a place where a collection of
curiosities and rarities is exhibited.
Williamson Art Gallery & Museum
21st July - 1st October 2022
ROADS OF CONNECTION
It was an extraordinary moment when Emma Rodgers and I discovered that our respective families had both occupied the same house in Birkenhead, more precisely 42, Grosvenor Road in Oxton. It was the most affirming of coincidences, a sense that the world was a smaller place, all the more amazing because Emma and I had known each other for some time, with no knowledge of this common bond until 2008. It all began with a centre-piece of this exhibition, the portrait of my great aunt, Mary White, painted by William Charles Penn, and held in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum collection. I was visiting Emma on a research trip, and telling her about my family’s many connections to Birkenhead (both my mother’s parents were brought up in the town). It was when I got on to the subject of my great aunt Mary and her husband Graham that Emma pricked up her ears. She immediately mentioned the portrait of Mary which had made such an impression on her on visits to the Williamson over the years, and of the connection to the house where she was brought up, 42, Grosvenor Road. In moments her mother, who was in the next room, confirmed that her family had bought the property from the Whites, whose family were the first occupants.
What of the woman in the portrait? Mary White (neé Heath) was something of a legend in my family. She was the granddaughter of Henry K. Aspinall, the Birkenhead brewer. Her husband, the Right Hon H. Graham White (1880-1965) was Liberal MP for Birkenhead East for many years. He was a Freeman of the Borough, a Privy Councillor and a member of the National Government of 1931-35, under Ramsay MacDonald. He later became President of the Liberal Party. Mary (1888-1962) meanwhile had an interesting C.V. of her own. Her death made front-page headlines in the local papers where she was described as “one of the best known and best loved women in the public life of Birkenhead”. She was deeply committed to women’s causes in the locality, and to child welfare. A dedicated committee member, she was sometime President of the Liverpool and Birkenhead branch of the National Council of Women, and a founder member of the Council of the Women’s Liberal Federation. There were numerous other local appointments which were an occupational hazard for an MP’s wife, and as a committed Anglican, she was a regular attender of St Saviour’s Church, Oxton. But Mary’s life presented its difficulties too. As one of her grandchildren
remarked to me, the portrait perhaps doesn’t show her in the best of health. During this period she suffered from tuberculosis, a persistent condition which meant she spent her winters in the therapeutic air of Switzerland or many years (and fortunately she had the resources to be able to afford this). In addition, her youngest son Sam would die in a tragic accident in 1945. But the painting also shows very clearly her spirit, and my mother remembers her aunt’s humour, her easy-going kindness and warmth.
Her portrait by William Charles Penn forms a kind of historical centrepiece to one aspect of Emma Rodgers’ exhibition, one that focusses on this sense of coincidence, one based on geographical serendipity. 42, Grosvenor Road, the Williamson Art Gallery itself, Caroline Place (where Penn lived, and whose vivid painting of his home and garden is also included in the show) and Birkenhead Park (celebrating its 175th anniversary this year) all lie off the Slatey Road which forms a kind of main artery in this project, bringing together the filaments of a closely interwoven story. Emma, very excited by these coincidences, has enjoyed researching this exhibition, which is also a kind of Wunderkammer mapping of so many aspects of her creative life in Birkenhead, and, with her imaginative recreation of her studio space and her responses to other objects in the Williamson collection, it adds up to an autobiographical tribute to what this locality has given her as an artist. From her homage to Birkenhead’s famous Della Robbia Pottery to a rolling menagerie of her inimitable beasts and creatures, here is the vivid and energised world of Emma Rodgers very much on its home turf.
David Whiting, Critic, Writer and Curator
The exhibition is a mini-retrospective of Emma’s practice and gives visitors a chance to step into the artist’s studio and see how her work has developed over time – from the young art student awestruck by the collections in her local Williamson Art Gallery, to one of the country’s foremost sculptors in ceramic and bronze. ‘Wunderkammer’ explores the objects, people and places that have fascinated and inspired Emma throughout her career.
Alongside of the exhibition, the Williamson Art Gallery will be unveiling a specially commissioned new sculpture by Emma for the Gallery’s outdoor courtyard. The ‘Garden of Artemis’ is a life-size ornamental oak tree sculpture in steel and bronze – a nod to both the oak tree in Birkenhead’s coat of arms, and the trees that feature in the Gallery’s collection of Della Robbia decorative ceramics.
The sculpture has been made possible by funding from the estate of Fanchon Frohlich, through the Williamson and Priory Friends.
Niall Hodson, Curator, William Art Gallery and Museum
This sculpture is created in response to ‘The Wounded Butterfly’ by Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) and is a childhood favourite of mine as I could relate to the youthful wonder of nature. The texture and application of colour is exquisite and has inspired the surface and finish of my sculpture.
Medea the Sorceress
Porcelain, fresh water pearls and metal foliage
I was inspired by the ‘Medea’ painting by Evelyn De Morgan in the Williamson’s collection.
Medea is a powerful sorceress and this beautiful, enchanting painting depicts her wandering the marble halls of Ancient Greece where the story is set, driven mad by her abandonment. I have created a porcelain figure in response to this painting’s rich narrative. Clasping her glass, she strides gracefully as blossom, butterflies and doves ascend from the painting, adorning her jewel like coloured taffeta as it sweeps along the marble floor. Medea is the most fascinating women of Greek mythology.
The Great Man
The Williamson has been a huge part of my working life and the relationships I have formed with a number of working artists has been possibly the most valuable part of that. The gallery’s collection has been boosted to try and guarantee that names of people whose work is worthy of preservation are not lost. There are no fears that Emma Rodgers will be overlooked, she has built a national and international reputation from her home town of Birkenhead.
Watching Emma’s career blossom has been a joy. She developed her own way of looking at things and of handling clay early on, but has gone way beyond that into other media and mixing techniques with an inventiveness that is wonderful to behold. I am pleased to have played a small part in that creative progress and look forward to seeing what the future holds for Emma’s work.
Colin Simpson, Principal Museums Officer,
Williamson Art Gallery & Museum