Farewell Biennial: Susan Forsyth talks about her inaugural Biennial experience

Art Sheds History, Curatorial, Susan Forsyth

The Art Sheds is my first Biennial experience and I have enjoyed it hugely.


In 2013 my Zusammen Choir project paraded past the Waterhouse clocktower on Rochdale Town Hall but until I stepped through the front door of the Victoria Gallery & Museum on a freezing January morning I had never experienced the interior of a Waterhouse building before – it is a hidden gem of architectural space.

Site-specific work is the artistic equivalent of tight-rope walking – highly risky during the process itself but very rewarding when you make it successfully to the other side.   I am a sculptor and on hearing the wonderful history of this original University College Liverpool building I designed the Art Sheds on the train home from my first meeting.  The actual content took longer to think through – it turns out you can’t actually hang priceless Turner artwork on a nail at the back of a shed…

Moira, Susan and apprentice Jade discussing the works in Gallery 7

Moira, Susan and apprentice Jade discussing the works in Gallery 7

I spent many hours in darkened rooms with the Victoria Gallery Art Curator, Moira Lindsay and Jade Ryan, the Collections Apprentice searching through the treasures of paintings, prints, silver and miscellaneous.  I love the VG&M’s Bridget Riley print, the exquisite silver and the 1950s cigarette packets but decided to include work up to and including the Art Sheds period.  So, although the hang and the labels break just about every other rule of contemporary curating, there is a coherent framework to the hang.  I am very pleased with the final result.

Gilding the roof

Artist Susan Forsyth adds gold leaf to an Art Shed roof.

Public participation involves a lot more people than a conventional show.  The Visitor Services Team at the VG&M are amazing – running three artists’ studios for the full 16-week run of the Biennial.  Thanks to them our ‘Art Sheds Participating Artist’ medals have gone around the world!

susan in gal7

Susan with her ‘chosen ones’ in Gallery 7

On the first day of the Biennial I headed out to see as many shows as I could.  My heart lifted when I entered the wonderful Claude Parent show at Tate Liverpool. It was completely rammed with adults and children interacting with the space and the work.  I knew that Liverpool audiences would not be shy about having a go!  I followed the art critic Adrian Searle around the stunning Open Eye Gallery – he was absorbed as I was by the black & white images.  I trained as a painter at Chelsea and the sheer range and scale of work at the Liverpool John Moores Painting Prize was very interesting.  I also spent some time in the casts room on the first floor.  Before the show closes I am giving a talk to students at Liverpool John Moores University and I’ll be heading to the Bluecoat to see the Whistler show – two of his Nocturnes are in the show and also Sharon Lockhart’s show at FACT.


Susan has her first ever ‘selfie’, taken by a Liverpool John Moores art student

2015 is the tenth anniversary of my first large-scale public art project at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park.  Bob Geldof, Richard Curtis and every Prime Minister attending the summit received a small canvas.  The archive comprises almost one hundred paintings and drawings and will be shown in the summer of next year.

On hearing I was working in Liverpool my Dad told me a nice story.  He arrived in the city on an overnight ferry from Ireland aged 16 in the early 50s.  His one suitcase, containing his entire record collection, was carried to the bus stop by a kindly policeman who laughed out loud when he found out what he was carrying and told the bus driver to make sure he got off safely at Lime Street station.

I was born in Tipperary and have felt completely at home in a city where people find it perfectly natural to be nice to complete strangers.   Liverpool has welcomed the world during the Biennial; thank you for allowing me to be part of it.

You can keep up with Susan Forsyth’s world via her website at susanforsyth.com or follow her on Twitter @SusanForsyth_.

Spotlight on Gallery 7: Frances Macdonald MacNair – ‘Child in a Rose Bowl’ (1899)

Art Sheds History, Art Sheds Teachers, Susan Forsyth

In Gallery 7, you can see a selection of artworks from the collections of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Susan Forsyth has hand-picked some of her favourite pieces, including pieces which she considers reflect the time and spirit of the Art Sheds and the professors and artists who taught there. Here, we look at one of those artworks in depth.

