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Natalia Iacobelli 17 April 2023
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The Garman Ryan Collection holds some of the most fascinating and esoteric artworks you will ever see. Also the story of how two women managed to collect and curate these paintings, sketches, and sculptures involves high drama, explosive secrets, and family tragedy! Read on!
The Garman Ryan Collection is a wonderfully idiosyncratic gathering of some of the most fascinating art in the UK. It is unlike any other collection you may have visited. Held within the dazzling New Art Gallery Walsall, it has art by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, and Delacroix. The collection explores the process of art through the eyes of two incredible women: Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan.
Collecting art was (and still often is) a male game. However, here two women co-curated a collection of eclectic, surprising pieces. And who were these women? Kathleen Garman was the British wife of sculptor Jacob Epstein. Her close friend, the American Sally Ryan, was a sculptor and also heiress to the Thomas Fortune Ryan business empire. In the late 1950s, Ryan discovered she had terminal throat cancer (she would die in 1968). Upon receiving this news, she started to work with Garman to create the Garman Ryan Collection.
Garman’s parents clearly provided a vibrant, intellectual home for their family. They had nine children, and all of them became involved in the arts, literature, or politics. Some of the biggest names of the era were connected somehow to the Garman children: Peggy Guggenheim, the poet Roy Campbell, the writers Laurie Lee and Vita Sackville-West, and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
Sally Ryan’s wealthy grandfather was a keen patron of the arts. Rodin sculpted him and his vast collection of paintings, sculptures, carpets, and furniture inspired Sally to pursue the arts as a career from a very early age. Her uncle was the artist Augustus Vincent Tack, whose vast landscape paintings influenced later American abstract painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Kathleen Garman studied music in London and it was there, in 1921, that she met the sculptor Jacob Epstein. They began a romantic relationship that lasted until Epstein’s death in 1959. Garman and Ryan met in 1935 when the latter came to London to meet Epstein, her favorite sculptor. A friendship blossomed between the two women. Ryan’s lover at this time was the pianist Ellen Ballon, but there is no evidence that Ryan and Garman were ever more than friends.
Both women were fascinated by the process of how art comes into being. Ryan had worked on sculptural processes from an early age, meanwhile Garman had intimate insider knowledge of exactly how Epstein’s work developed from the initial idea through to the finished piece. The Garman Ryan collection explores the nature of creativity and experimentation. Whereas most galleries have the grand ‘finished product’ on the wall, here there are lots of prints, drawings, and small sketches, revealing intimate secrets from the minds of the world’s greatest artists. Here you can get up close and personal with the rough pencil marks and charcoal daubs of Durer, Van Gogh, Degas, and Rembrandt. These pieces are so accessible, so human, yet breathtaking.
Friends of Ryan and Garman are included in the collection: artists like Augustus John, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Amadeo Modigliani. Family members are also included, for instance, Lucien Freud who married Kitty (Garman and Epstein’s daughter). Furthermore, Theo Garman (Garman and Epstein’s son) was a talented artist too.
It is inevitable, of course, that the collection contains a huge number of pieces by Jacob Epstein. In fact, the New Gallery Walsall has more of Epstein’s works collected together in one place than any other museum or gallery in the world! All pieces are beautifully presented on walnut plinths. Indeed, for Epstein fans, the Garman Ryan Collection allows the viewer to chart the interests, obsessions, and innovations explored through this astonishing sculptor’s lifetime.
Epstein came from a Jewish-Polish immigrant family. He was insulted, criticized, and suffered the most dreadful racism throughout his career. This rebellious artist was treated with utter contempt by the British art establishment and by the British press. His sculptures have been hacked at, smashed, and removed. However by 1954, near the end of his life, he became the darling of the art world and was awarded a knighthood. Finally, his immense contribution to sculpture was acknowledged.
At this point, we must address the darker side of this collection and this family. Epstein led an unconventional personal life. He had two separate families living in London. His first wife, Margaret Dunlop raised two children, Peggy Jean and Jackie, both from extra-marital affairs. At the same time, Epstein had three children with Kathleen Garman: Kitty, Theo, and Esther.
Many of Epstein’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures of his children are held in the Garman Ryan Collection. However, the children only discovered Epstein was their father later in life. The truth is that Epstein had barely enough money for one family, let alone two. He would turn up for an evening with Garman with exotic flowers and apricots in brandy – while their children lived in poverty. Daughter Kitty preferred to live with her grandmother – she was disturbed by this stranger who visited twice a week but always stole away from her mother in the early hours, to return to his other family. Son Theo always resented his father’s behavior.
In January 1954 Theo died at just 30 years of age. His death was not entirely explained – an unqualified doctor sedated him after a schizophrenic episode. Theo was bundled into an ambulance, with perhaps more violence than was necessary, and he died instantly. A record of a “heart attack” was listed as the official cause of death, but the tragic scene, which Theo’s sister Esther witnessed, was completely traumatizing. In November 1954, Esther, aged 25, killed herself. Garman thus lost two of her children in the same year and was devastated.
Perhaps the finest sculpture in the Garman Ryan Collection is of Esther at 15 years old. We don’t know if Esther knew Epstein was her father at this point, but the sculpture is an astonishing piece. Esther isn’t looking at us (or Epstein), but past us, resisting our gaze, refusing to give herself up to us. In a residency at the New Art Gallery Walsall, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, gained unlimited access to the Joseph Epstein Archive. The resulting inventive works produced by Smith are kept alongside the Garman Ryan Collection. Smith said that people should visit Walsall to see the Esther sculpture in the same way that people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.
Walsall is an unlikely place for an art collection of such scale. Changed beyond recognition by the Industrial Revolution, Walsall, like many English towns, became fairly deprived in modern times. Indeed, many argued fiercely that the collection should be housed in a suitable institution in London. However, Garman grew up here, her father was a doctor in Wednesbury. She was proud of her roots and was determined to keep the works where the communities she knew and loved could have ready access to the arts.
The Garman Ryan Collection was gifted to the people of Walsall in 1973. Garman died in 1979. In 2000, the collection was moved from the local library to a wonderful new building. In The New Art Gallery Walsall, there are soaring ceilings and smaller domestic-scale rooms. There are grand staircases and narrow, enveloping corridors made entirely of Douglas Fir wood with handrails of leather (a nod to Walsall’s industrial past). Six interconnected floors present historic, modern, and contemporary art. The Garman Ryan works are arranged thematically, according to Garman’s instructions. A dynamic program of education and events pulls in local residents and global visitors. If you have a bucket list of must-see art collections, then the Garman Ryan Collection in this astonishing and distinctive gallery must be on it!
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