Winchester's hidden treasures: a look inside the city's art store

Winchester's hidden treasures: a look inside the city's art store

Aladdin's cave: inside the Bar End store.

Ross casts an eye over one of the Guildhall's many oil paintings.

First published in Arts
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FROM the outside it's a dreary, bog-standard warehouse on an inconspicuous industrial estate.

Inside, it's something all together more interesting. From paintings of Winchester buildings long-since demolished, to busts, ornaments and category-defying curiosities, the city council's art storage site at Bar End is an Aladdin's cave.

But if you're expecting oil paintings by the Dutch masters, with eye-watering price tags, you might be missing the point.

“If something came to us from Van Gogh, then yes, we would probably have to turn it down. It's the history of Winchester we're interested in,” says Ross Turle, Curator of Recent History at Winchester City Council.

“The collection is topographical rather than a fine art collection. It's about whether there is relevance, and if it will add something to the collection.”

And no, he couldn't just sell the Van Gogh.

“We have ethical guidelines to follow when items are donated to us. If people give us something, they generally expect us to keep it,” he explains.

Winchester's museums service has existed for more than 150 years and inventories of artworks exist from the 1940s.

But the pictures which pepper the walls of places like the Guildhall and the Westgate (which houses the service's oldest painting, a 1554 portrait of gentleman Ralph Lamb), didn't form an official collection until the 1980s.

Some might call it a pity that so much art is stored away, out of sight, but Mr Turle says there is a practical explanation.

“We simply don't have the space. Storage is a big problem for all museum collections. A great deal of it is stored unframed because of it.”

The collection now numbers 1,740 pieces, comprising prints, watercolours, sketches and oil paintings - all insured for a cool £2,061,161.

But compare this to neighbouring Southampton's £150m, 3,700-piece assortment, and the figure seems modest.

“The difference with Southampton's collection is that theirs was started off by a big donation as a representation of modern art and masters.

“It was never started as a representation of local scenes. Here, it's how we show the history of Winchester,” Mr Turle says.

Winchester's collection may be fundamentally different in its raison d'être, but it's not without its share of gems.

Hanging side-by-side in the Guildhall are two huge oil paintings, of King Charles I, and another of King Charles II.

Whilst the creator of the former remains a mystery, the portrait of King Charles II is by Sir Peter Lely, the dominant court painter of his generation.

Commissioned by the King himself and donated to the Corporation of Winchester, it has an estimated value of £250,000.

So what about those works which aren't on display, the ones secreted away on the dusty shelves of Bar End?

There are hundreds of pieces stashed there over two floors of racks, shelves and cases, providing precious glimpses into Winchester's past.

A Lowry-esque picture of The King's House (now Peninsula Barracks), for example, is dated 1762, and shows French prisoners of war taking exercise in the yard.

On the other side of the rack, a 1900 watercolour reveals the Winchester Silk and Corn Mill as it stood in 1816 - or as celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls it, the new River Cottage Canteen.

It's clearly one of the curator's favourites, as he explains.

“It just captures the 30-year period of time when the silk mill was there, and of course it's no longer there now. It was demolished because it just wasn't profitable.”

As though to illustrate his point that the collection's purpose is to provide a narrative for the city, rather than to be an accumulation of “fine art”, on one of the racks hangs a very basic watercolour of the Westgate.

“This picture is actually quite naive, but it shows an image of the Westgate as we can no longer see it - with the pub, The Plume of Feathers, next to it.

“That was knocked down in the 1950s. But you can see it here,” he says.

And you really can see it.

“We always say to people that although it's in store, it's still accessible.

“You may have to make an appointment, but it is there for you to see.”

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