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_.


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.

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.

Spotlight on Gallery 7: Harold Chalton Bradshaw ‘Perspective view scheme for inspiring Riverfront of Liverpool’, c.1913

Art Sheds Collections, 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.

“The architect Harold Bradshaw trained at the University just after the Art Shed period. Unlike contemporary technical drawings or CAD files this lyrical and beautiful watercolour from 1913 depicts Bradshaw’s ideas for the development of the Liverpool waterfront. It is one of the largest pieces in Gallery 7 and reminds me of one of Turner’s dreamy watercolours of Venice. I can’t help but wonder what the waterfront in Liverpool may have looked like if a hundred years ago Bradshaw’s ambitious and coherent plan had been adopted by the city.

Inspiring River Front, Liverpool - H. C. Bradshaw

“Bradshaw’s work hangs above a wonderful map of Liverpool.  I chose to include this initially because it’s a local piece and because the scale is pretty bonkers – it’s about 9 foot long and very narrow.  It could be over 150 years old, but the city is still enormous and the river is shown teeming with both steam-powered vessels and sailing boats. I think these pieces complement each other beautifully and I’m delighted to be able to include them both in the show.”

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

Curator’s View: Moira Lindsay on the Art Sheds

Art Sheds Collections, Curatorial, Susan Forsyth

Moira Lindsay is the Victoria Gallery & Museum’s Art Curator.  Together with Susan Forsyth they discussed Susan’s original proposal for ‘The Victoria Art School: the smallest art school in the world’.  On Susan’s first visit to us Moira explained the history of our collections and the University’s School of Applied Art and Architecture. Here Moira recaps the process of developing the idea of the Victoria Art School into the Art Sheds and choosing the accompanying artwork.

“We were sitting in my office which overlooks the quadrangle and I mentioned the Art Sheds (pointing out the quad through my window, as this is where they used to sit.) Susan was really taken with the art sheds and keen to respond to the history of the site and went on to develop her proposal to devise Susan Forsyth: Art Sheds.

The original Art Sheds

The original Art Sheds

“Over the next week or so Susan and I talked about our exhibition and I sent her more information on the sheds, the artists and related works from our collection. We then scheduled visits to the stores so that Susan could get a really good feel for the scope of the collections, which are fairly – and wonderfully – eclectic. For Susan it was crucial to see the objects in the flesh, so she patiently spent many hours with us in the stores. Susan was so thorough I think she probably knows more about some parts of the collections than I do!

“What I was most excited about was Susan’s interest in items that perhaps are overlooked, or not the obvious ‘star’ items. We went through as much as we could looking at original objects in the stores, discussing them, and then Susan created her first list of objects that she wanted to display. This list was of course then refined as Susan thought about how the selection of works related to the shed sculptures and her themes.

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

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

“One of my favourite objects is the Gregson sampler. We have six samplers in the Gregson collection, all made by girls in the Gregson family, one of them is dedicated to a sibling that died at 2 years old. Susan knew in advance about the samplers but when she saw them she was really moved by their history. Working daily in a collection we sometimes forget how amazing it is to have access to these things. It was a delight to work with Susan and I am so pleased that she chose to use our collections in her installation. Looking at historic collections with an artist brings a fresh perspective and hearing what inspires artists is insightful and often unexpected.”

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