Wow 3 / 10
Fun 6 /10
The Wilson Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum
The Longer Read The Wilson is named in honour of local lad Edward Wilson, Captain Scott of the Antarctic’s right-hand man and best friend. Essentially The Wilson is a one stop shop for Cheltenham’s Museum, Art Gallery and Tourist Information Centre – plus The Guild at 51, a craft shop.
The Museum is best known for a world-standard Arts and Crafts collection and for a small collection associated with Edward Wilson, but has some other items and collections that have charm. The Art Gallery is much like other provincial art galleries, but that isn’t meant to sound dismissive – it also pulls in good touring or loan temporary exhibitions, including a few V&A ‘borrows’. Locals are advised to keep an eye on what’s on and so should visitors. The TIC (Tourist Information Centre) can sell you a postcard and tell you where things are in Cheltenham, just like in the old days before mobile phones were invented. But it’s good to talk to a human sometimes. There’s a cafe too. The Guild at 51 shop is described in its own right on this site.
The Museum begins with the Arts and Crafts collection, a large room full of furniture, decorations and objects from the era. You’ll see the work of Ernest Gimson and Sidney and Ernest Barnsley, architects who left London for the simple life, as people still do. Their inspiration was William Morris who lived at Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds and the museum has examples of his work too. The Movement strikes a chime around the world with followers, with its emphasis on craft, skill, workers’ rights and social purpose.
Continuing through the somewhat labyrinthine layout of the rest of the museum there are sections on local tradespeople (with a nice sign collection), early history through to the story of Cheltenham’s boom years following the visit by George III. Another small room houses some of Edward Wilson’s relics – ‘relics’ is a near apt word since he inspires devotion amongst those who know the story of the golden age of Antarctic exploration. His subtle but apparently entirely accurate paintings of polar scenes accompany Scott’s diary, a truly stirring tale.
As good museums do, The Wilson includes some surprises and local curiosities. A local printmaker’s ‘Cheltenhamorama’ from c1825 offers a peep show of The Royal Well complete with Regency characters promenading and we also liked ‘The Ugly Duckling’, a large oil painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper of a 16 year old girl he found in Boots and asked to sit for him. Whether she was consulted on the painting title is not disclosed.
By the way, if you come to The Wilson for the paintings in the Art Gallery, don’t miss the Museum because most of the best (we think) paintings are actually there. In the event of a fire we’d leave with a Stanley Spencer (Village Life) under one arm and a wartime Graham Sutherland (Devastation) under the other.
If you live here keep an eye on The Wilson’s programme of courses and talks.