The most famous exhibit at Malmesbury’s Athelstan Museum will be joined by artwork from local school children from Malmesbury Secondary School in August and September.
Turner’s evocative watercolour of the town’s Abbey was purchased at auction through a mixture of local fundraising and funding from the National Lottery and from the Art Fund.
The seller had been to America looking for a buyer, but an advert spotted in Country Life by Athelstan Museum trustee, Angela Sykes, was the catalyst that would eventually lead to the painting being permanently displayed in the town.
Now the young artists of the future are able to see their own work alongside that of one of the world’s most well known masters.
Angela said: “JMW Turner is one of the country’s greatest painters and to have his interpretation of Malmesbury Abbey hanging in our museum is no better place for it to be seen by many people who would not have been able to do so.
“In fact, the painting had not been on display anywhere for over 40 years and potentially could have been lost overseas, possibly into a private collection.”
One of the principal criteria expressed by the National Lottery for the successful funding of the purchase was for the museum to involve a ‘wider range of people in heritage’.
As a result, the Turner Diversity Programme was developed, which aims to take art connected to the Turner painting to as many different sections of society as possible.
Involving young people was an important part of this strategy. The museum runs workshops and events for younger people during school holidays as well as inviting schools to visit the museum for tours and talks.
The museum’s outreach team also visits schools to help with specific projects in the curriculum. This latest project work has developed by teacher Sue Gibbons involving 40 year 8 students from Malmesbury School who were able to take part in workshops where they explored the watercolour techniques used by Turner and then applied them by spending an afternoon) painting their own watercolours of Malmesbury Abbey.
Susan Mockler, vice-chair of the Athelstan Museum management team, said: “The work with the school has been particularly interesting as the enthusiasm of the pupils and the skills they have displayed have expanded our expectations about what can be achieved.
“The school has been a great partner and leader in this project and we look forward to working more closely with them in the future. This project has brought in more young people to enjoy the museum – our living history will only be appreciated if it can be experienced in places such as museums.”
For the children, the project was an opportunity to learn more about Turner, his work and the techniques he used and the Museum provided them with watercolours for the project. But what did the children know about Turner and his watercolour?
“All I really knew was that he had lived in Malmesbury and had sketched it, but finished the painting later in life,” said Lucy Horlick, Year 8, Malmesbury School, whose painting is one of those that has been chosen to be exhibited alongside the Turner. “He used to paint from what he felt as well as what he saw, so I tried to paint my piece from what I felt while I was standing in front of the Abbey.”
Gabe Willet, also Year 8, said: “He used a lot of watercolours in his work. So a lot of our paintings use similar techniques and look like his.
“One of his techniques that I had read about was that he started with lighter colours, and then went over in the dark. So that’s what I did with my painting,” added Sophie McMullen, also Year 8.
Before the project, the children visited the museum where one of the volunteers talked to them about the painting and the techniques he used.
Sue Gibbons, Curriculum Leader for Art at Malmesbury School, said: “The children had one workshop in school to explore using watercolours, and a second where they sat in the grounds of the Abbey and in that time they did amazing work.
“They see the Abbey every day, and a lot of them would have taken it for granted. It was lovely to sit there and for them to think ‘this is an amazing building, it’s beautiful’. Luckily, the weather was glorious when we were painting, but I think they now have more of an appreciation of the beauty of the Abbey.”
All of the work produced for the project was exhibited, including that of the children of Minety Primary School and some created in community workshops. Although not all of the children’s artwork will be displayed in the museum, as part of the project and to extend engagement, a larger exhibition was held at the Julia and Hans Rausing Building in Malmesbury in June.
Sue Gibbons said: “The exhibition was amazing. A lot of effort went into making it look as professional as possible, all the pieces were professionally mounted, and it looked great.”
For more information about the museum and Turner’s watercolour, visit: https://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/our-collection/art/