Staffordshire County Council’s fine and decorative art collections have been acquired over the past 70 years. The fine art collection now contains over 700 prints, drawings, watercolours, maps and oil paintings. These reflect the land-marks, landscape and people of Staffordshire, and include locally and nationally known artists. In addition there are around 300 items in the decorative art collection, which is particularly strong in the field of contemporary craft jewellery.
Many of the works in oil were collected by Stafford Museum & Art Gallery, which originally opened as the Wragge Museum in 1878. By 1934 Stafford Museum had moved to purpose-built premises at The Green and had a dedicated art gallery. The collections were eventually transferred from the care of Stafford Borough Council to Staffordshire County Council in the 1980s. In 1992 the Art Gallery was relocated to the Shire Hall in the centre of the town, where it remains today. Meanwhile, the County Council had opened the Staffordshire County Museum in 1964, using the former servants’ block at Shugborough Hall, just outside Stafford. Although it did not specifically develop an art collection, the County Museum acquired a number of oil paintings, including portraits of Staffordshire families and livestock paintings, as part of its social and agricultural history collections. These include portraits of the Whitby family, owners of the Shugborough Estate in the early seventeenth century, and of the Joule family, a brewing dynasty from Stone. This background is reflected in the nature of the oil paintings held by Staffordshire Arts & Museum Service. Typically, for a local authority collection, there are portraits of civic dignitaries, Members of Parliament and Justices of the Peace. There are also a large number of works by amateur artists of local landmarks and views. These are often of limited artistic merit but enormous local and social historical value.
Of the local artists represented in the collections, a few are worth mentioning in more detail. Thomas Peploe Wood (1817–1845) was born in Great Haywood, Staffordshire and was a prolific watercolourist and draftsman. A large number of watercolours of Staffordshire buildings were commissioned from him by the antiquarian William Salt, which now form an important part of the Staffordshire Views Collection held at the William Salt Library in Stafford. As well as a large number of preparatory sketches, Staffordshire Arts and Museum Service is fortunate to hold a number of his relatively rare oils, including the genre pieces Cattle Piece and Gypsy Scene, in addition to two views of the landscape around Ilam in the north of the county.
John Prescott Knight (1803–1881) was born in Stafford, the son of Edward Knight Prescott, an actor. He was well known as a painter of portraits and genre scenes and although now relatively obscure, is the only Stafford-born artist with a national reputation. The Collection contains a number of portraits of his family, as well as one of his genre pieces, Smugglers Alarmed.
Believed to have been born in Stafford in 1750, Michael Keeling (d.1820) was an accomplished portrait painter and is represented by three portraits, including one of his last commissions, a portrait of William Horton, founder of Stafford’s shoe trade.
Mabel Frances Layng (1881–1937) although born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, was brought up in Stafford, where her father was headmaster of King Edward VI Grammar School between 1884 and 1901. She was a pupil of Sir Frank Brangwyn and is represented here by one work in oils, The Omnibus. Staffordshire Arts and Museum Service also cares for 16 watercolours by this obscure artist, who deserves to be better known.
Since the 1980s, selective acquisition of new work has continued, focusing on contemporary work by artists who are associated with Staffordshire, and additional works by local artists already represented. A series of public art commissions using the County Museum’s social history collection as inspiration has been particularly fruitful, most notably Lisa Milroy’s series of charcoal drawings and oil paintings of Stafford-made shoes. Other contemporary artists represented by works in oil or acrylic include Brendan Neiland, Peter Markey and David Gleeson.
Although the Shire Hall Gallery in Stafford is a temporary exhibition venue and does not have permanent gallery space, the County Art Collection is featured in at least one exhibition a year, and many works are integrated in the permanent display spaces at the County Museum, Servants’ Quarters and Park Farm on the Shugborough Estate. The Public Catalogue Foundation has provided a wonderful opportunity to make our paintings more widely known, and we are pleased to have had a chance to be involved in this worthwhile project.
Chris Copp, Museums Officer
Text source: PCF / Staffordshire Heritage & Arts
This description was originally written for a catalogue.