The seaside town of Eastbourne, in the lea of Beachy Head, owes much to the philanthropic impulses of Alderman Chisholm Towner. Back in 1920, he decided that the people of the town would benefit from exposure to good art, as well as the bracing sea air of the South Coast. He donated twenty-two paintings to Eastbourne, with the idea that they might form the nucleus of a local gallery. His hopes were soon realised. An eighteenth-century manor house was acquired to house the bequest, which consisted mostly of moralising Victorian narrative pictures by artists such as Frederick Goodall and Henry Dawson – paintings of animals and children, fallen women, romanticised images of gypsy encampments, and the like.
The fledgling gallery opened in 1923. A curator, Arthur Reeves Fowkes, was appointed to oversee the expansion of the collection. Under his leadership, a “Pictures of Sussex” policy was developed. The Corporation of Eastbourne funded the acquisition of paintings of the local landscape, “in order to provide the visitor with a complete review of this beautiful country.” An unrivalled collection of paintings, drawings and watercolours of the Sussex scene was gradually accumulated. Subsequent curators left their own imprint on the gallery. During the 1940s and 1950s, a number of works by the great English painter Walter Richard Sickert entered the collection. In the early 1960s, under the energetic direction of the abstract painter William Gear, the gallery acquired numerous pictures by the more adventurous British painters of the time, including Alan Davie, Roger Hilton, Bryan Winter and Derek Boshier. For a brief period, dedicated followers of fashion saw the Towner as a happening place.
The collection continued quietly to expand during the late twentieth century, thanks in part to several major bequests, including a large donation of works on paper by Eric Ravilious, gifted by the artist’s family in 1982. By the 1990s, it had outgrown the manor house in which it had been originally housed. In 2005, Eastbourne Borough Council approved plans for a new building, to be designed by Rick Mather Architects. Constructed on a generous site in the heart of Eastbourne, the new Towner Art Gallery is a bright and spacious building, with a gleaming white flank wall with curves evoking the snaky clifflines of the nearby Seven Sisters. It has been designed in a restrained and elegant modernist idiom that perhaps owes something to the example of the De La Warr Pavilion in nearby Bexhill-on-Sea – one of the most beautiful modernist buildings erected in Britain in the 1930s, and now itself a gallery of contemporary art. The present curator of the Towner, Matthew Rowe, considers his new building to be a far better example of modern museum design than the comparable Tate St Ives. He is in a good position to judge, having served himself as director at the Tate’s Cornish outpost before taking up his current job.
In its newly reincarnated form, the Towner Art Gallery is undoubtedly much more fully equipped than before. Two spacious ground-floor galleries are devoted to work produced as a result of the gallery’s various outreach projects. The first is an Aladdin’s cave of art by children from three local schools, all made in response to works in the Towner’s own permanent collection. The second, entitled “Lost Horizons”, is a rather bleaker show of work created by artists whose specific brief was to go into Eastbourne’s local community and find their subject matter there. Several films and installations allude, variously, to such contemporary issues as drug abuse, violence towards children and social deprivation. There is a faint odour of moral worthiness about the display, but the ambition that underlies it – to make art that connects with the lives of its intended audience – is one of which Alderman Chisholm Towner himself would have approved.
The first floor of the new gallery is devoted to the permanent collection, which will be exhibited in a series of rotating displays. For the reopening, a delicate balance has been struck between old favourites, such as Eric Ravilious, and more recent acquisitions. The legacy of the “Pictures of Sussex” policy can still be sensed in many of the contemporary works: Marine Hugonnier’s beguiling photographic sequence of seascapes, Towards Tomorrow, inspired by the international date line; Wolfgang Tillmans’ vertiginous photograph, End of Land, which shows a girl lying belly-down on the very edge of Beachy Head, gazing at the drop below. There is a strong emphasis, throughout, on art that seeks to capture the experience of land and sea. This seems appropriate to a gallery in Eastbourne, perched as it is in one of Britain’s most beautiful, undulating coastal landscapes.
The new museum also includes a state-of-the-art archive and storage studio, where the bulk of the collection – some 4,000 works in total – is preserved under humidity-controlled conditions. Sliding racks mean that more or less anything can be viewed (by appointment) with relative ease.
The most generous space of all is the exhibition gallery on the top floor, currently occupied by Ivan Navarro’s sinister anthropomorphic neon relief sculptures, based on the Olympic pictograms designed by Otl Aicher in 1972 – neo-Minimalism with a dark political subtext.
Navarro is due to represent Chile at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. His presence would seem to signal the Towner’s determination to play the part of cutting-edge Kunsthalle, as well as maiden-aunt municipal museum. And why not? A million pounds has been pledged by the Art Fund so that the gallery can build up a collection of “”international contemporary art – quite a tidy sum, in the post-credit-crunch art market. There is every chance that the Towner Art Gallery may, once more, become what the Observer declared it to be back in the heady days of 1962 - “the most go-ahead municipal gallery of its size in the country.”