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.


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

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

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.

Spotlight on Gallery 7: Augustus John – Portrait of Professor Charles Reilly (1931)

Art Sheds Teachers

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.

Art Shed Teachers – Augustus John (1879-1961)

Portrait of Professor Charles Reilly (1931), Oil on canvas

 Augustus John - Sir Charles Reilly

The famous portrait painter Augustus John taught at the Art Sheds for a couple of years, replacing a member of staff fighting in the Second Boar War.  He maintained a good connection with the University & completed several paintings of prominent University staff.

Susan Forsyth says, “I really like this smaller less formal portrait of his close friend, the Head of the School of Architecture, Professor Sir Charles Reilly and taught modernist style architecture and the new idea of town planning to many of the country’s leading architects.  I think the friendship between the two men is strongly present in this affectionate portrait. Painted in 1931, this is the latest painting in Gallery 7 and was finished two years before Reilly retired.”

An Interview with Susan Forsyth

Susan Forsyth

Art Sheds creator Susan Forsyth originally trained as a painter at Chelsea College of Art and also holds an MA Art & Space from Kingston University. She has exhibited widely across the UK and Europe and participating in international shows in Berlin & Taiwan. She has worked on large scale public art projects in Warsaw, Lisbon, London and Rochdale. Her work has been selected for: West London Art Prize (2013); Aesthetica Art Prize (2013); First@108 Public Art Prize (2011); Jerwood Sculpture Prize (2009).

We took the opportunity to ask Susan some questions about the Art Sheds, her vision for it and her future work plans. Here is what she said.

The three sheds, shortly after completion.

The three sheds, shortly after completion.

How did your collaboration with the VG&M come about?

Along with Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mat Collishaw, Martin Creed, Cullinan & Richards, rAndon international, Gavin Turk, Julia Vogl, Richard Wentworth & Julian Wild I was one of the Connect 10 artists for the Museums At Night project. The VG&M was shortlisted for my Zusammen Choir project but was unfortunately the VG&M and the YSP where pipped at the post by the Pioneers Museum in Rochdale, who mobilised their worldwide network.

Later in the year I was invited to suggest some ideas for a participatory show for the Biennial. One of my thoughts was to run ‘the smallest art school’ focusing on traditional drawing and painting.

I came for an initial site-visit in January. Before our first meeting started I glanced up and noticed the high studio windows. I was astonished to discover that Augustus John had taught life drawing in the room next door. So I heard a brief history of the Art Sheds was before the first cup of tea had been drunk.

This is the only image that exists of the original Art Sheds. It is part of a postcard collection created for the University in the 1920s.

This is the only image that exists of the original Art Sheds. It is part of a postcard collection created for the University in the 1920s.

What do you like most about the Art Sheds history?

The Art Sheds is a fascinating episode. The School of Architecture & Applied Arts was a practical space and taught technical skills of drawing and designing and working with metal. I was surprised to see the number of woman who attended the School and the open access to students who came after work and at weekends. Apart from the cold and the noisy metal roofs, it was a pretty perfect place.

What significance does the pink and gold have?

I’m interested in the feminine monumental and use pale pink tones to signify the unifying colour of human flesh.

I usually mix the pink paint myself. However the high volatility of gloss paint made it unsuitable to use at the VG&M. So at the VG&M I have painted the shed in Farrow & Ball period recipe paint. The colour is called ‘Nancy’s Blushes’. By wonderful co-incidence the colour almost completely matches the cover of the books of gold leaf.

Gilding the roof

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

Gold leaf is both delicate and strong. I use it to link to the universal no-space of Heaven from Byzantine and pre-Renaissance painting. Both colours are highly symbolic, decorative and very beautiful. I used 2500 sheets of 22 carat-gold leaf for the three roofs.

What will happen to the sheds when the exhibition finishes?

I’m hoping that the sheds will be able to find a new home in Liverpool after the exhibition for artists to continue to create in the quiet spaces – either together or separately. The Gallery is planning to get in touch with local schools and colleges. If anyone has any ideas please let us know.

Do you work on one exhibition at a time or do you work on more than one at once?

Like most artists I work on several things at once. Writing proposals, building maquettes, making work, specifying to fabricators, approving artwork, drafting texts for several projects.

What exhibitions are you currently working on and what is coming up for you?

While I was setting up the show I was posting a piece for a project in the USA which opens in Nashville in a couple of weeks. I’m writing proposal for residencies and exhibitions in 2015.

If you have a question you would like to ask Susan, please email and we will put it to her and post the answers in a future blog.