Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal is perhaps one of the town’s best kept secrets. It nestles down a side alley, past a car park, on the edge of the river next to the church, but hidden away behind its own original stable block, now the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry. But if you do happen to trip over it, it’s well worth a visit.
The gallery has always been home to a good collection of art including works by George Romney (who was born and died in the town), and by the German artist Kurt Schwitters who spent the last few years of his life in the Lake District after World War II. But just lately, the collection has branched out and now includes a huge range of mid-2oth century ‘modern art’, and several high-profile works on temporary loan. Last year we went to see Monet’s Haystacks painting, for instance, and this year it’s the turn of Rodin’s original The Thinker.
This is only available to view for a few weeks until October, so over the bank holiday we dashed in to see it. And were glad we had, because it’s amazing. For starters, it’s much smaller than we’d imagined. We’ve seen pictures of the statue in the past, but they’ve always been of a later and much bigger version. The original is much less than life-size, perhaps about two feet high, and made of polished but oddly rough-cast bronze which gives it a wonderful dark gleam.
Over the years The Thinker has been copied, and the image re-used and parodied until it’s become something of a pastiche, but seeing the work for ourselves made us realise that it’s a genuinely great and thought-provoking piece of art. It was originally intended to sit above a vast portrayal of Dante’s nine circles of hell, and when you see it in that context, suddenly the pondering pose carries much more weight. Just what is The Thinker thinking so deeply about? And why do his toes grip onto the bronze rock he’s seated on so tightly? Is he about to be plucked off and plunged into a hell of his own?
The work is roped off and photography isn’t allowed, so I can’t show you any of these details. But it was wonderful to be able to get close enough to see them for ourselves. And the accompanying exhibits help to place the work in context, both of Rodin’s other work, and of where and what it was intended to portray. There’s even a fun competition to write The Thinker’s thoughts on a Post-It note, which was proving popular. Most of the comments were irreverent, which says something about the British psyche when faced with a stunning piece of art.
After we’d finished being blown away by Rodin, there was an entire room of Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures (more monumental and less lifelike than Rodin, but no less powerful) to explore, and even a beautiful and poignant piece attributed to Jacob Epstein (above). I think that was my favourite of all. I haven’t always been a big fan of sculpture, but thanks to this I’ll be looking at it in a new light. It was certainly a great way to spend a damp bank holiday Sunday.