Child in a Rosebowl - Frances McNair


“This lovely painting was completed in 1899/1900, around the time Frances Macdonald moved to Liverpool to marry the Art Shed artist, John Herbert MacNair.  She exhibited at the 3rd Venice Biennial in the same year. ‘Child in a Rose Bowl’ is small but perfectly drawn and very ‘sympatico’ portrait of a young child.  Their much-loved son, Sylvan was born in Liverpool two years later.  Watercolour on vellum is unusual medium in the modern age.  As a gilder I share Frances Macdonald’s interest in exploring the use of ancient techniques.

“Frances Macdonald was actually born in England and moved to Glasgow when she was seventeen.  Along with MacNair, her sister Margaret and her sister’s husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Macdonald was one of the famous ‘Glasgow-Four’.

“Frances was a skilled craftswoman and taught enamelling and embroidery at the Art Sheds.  She was a talented designer and during her tenure in Liverpool exhibited her work in shows in London, Turin and Russia.  The Macdonald-MacNair Liverpool home at 54 Oxford Street became central to the wider Liverpool arts scene.  Frances returned to teach at the Glasgow School of Art in 1908, where she painted her best-known series of watercolours on the theme of motherhood and marriage. After her death in 1921 the grief-struck MacNair destroyed all her work, which may in part explain why Frances Macdonald is a less well-known artist than her talent deserves.”

The Art Sheds exhibition finishes this Saturday, 25th October 2014.

The Art Sheds: Enhancing the Visitor Experience

Art Sheds Collections, Art Sheds History, Art Sheds Teachers, Curatorial, Susan Forsyth, Visitor Interaction

The Visitor Services Team is an integral part of the day to day running and maintenance of the Victoria Gallery & Museum and part of their job is to maintain exhibitions, particularly ones with interactive elements.  The Art Sheds is a prime example of an exhibition that requires regular maintenance by the team to ensure that it always looks good for visitors.  Visitor Services Team member Vicky recalls some of the tasks the team had to consider when looking after this exhibition.


A panoramic picture of the Art Sheds, taken by the Visitor Services Team’s Duty Manager Kim

“From the very beginning we were briefed by artist Susan Forsyth and our curator Moira Lindsay on what our role would be in helping to maintain the Art Sheds exhibition.  As it is an interactive exhibit there are a number of things that would need to be taken care of on a daily or weekly basis.

“Members of our team were invited to briefing meetings with the curatorial and technical staff so that we could give our opinion on what issues we thought might arise from a visitor’s perspective.  As these are actual sheds, they are raised off the ground slightly, so we had to find a way to ensure that visitors with mobility issues would be able to use the sheds.  To solve this issue we purchased a small ramp.  We also quickly discovered that although the sheds are child-friendly they are not pram-friendly due to the small size of the interior and the plinths used to display the statues and the vase so we created a sign with instructions for parents visiting with babies and smaller children.

ink pots

The Ink Pots for the Nudes Shed

“We regularly replenished the ink in the inkwells and ensured that pencils were always available.   We were given a metal embosser so that we could mark the thick cartridge paper supplied in the Art Sheds with a logo and replaced the paper levels regularly. The watercolour paint trays required regular cleaning and visitor art was collected and displayed on regular rotation in our reception area.  Co-ordinating requests for workshop places and setting up trestle tables and seating for tours and talks was also our responsibility.


The metal embosser supplied by Susan to create ‘watermarked’ Art Sheds paper

“One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was taking pictures of visitors receiving the medals that Susan Forsyth designed for those who participated in the exhibition.  They were so popular and the looks on the faces of the children especially when they were presented with a medal was really heart-warming, they were so excited and proud of themselves!


Two happy Art Sheds artists with their creations and their limited edition medals, designed by Susan Forsyth!

“We also took regular general photos and posted images and news on our social media pages to encourage visitors to come and try out the Art Sheds. We liaised with the Liverpool Biennial team who helped us by cross posting and re-tweeting messages, and we even received a mention in the Liverpool Echo, which we were thrilled with.


Our mention as one of the Liverpool Echo’s top ‘Biennial Picks’!

“So many people commented on how pretty and fun the Art Sheds were, and how in particular the exhibition had made their children excited about art. Lots of people also commented on how they enjoyed hearing about the history of the Art Sheds whilst on our weekly free drop-in guided tours (every Tuesday and Thursday at 12.30pm), imagining them sitting out on our Quad over 100 years ago from the view out of the window and how seeing the art in Gallery 7 by artists such as Augustus John really made the sheds’ history ‘come alive’.


