Celebrating the true greatness of Suffolk’s art

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A new Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibiti

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A new Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition is designed to showcase the international standing of art contained in Suffolk's art collection. - Credit: Archant

Sudbury’s Gainsborough’s House is hosting a new exhibition dedicated to showcasing Suffolk’s greatest art works. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to museum director Mark Bills about the need to sell Suffolk’s cultural heritage to the world.

Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition. Gainsborough's House. Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs Bedingfield

Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition. Gainsborough's House. Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs Bedingfield And Her Daughter. - Credit: Gregg Brown

The idea that you have to go to Tate Britain, the V&A or The National Gallery in London in order to see great works of art has long been a fallacy but Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury have decided to underline the point by coming up with a groundbreaking exhibition which showcases the breadth of great works to be found in Suffolk’s collections.

The exhibition, Great Art in Suffolk Museums, takes visitors on a breath-taking journey through the ages which dramatically shows that Suffolk’s rich artistic heritage continues to this day.

Art works from long established collections housed at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich and Moyes Hall in Bury St Edmunds sit alongside equally impressive pieces from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ collection at The Red House in Aldeburgh and some choice items from the National Horse-Racing Museum at Newmarket.

There are works by Constable, George Stubbs, Philip Wilson Steer, David Hockney, John Piper, Sir Alfred Munnings, Duncan Grant and Patrick George along with plenty of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough supplied by host, Gainsborough’s House.

Gainsborough’s seated portrait of Ipswich MP William Wollaston (1730-97) which has been loaned by Ch

Gainsboroughs seated portrait of Ipswich MP William Wollaston (1730-97) which has been loaned by Christchurch Mansion to Gainsborough's House for the Great Art in Suffolk exhibition.along with his Rubens homage The Descent From The Cross. - Credit: Archant


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The museum’s director Mark Bills is delighted with the show, drawing together a world-class exhibition from five major Suffolk collections, which dazzles the visitor to Sudbury while not leaving their parent collections feeling robbed.

“There is such a richness to Suffolk’s art collections that not all the works can be on show at one time. So sharing work is a very good way of granting greater access to world-class art works while opening up opportunities for galleries and museums to change things around and bring other works, less seen but equally engaging works, out of storage.

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“Suffolk’s museums hold within their collections an extraordinary artistic heritage which has been built up over centuries. This exhibition puts works by 18th century masters alongside contemporary masters from the 20th century. If there is a common thread then it is the landscape and the richness of Suffolk’s artistic tradition.”

Mark said that Suffolk was developing a real cultural buzz and this exhibition illustrated the high standards that would bring in visitors from outside the region as well as providing something which would attract locals.

Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition. Gainsborough's House. Patrick George. Portyrait of Francis

Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition. Gainsborough's House. Patrick George. Portyrait of Francis Hoyland (left). David Hockney. Sir Peter Pears, Aldeburgh.(right) - Credit: Archant

“I think Gainsborough’s House has an important role to play not only locally but within the region. I think it is very important that a substantial collection of Gainsborough’s work and artefacts detailing his life are held in his childhood home. It puts his career into a proper context.”

One of the attractions of the Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition is that not only is it a stunning stand alone event but it serves as a taster for Suffolk’s other historic collections. I found myself thinking that if this is just the tip of an artistic iceberg then I must make time to visit the contributing galleries to see what else they have on their walls.

Happily details of the other collections are to be found in the exhibition catalogue. This has to be one of the greatest advertisements for the richness of Suffolk cultural tourism. The best thing, of course, is that it works equally well for Suffolk residents. As locals we are notoriously bad at making the most of the treasures on our own doorstep.

Until recently I had not done the official National Trust tour of Flatford. I had been to Flatford Mill many times but had not taken the guided tour. When I did, on Constable’s birthday, we were taken to the exact places where Constable painted several of his masterpieces and large-scale reproductions which were produced on-site allowed you to play a fascinating game of spot-the-difference. With many paintings the differences were minimal.

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A new Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibiti

Mark Bills is pictured at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. A new Great Art in Suffolk Museums exhibition is designed to showcase the international standing of art contained in Suffolk's art collection. - Credit: Archant

Events like that and exhibitions like Great Art in Suffolk Museums allow us to engage with our artistic heritage. It’s easy to forget that these pictures are our collective property. Many of them are held in trust for the benefit of the people of Suffolk.

“The purpose of the exhibition is to highlight the breadth and the quality of the pictures held in Suffolk’s various collections. The work is outstanding. We need as a county to shout about what we have here and the exhibition is an attempt to do that,” said Mark.

“I think people are drawn to great art – it opens peoples eyes. It makes them see the world afresh. That’s why people come here to Sudbury, why they go to Dedham and Flatford. There’s a wonderful quote in Gainsborough’s obituary in 1788 which said: ‘Nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his academy,’ and I think that was very true. The Suffolk countryside was very important to him. During his early years he was absorbing all this wonderful landscape, so this is why he is important not just to Sudbury but to the region.

“I was going round the various galleries and museums and seeing this fantastic artistic heritage on the walls and thought wouldn’t it be great to bring together a representative sample that shouted about the great work that has been created and housed in Suffolk and the work which is still made here.”

He said that seeing art in the county that it was made and exploring the lives of the painters, visiting the places where the paintings were created humanised the works and made them live in the present. “It’s art that was made for real people rather than just iconic works hanging in a museum.

“People already come to Suffolk to see the historic buildings and the landscape but if they know that there’s more to see, that there’s world-class art on display then we’ll get many more people, not just here in Sudbury but right across the county. We can’t be shy we have to shout about the great cultural opportunities that exist here.

“I think one of the great things to emerge from this exhibition that the five museums will now work much more closely together and that can only be good for our tourism trade.”

Great Art In Suffolk Museums runs until October 18. Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury is open seven days a week.

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