep Our School Tidy’ posters. This was the first commission I ever had and led to many more
“After the posters were put up all around school, they proved a big hit and the hardest kid at the school asked me…asked me! Ha!…told me he wanted me to paint ‘Shakin’ Stevens’ on his denim jacket, I did. No choice really.
“That was a big hit too and from that I got a lot more commissions, not just from Shaky fans but Mods, Rockers, Punks, Soulies (those into Northern Soul) and guys into CB Radio (these were all guys as well – no girls into CB for some reason) and many more types besides.
“The prices were five quid for a denim jacket; more for a leather. Tenner for a lid. £12 for a full lid. Pretty soon I was making more than the teachers and I saw that you could do the thing that everyone said you could not – which was make a living as an artist.”
How have York and Yorkshire influenced your work?
“I could best describe this in a way by talking, not about my art, but another artist’s work who’s also from Yorkshire: David Hockney. When Hockney was in England, he made paintings about Typhoo Tea and when he arrived in LA [Los Angeles], he was amazed and enthralled – if they are not the same thing – to see that people had swimming pools in their back gardens.
“It was as commonplace a thing to them as his mother’s back yard was to him. Consequently, because they were commonplace, nobody had ever thought about painting the pools under their noses, so to speak!
“But it took a guy coming from Yorkshire to say, ‘Wow, I’m gonna paint this…this isn’t real…I must be dreaming’ and in point of fact, there is that surreal quality to those works, I think.
“I suppose I’m presenting that old cliche of ‘taking the Yorkshireman out of Yorkshire’. How’s it go? Y’know what I mean though? You can take the Yorkshireman out of Yorkshire.
“Also, my dad Ned, was something of a self-styled Communist. I remember waking past a restaurant with him and him looking in and saying, ‘Some of these fellas think nothing about having a glass of wine’.
“I recall thinking to myself, ‘Yeah…I’d like to think nothing about having a glass of wine too, instead of listening to you talking about central planning’, and in the spirit of rebellion, I told him I was moving to London.
‘What you gonna do there?’, he said. “It’s a pound for a cup of tea!” I replied that I was quite done with tea and all that and was gonna be living it up…on wine!”
Exit Yorkshire, enter Chelsea School of Art. What happened?
“When I got to London, it was borne in on me – almost immediately – not just how much I missed tea, but just exactly who I was. Suffice to say, if I’d stayed in Yorkshire, I don’t think I would have made the Bad Weather Paintings, which are many things…many things… but high among those things, they are clearly celebratory.
“They are satire too, sure, but I am – I’ve been told – unusual in that I like bad weather, within reason of course.
“A while back a doctor told me ‘one bit of good news’ was my body stored vitamin D to an unusual degree, so I can go for a long time without biologically missing the sun…so I guess that could account for being immune to drizzle.
“And, if it’s not stretching it too much to say it’s there, is also that sense of identity with Yorkshire. We could call it ‘Vitamin Y’ maybe, something I store and carry around with me.
“Of course, I need to see the sun every now and then and I need to come back to Yorkshire intermittently too – though actually I come back a fair bit. Most of my family are still here.”
How and why do you use text so prominently in your work?
“I can explain that best in the series from which the York painting [York, So Good They Named It Once] comes because, in this series, more than the other book paintings, I’ve tried to paint them in a way that evokes the subject which is suggested in the title.
“With the Bad Weather theme of course that style pretty much suggests itself and the properties of paint can be handled to evoke the sense of rain running down window panes, heavy sea, heavy cloud, indeterminable drizzle.
“Artists often talk about ‘light’ and they follow the light to St Ives or Florence or somewhere, but these paintings are the opposite of that, I think. They are more about, I don’t want to say the dark internal stuff, but can I say that anyway? Maybe I actually mean introspection.
“And maybe that’s maybe why people have this personal connection to the work, because it provides a moment of introspection.
“Humour also can break a form of tension that arises when looking at a work of art in a formal space. And this is important, this laughter thing, because after that tension is broken, there is a freedom behind it, I think, and that happens very rarely. Indeed, most artists would be pretty affronted if you laughed at their work.
“People used to write me and ask me what my work meant: this was when it was abstract, and actually they used to ask what the hell it meant, but since I’ve been making work in which there is text – words, a suggested narrative – people write me and tell me what my work means to them!
“This is great because it obviously saves me the bother, but moreover, these stories are often incredibly personal and intimate and I never would ever want to say anything that might spoil or override the meaning that they had given it.
“Was it Samuel Beckett who said, ‘It means whatever you want it to mean’ in relation to Waiting For Godot? I really loved that feeling of a stripped-back set of references, park bench, two guys… the way it elevates the mundane…and waiting and waiting and that sense of an endless beginning.