Donkey Easels – what a great name!

“I also remember us all being tickled when three large boxes arrived marked ‘DONKEY EASEL’ in big letters and then the penny dropping when the boxes were opened containing the clever little easels with the flip up tops and the benches attached for the visitors to sit on when creating their art.  And last, but by no means least, I loved it when Susan asked us to help to put together this blog to accompany the exhibition, which we hope you have enjoyed reading as much as we have enjoyed writing it.  The Art Sheds exhibition has been so much fun, so informative and we have loved taking care of it.”

The Art Sheds exhibition closes this weekend, Saturday October 25th 2014.

The Art Sheds are looking for a new home

Curatorial, Susan Forsyth, Visitor Interaction

****PLEASE NOTE:  We are no longer accepting entries for the Art Sheds giveaway.  The artist and our Curator will make a decision soon.  We had an overwhelming response and it may take a little while to make an announcement.  We thank you for your patience****

Have you visited and enjoyed our Art Sheds exhibition?

The three Art Sheds.

The three sheds, shortly after completion.

Do you know of somewhere that would love to make use of the Art Sheds?

Susan Forsyth and Victoria Gallery & Museum are looking to re-home these much-loved key components of this Liverpool Biennial 2014 exhibition for use in Liverpool.

The Art Sheds are FREE to a good home.  We would like the sheds to stay together, but will consider splitting them up if only one can be accommodated.  If you wish to use them outside, they will need weatherproofing with varnish, which we would advise on.

We are sorry, but the sheds are not being offered for domestic use.

If you have a brilliant suggestion for relocating the Art Sheds, please do get in touch via vgm@liv.ac.uk.  Please register interest by 22.10.2014.

Spotlight on Gallery 7: John Herbert MacNair – ‘Ysighlu’ (1895)

Art Sheds Collections, Art Sheds History, Art Sheds Teachers, Susan Forsyth

In Gallery 7, you can see a selection of artworks from the collections of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Susan Forsyth has hand-picked some of her favourite pieces, including pieces which she considers reflect the time and spirit of the Art Sheds and the professors and artists who taught there. Here, Susan looks at one of those artworks in depth.

Ysighlu - John Herbet McNair

“As a gilder, I was immediately drawn to this striking image.  The contrasting blue tones and delicate execution of the female form is very striking.  When the work first appeared in the Aesthetic movements iconic ‘Yellow Book’, which at that time was edited by Audrey Beardsley, it carried MacNair’s subtitle, ‘The very shadows in the cave worshipped her.  The little waves threw themselves at her feet. And kissed them’.

“MacNair came from a wealthy Scottish family and initially trained as an architect though he went on to make and design glass, metalwork furniture, jewellery, textiles as well as 2-D posters and wallpapers.  In the same year as ‘Ysighlu’ was made MacNair showed work at the inaugural art Nouveau Salon in Paris.

“John MacNair was a gifted artist and designer. However the closure of the Art Sheds and a subsequent family bankruptcy proved to be downward turning point in MacNair’s career.  In 1911 exhibition of his and Francis Macdonald’s paintings were exhibited for the last time.  Tragically McNair died in obscurity in 1955.”

Bryan Biggs: The shared history of The Bluecoat and the Art Sheds

Art Sheds History, Art Sheds Teachers

Bryan Biggs is the Artistic Director of The Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts.  The Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. For Biennial 2014, The Bluecoat hosted an exhibition of work by James McNeill Whistler and it is also hosting the The International Biennial Association Summit on October 11th.

Here, Bryan discusses the fascinating little-known connection between the Art Sheds and The Bluecoat – a connection that would help to inspire The Bluecoat to become the cultural landmark that it is today.

Bryan Biggs

Bryan Biggs, taken during the Biennial 2014 Whistler exhibition at The Bluecoat

There is an historical connection between the Bluecoat and the Art Sheds, the ramshackle buildings that housed the University of Liverpool’s Applied Art Department 1894 -1905. And it was a group of young artists from the Sheds we must thank for putting in motion a train of events that would transform the Bluecoat from school to arts centre.

