Exhibition harks back to gallery's trailblazing feminist past

Tuesday 12 November 2013, 12:16

Polly March Polly March

When the Mostyn in Llandudno opened in 1901, it heralded a landmark in the history of female art.

Spearheaded by Lady Augusta Mostyn, it was the first venue in the world specifically designed to exhibit the work of female artists, who were at that time excluded from the wider art scene.

Lady Mostyn saw first-hand the lack of opportunities for female artists locally and so decided to finance the construction of a new art gallery on the site of the 1896 National Eistedfodd in Llandudno.

Lady Augusta Mostyn by Herbert Sidney.jpg Lady Augusta Mostyn by Herbert Sidney. Courtesy of Mostyn Estates

Now an exhibition which reflects back to those early days and captures the spirit of the original Gwynedd Ladies' Art Society has opened at the Mostyn - the first in a series of exhibitions which link the modern day building to its past uses.

Visual arts programme curator Adam Carr told me that the idea behind the exhibition is to blend together historical material and contemporary artworks.

He said: "These two components of the exhibition allow the audience to experience Mostyn's past in different, yet related ways.

"One component situates the audience as close as possible to Gwynedd Ladies' Art Society through the presentation of historical material from their time at Mostyn, and our research intern Sarah Williams has been a key to bringing that together.

"The other component, artworks by contemporary artists, allows the audience to see how that past plays out in present and relates to today."

The contemporary artwork on show includes pieces by Ai Weiwei, Martha Rosler, Andrea Fraser, Guerrilla Girls, and Danh Vo, and deals with issues such as gender, race and exclusion – issues that were vital to the formation of the original Gwynedd Ladies' Art Society.

Women'€™s Art Society, installation view Women'€™s Art Society, installation view. Image courtesy of Mostyn

Also on show will be an array of artefacts, documentation and artwork from the original society, following a local appeal to the public to come forward with items of interest.

Among them is a portrait of Lady Augusta Mostyn by Herbert Sidney on loan from Mostyn Hall and a photograph from 1890 when the Queen of Romania came to visit her.

There are also some architectural drawings of Mostyn by G A Humphreys, Lady Augusta Mostyn's architect and agent, loaned to the gallery by Flintshire Record Office with the permission of the current Lord Mostyn.

Also on view is a copy of each catalogue of all the Gwynedd Ladies Art Society exhibitions, eight in total, and the society's rules and regulations, loaned by the National Library of Wales.

Adam said: "The call-out for material and items allowed us to promote the series of exhibitions to the local audience and engage them in the process of their making, starting with the first exhibition, with interest in appealing to those who have never stepped foot in Mostyn previously."

Installation view of the Women'€™s Art Society exhibition, Mostyn Women'€™s Art Society, installation view. Image courtesy of Claire Fontaine and Mostyn

After the initial appeal, the gallery was contacted by the great-great grandson of one of the society’s most successful members, Lily Florence Whaite, who has generously loaned them a number of her artworks and shared his own research into the society.

Each exhibition in the series will observe a specific period in the building’s history, in a bid to encourage the public to engage with Mostyn's past, and enable local people to explore their own history and each takes the building’s former uses as starting point.

Two exhibitions, WAR I and WAR II, look at the building's requisition as a drill hall during World War One, and its occupation by the Inland Revenue as their temporary headquarters during World War Two; MAIL investigates the building's expansion into the former Royal Mail sorting Office and Wagstaff will explore the use of the building as a shop and store for pianos.

All exhibitions in the series will exhibit artworks and artefacts from the relevant time and connect themes and ideas from that epoch with more contemporary art.

Sol Calero's When you work you get things done Sol Calero, When you work you get things done, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist

The next exhibition in the series is titled We've Got Mail and will be a series in itself, taking place over four individual shows, with the first opening next April.

Adam added: "I thought about these exhibitions as a response to Mostyn's history and where they will be taking place: a section of the building that was formerly a Royal Mail sorting office. They will look at the history of the postal mail service and present the history of mail art."

The Women's Art Society exhibition runs until 5 January 2014.

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