“I thought, when I saw it, which was admittedly when I was 15, it was very positive and I hope that’s a sense that these paintings have too: a suggested narrative, a starting point.
“I mean there’s an obvious reference here to the moment you’re holding a book in your hand and contemplating the cover and the title too…and the story waiting for you inside…but I’m also playing with scale as an implied comment on the content of the book.”
How was this solo show in York curated?
“Though we discussed many approaches and different styles of work to be included, it was obvious to all of us that the show was always going to be hung around the Bad Weather Paintings about Yorkshire towns – and it is!
“This series has been collected internationally, which is just wonderful to think of. Some of them I hadn’t seen since they left the studio. I happen to know, for example, the Bridlington painting is on permanent display in Texas – arid Texas! – so it only seemed right that they at some point should be shown here in York at the York City Art Gallery, the place where I first encountered painting. It’s great to see that painting in York.
“I’m not even going to say it’s a dream come true to show here because, back then, when I was a kid sneaking round the gallery feeling like I didn’t belong, it was actually beyond my wildest dreams to be showing here.
“And I think it’s been curated in that spirit – in the spirit of celebration… but also of the future. Even away from even away from the Bad Weather Paintings, the works we have chosen have been more positive examples of what’s on offer.
“This is ironic, really, as the one place on Earth where the black humour in the work is understood and will not get me misinterpreted is here in Yorkshire, but maybe we’ve second-guessed that.
“Even the Hell paintings are positive, and I think, I hope, the visitor will leave with a kind of an UP feeling.
“In fact UP is one of the letter paintings from the latest series. The name I’ve given the series, Letter Paintings, is a bit flat, I must say, but it literally comes from the illuminated letters that you find in a medieval manuscripts, which seem to need no extra fanfare!
“These letters were painstakingly hand drawn and coloured by the monks, where the first letter of the first word in these manuscripts were always given this highly detailed embellishment. It works as an intensifier really. It gives a fanfare to the page, to the first line.
“When I left school, I happened to be one 0-level short of the five you needed to get into art school and so they asked me if I wanted to come on the course and while there go to night school and take the requisite qualifications to stay on the course.
“I said ‘yes’ and was amazed you could take an A-level in lettering. That was how and when I encountered the monks’ art in detail for the first time. I loved it and actually rendered one of these illuminated letters for my final exam, I recall.
“My background in copying all sorts of heavy metal type fonts on to the backs of denim jackets really stood me in good stead for making a painting on parchment and it gave me a practised hand for rendering lettering too.
“But the best thing was it gave me a life-long appreciation of type faces and the art of hand lettering, For a while, I wanted to be a sign painter: a guy who went around painting those swinging signs you get above pub doorways in the country.
“But the other the thing I wanted to do, in this new series, was to try and convey a story – encapsulate a narrative – but not in an aphorism or maxim but in a single word.
“I wanted to go as far the other way as possible and use just one word, one short word at that, and see if that word would convey as much as a whole sentence.
“I hoped the answer to this would be ‘yes’. In fact that was one of the first words I painted. YES.”
What are you saying about York in that picture title on a retro book cover, York, So Good They Named It Once, now replicated on posters, mugs, key rings, fridge magnets and tote bags?
“People have thought ‘York, So Good They Named It Once’ must be satirical, comparing York to New York, whereas I thought I was riffing on York being first; being very important way before New York – and being a Roman capital too.
“It was also a place of so many firsts for me; where I did my first paper round, and through these streets I can go and remember things that happened to me. Like my first kiss on some old wasteland on Taddy Road [Tadcaster Road], that’s now a Tesco.
“And just round the corner from here, behind the library, I smoked my first joint. That’s why I got hooked on books…because I was by the library!
“This gallery is where I first saw paintings. Is it a dream to be back here? The answer is ‘No’, because, as a boy, it would have been foolish to dream of such a thing.”
What was Penguin’s initial reaction to your York artwork and other Penguin Book Covers?
“I tried to get Penguin to come round to it, but they were talking of suing me. But then in came a new CEO, John Makinson, who was a bit groovier than the previous one!
“The new CEO had received a picture of the York painting, and when Stephen Fry said ‘what nonsense to sue him, we need to back him’, it made an impact, so I have to say thank you to Stephen.
“I thought I was being invited to Penguin to get sued, but it went from that to being invited to lunch and John said, ‘I’d really like to commission something from you’. I was there with my [art] dealer Jay Jopling, from White Cube, and it became a commission for 14 works for their foyers etc.