The 1902 Education Act compelled Liverpool Corporation to take over the School of Design (then in Mount Street next door to the Mechanics’ Institute, which is now LIPA), and it was decided to also incorporate the University’s Applied Art Section into a new School of Art. Used to the progressive teaching of J. Herbert MacNair (Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s brother-in-law) and Augustus John who’d taught at the Art Sheds for 18 months, several students, together with tutors MacNair and the painter Gerard Chowne, resisted this move and broke away to form an independent art school.

Bluecoat Courtyard

The Bluecoat, present day (photo by Ian Lawson, taken from http://www.thebluecoat.org.uk)

Taking up residence in Sandon Terrace (the site now occupied by LIPA’s car park), the group named themselves the Sandon Terrace Studios, later becoming the Sandon Studios Society. In 1907 however the group had to vacate these premises and it was Fanny Lister, later Mrs Calder, who spotted the opportunity to occupy the vacant School Lane premises of the Blue Coat School that had just moved to larger premises in suburban Wavertree.

The artistic colony’s early years in the building were eventful. Its first exhibition in 1908 included work by Monet, probably the first time his work had been seen outside London. 1911 saw the first Post Impressionists exhibition, a version of the show that Roger Fry had curated a few months earlier in London, where it had caused such a stir, Virginia Woolf declaring that the world would never be the same. The modern era in art had arrived! Significantly, the Bluecoat show was the first time that the likes of Picasso and Matisse had shown alongside British artists – members of the Sandon, including several who had studied at the Art Sheds.

Bluecoat Historic

Historic photograph of The Bluecoat (taken from http://www.thebluecoat.org.uk)

Amongst these, Herbert Tyson Smith went on to rent a studio at the Bluecoat (until his death in 1972), becoming one of Liverpool’s most eminent artists, specialising in architectural sculpture – his work includes the Liverpool Cenotaph, outside St. George’s Hall, and the reliefs over the Mersey Tunnel entrance. Another exhibitor, Gerard Chowne, was killed a few years later during the First World War. Another, Fanny Calder, later led a successful campaign to save the building.

Charles Reilly, Professor of Architecture at the University, and supportive of the work going on in the Art Sheds, had moved his department to the Bluecoat, working alongside the Sandon artists. His vision to consolidate the building’s activity and create an arts centre had been supported by William Lever (the first Lord Leverhulme) who purchased the building from the school using damages received from a successful libel action against the Daily Mail.

Although Lever lost interest and died before the scheme could be implemented, the vision was eventually realised in 1927 following the indomitable Mrs Calder’s fundraising campaign. With the Bluecoat Society of Arts formally constituted that year, the Bluecoat’s future as an arts centre was secured, making it arguably the earliest arts centre in the country.

The Art Sheds exhibition runs at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until October 25th 2014.

Many thanks to Bryan Biggs at The Bluecoat for this entry.

Artist Susan Forsyth talks about the Still Life shed.

Susan Forsyth, Visitor Interaction

Susan Forsyth’s Art Sheds stand in Gallery 6 of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Each shed encourages a different artistic style, subject and purpose.  The sheds come complete with thick cartridge paper embossed with an Art Sheds symbol for visitors to enjoy.

The middle shed is the Still Life shed.  Here, Susan tells us about the contents of this shed, which contains a large vase filled with a beautiful display of silk flowers, accompanied by watercolour paints and paintbrushes.

The Still Life Shed

The Still Life Shed

“Flower-painting was important in Victorian oeuvre.  Due to the constraints of conservation we couldn’t use real plants or flowers in the gallery, any insects entering the Museum could damage the work in the rest of the Museum.  I’ve arranged a display of silk flowers using a riotous asymmetrical display of Victorian flowers: cabbage roses, hydrangeas, delphiniums, penstemons, orchids and ferns. The period embossed urn is made of paper and clay as a stone one would be too heavy for the plinth.

“This colourful still-life shed was most suitable for the watercolour pans – a medium familiar to the original students of the Sheds.  They are high quality and visitors can draw first or paint directly onto paper.  There is a good selection of colours and there is a mixing tray for artists to create their own colours.  There is no time limit and everyone is free to include as much, or as little, detail as they wish.”

Spotlight on Gallery 7: Edward Lear – ‘Assouan’ (1848-49)

Art Sheds Collections, Susan Forsyth

In Gallery 7, you can see a selection of artworks from the collections of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Susan Forsyth has hand-picked some of her favourite pieces, including works which she considers compliment and/or represent the grandeur and importance of the Victoria Gallery & Museum’s collections. Here, Susan looks at one of those artworks in depth.

