Founded in 1768, the Royal Academy is the country’s oldest art school, as well as a prestigious exhibiting society. Although it’s associated with its historic base in central London, its 250th anniversary celebrations have been taking place across the UK, showing the influence its esteemed elected members have had far beyond the capital.
This includes the industrial city of Carlisle, where the civic art gallery and museum, Tullie House, acknowledges the influence of one Royal Academician in particular; the painter Carel Weight, and the way in which his taste and circle has shaped the gallery’s collection.
Although he might not be a household name today, in the mid-20th century Carel Weight was a highly regarded painter of portraits and townscapes, which can be found in galleries and museums across the country. He was also an influential teacher, encouraging experimentation in his students. At the Royal College of Art, where he served as Professor of Painting for many years, his students included the Pop Artist Peter Blake and artists associated with the so-called Kitchen Sink School of realist painters such as John Bratby, both of whom later joined him as Royal Academicians.
Between 1953 and 1962, Weight worked on behalf of Tullie House to purchase contemporary art for the people of the city through its Art Purchase Scheme, which was founded in 1933 and ran until 1975. This included supporting his students by buying works by those he taught, as well as members of his circle and painters he admired. On his death in 1997, too, the gallery was gifted a large portion of his personal collection, including work which had hung in his own home, offering an insight into his own inspirations and artistic world.
Tullie House is marking the Royal Academy’s milestone birthday with a small exhibition of this collection. Weight is introduced through the pencil sketch ‘Portrait of Carel Weight’ (c 1935) by Ruskin Spear, a friend and exhibiting partner, inscribed with Weight’s motto: “The artist should be free to use every means in his power to say what he wants as clearly and completely as possible.” His own work is also represented, including the large painting ‘Men Leaving Work’ (1954), in which men stream out of work on bikes and on foot at the end of the day, against the recognisable city setting of signs, wires and rooftops.
This close-up of everyday life is typical of Weight’s work; he painted the people and places that were familiar to him in London, where he spent his entire life. Weight also purchased work by other artists who shared his interests in townscapes, such as LS Lowry – whose work on show at Tullie House includes the simple yet evocative sketch ‘Girl Guides Playing Rounders’ (1925).
Weight wasn’t just interested in artists who painted the urban scene, however. He also collected work by the Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell, who depicted her intimate knowledge of the Lakeland landscapes where she grew up in sombre hues.
The highlight of the exhibition, though, is Peter Blake’s painting ‘Children Reading Comics’ (1954), which shows two serious children engrossed in the Eagle comic, complete with advertising images for Meccano. It’s an image that’s both timeless in its imagery of sibling relations, yet unmistakably Pop in its style.
Carel Weight’s collection shows the people of the Carlisle the potential for art to be found in the ordinary, and the interest that can be found by looking closely at the places that surround us, whether that’s the dramatic natural beauty of the lakes and fells, or the urban streetscape of the working town.
Carel Weight RA: Artist, Advisor, Collector and Benefactor runs until 28 October at Tullie House Art Gallery and Museum, Carlisle.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.