“It was great not to be sued, but then maybe I felt it lost its edge, but I enjoy doing them so much and I’ve never said I’ll not do another one.”
Why is Blackpool included in your Bad Weather Paintings series when all the others feature Yorkshire places such as Whitby, Scarborough, Bridlington and Sandsend?
“Blackpool is the exception that proves the rule! As a child I just assumed Blackpool was in Yorkshire because we only ever went to Yorkshire!
“What inspired that series is I remember there was a kind of re-branding of Britain going on in the 1980s, and I wondered if it was all being done from London, as it was chronic, and I thought ‘why can’t it be done in-house?’.
“I set about re-branding Yorkshire seaside towns and villages, but to say it wasn’t necessary because they retained their charm and didn’t need a Balearic feel to their branding as it doesn’t suit these towns with all their rain! I remember sheltering under kagools in the 1970s, and that’s what these paintings are a homage to.”
Words first, then imagery?
“Once I’ve decided on the text, then I’ll decide on how to paint them, but once I’m painting, then I lose the sense of what the words say and I’m just making sure it works as a painting.
“In fact, I have a wall of text in my studio that I can’t use because I can’t make the words work graphically.
“But I also know that if people don’t like the words, they won’t like the painting.”
Why do you enjoy playing with words?
“I like how by changing one letter, or one word, you can change the whole meaning, like ‘Have Faith In Cod’ for Scarborough or ‘Something Tells Me Nothing’s Going To Happen Tonight’ for Bridlington.
“When I lost my sister Helen, she requested her ashes be scattered in Scarborough, and the next morning there was a sea fret, and I remember looking out over the sea, and on the sand was written Have Faith In Cod, and when a dog ran through it, it changed it to God. It seemed apt. Helen did have faith in God…and in cod.”
Aside from painting, what else are you working on, Harland?
“I’m writing a memoir at the moment. In fact I’m way behind with it; I’m currently nine years old dreading being ten.
“Some people turn pale when I say I’m writing my memoir, which at first wasn’t an encouraging reaction, but they later explained they thought this was something that one did when one was nearing one’s end, when the doctor has told you to get your affairs in order or, y’know, ‘not buy an LP’.
“But I think it’s not a bad idea to start it around now. I’m 56 and I think I’ve still got really good recall but that could change at any time, and it would be pretty – make that very – frustrating to write a life story if you couldn’t remember any of it. That’s the way my dad went – with the Alzheimer’s. So distressing.
“That’s why it was originally titled I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember, but as I’m chronically superstitious, I’ve changed it to One Bar Electric Memoir.
“When I left home 37 years ago, my mum gave me a one-bar electric heater. It had frayed pre-war wiring and no handle, which made it very hard to carry. She said ‘there was no mad rush to bring it back’. It’s the one thing that’s been everywhere with me and, actually, I’ve still got it. It’s very reassuring.
“I plug it in when I’m writing and, as the filament heats up, it gives off this smell of, well, of a filament heating up, but it takes me right back to a million bedsits, almost more than the reflective dish behind, which gives off this insane orange reflection. It actually does feel like I’m plugging into the past.”
Did you know?
Harland Miller designed the wedding invitation for pop star Ellie Goulding and art dealer Caspar Jopling’s service at York Minster in August 2019. “I’m her favourite artist,” says Harland.
AS his biggest-ever solo show, Harland Miller: York, So Good They Named It Once, opens in his home city at York Art Gallery, what is Harland saying about York in that picture title on a retro book cover, now replicated on posters, mugs, key rings, fridge magnets and tote bags?
“People have thought ‘York, So Good They Named It Once’ must be satirical, comparing York to New York, whereas I thought I was riffing on York being first; being very important way before New York – and a Roman capital.
“It was also a place of so many firsts for me; where I did my first paper round, and through these streets I can go and remember things that happened to me. Like my first kiss on some old wasteland on Taddy Road [Tadcaster Road], that’s now a Tesco.
“And just round the corner from here, behind the library, I smoked my
first joint. That’s why I got hooked on books…because I was by the library!
“This gallery is where I first saw paintings. Is it a dream to be back
here? The answer is ‘No’, because, as a boy, it would have been foolish to
dream of such a thing.
“But unless I’m about to wake up back behind the library, I sense this is the moment to thank so many people. I certainly wouldn’t be here without my mum [now 95], who’s travelled all the way from Dringhouses to be here tonight, but I want to thank everyone not once, but twice.”
Harland Miller: York, So Good They Named It Once, featuring his Penguin Book Covers, Pelican Bad Weather Paintings and Letter Paintings and Recent Work, runs at York Art Gallery until May 31.