Assouan - Edward Lear

Assouan – Edward Lear

Though best known as a writer Lear was a naturally talented draftsman drawing birds for the Zoological Society.  His first publication was not as a writer but a serious ornithological book illustrating the parrot family.

‘The Owl & the Pussycat’, written in 1867 for the children of one of his patrons, is full of the joy and carelessness of childhood.  It is one of my favourite poems and the achievement is all the more astonishing when we consider that it’s author was the youngest of 21 children and his a childhood marred by epilepsy, poverty and what Lear himself called ‘the morbids’.

Lear travelled widely in Greece, Egypt, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and eventually settled down to live on the Italian Riviera. This peaceful watercolour of an Egyptian coastline from 1848-49 was one of the first paintings I selected for the exhibition. Lear usually drew the scenes from life and worked them into watercolour paintings later in the studio.

Though Edward Lear did struggle with personal relationships and unrequited love affairs and spurned marriage proposals his professional life as a writer, draftsman and painter was a story of complete triumph over oppressive circumstances and makes the childhood poem all the more poignant.

Art Sheds Visitor Gallery

Visitor Interaction

As part of the interactive aspect of the Art Sheds, artist Susan Forsyth designed a limited edition participation medal to be given to anyone who wished to come and try their hand at being an Art Sheds artist.

forsyth medal close-up SMALL

As both the medals and the sheds proved so popular, the medals ran out in record time!  Unfortunately there are no more medals but people are still coming to try their hand at portraiture, still life and nudes painting, sketching and drawing.  It was so very difficult but we whittled down the hundreds of visitor artworks so that we could show you a selection of our favourites.  Please allow time for the images to load.















It’s interesting to see that the flowers in the still life shed, being so colourful and interpretative, have been the most popular, especially with children.  People have chosen to paint individual flowers, part of the flowers, or the whole vase and they have been painted by a range of ages and abilities.  The more serious artists amongst our visitors have preferred the portrait shed overall, loving capturing the detail in the faces of Penelope and David.  The nudes shed has also been popular, but mostly with an older audience with people choosing to use both the ink and to take the sketching pencils from the still life shed into the nudes shed in order to capture more detail.

If you are yet to try out the sheds, we’d love to see you.  Perhaps you will see your artwork online!  The Art Sheds will be with us until 25th October 2014.


Spotlight on Gallery 7: Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Old Mill, Ambleside’ (1798)

Art Sheds Collections, Curatorial, Susan Forsyth

In Gallery 7, you can see a selection of artworks from the collections of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Susan Forsyth has hand-picked some of her favourite pieces, including works which she considers compliment and/or represent the grandeur and importance of the Victoria Gallery & Museum’s collections. Here, Susan looks at one of those artworks in depth.

The Old Mill, Ambleside, by J.M.W. Turner

The Old Mill, Ambleside, by J.M.W. Turner

“I grew up with a print of Turner’s exquisite late painting, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1839) and I telling my students that in my opinion the first Impressionist painter was the son of an English wig-maker.

“Though the ‘painter of light’ lived in interesting times he focused his considerable genius on recording the land and sea instead of recording the more profitable events of history. A precocious talent, Turner’s watercolour of Lambeth Palace was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer show in 1790, when he was only 15 years old. Turner spent several years copying classical plaster busts similar to those we have in the current Art Sheds exhibition and developing the drawing and watercolour painting skills.

“The Museum has several impressive Turners but I chose this small, apparently unassuming watercolour as it is firstly less well-known and secondly has a link to the north of England. It was painted when Turner was still a relatively young, age 23. He had been befriended by a wealthy and cultured historian Walter Fawkes. The young Turner visited the kindly patron at his home in Otley, North Yorkshire and painted many local scenes on his many long walks in the inspiring scenery. To this day Farnley Hall in Wharfedale has several hundred of Turner’s early works.

“This small unassuming painting can tell us a lot about how Turner born and brought up in London’s busy Covent Garden became the foremost landscape painter of his, or any, century.”

The Art Sheds exhibition for the Liverpool Biennial 2014 runs at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until Saturday 25th October.