Writers from Bard to pop bad boys

SHAKESPEARE takes centre stage at a new exhibition at the Graves Gallery which celebrates Britain's finest literary talents from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dizzee Rascal.

Opening on Saturday, Writers of Influence: Shakespeare to JK Rowling will bring together a remarkable series of paintings, drawings and photographs dating from the 16th century to the present day.

The definition of writers to embrace songwriters like John Lennon, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker and Mr Rascal could be a reflection of the youthful influence of the selection panel.

The exhibition is the result of a collaborative project led by Museums Sheffield, working with a group of young people from the city to co-curate the images from the National Portrait Gallery collections. Working with their peers in Plymouth, Southampton and Sunderland to which the exhibition will later tour, the group have selected the 61 works to go on display at the Graves Gallery.

The pop lyricists are a mere handful alongside an array of giants of the classical shelves of the calibre of George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake and Thomas Hardy, 20th century big names such as Evelyn Waugh, Wilfred Owen, Agatha Christie and contemporary figures such as Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman. Among them are work by Vanessa Bell, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier Bresson, Man Ray, Patrick Heron and Lord Snowdon.

Writers of Influence: Shakespeare to JK Rowling will In a landmark event, Writers of Influence: Shakespeare to JK Rowling will include the Gallery's inaugural UK loan of its iconic Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, the very first work it acquired in 1856. The painting, the only portrait of the Bard that has any claim to have been painted from life, will go on display alongside a host of significant literary portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's collections.

"The idea of having literary figures came from the NPG and Shakespeare was the starting point because they were keen to allow people outside London to share it," says Louisa Briggs, Museums Sheffield's Curator of Visual Art. "A lot of the works have come straight from the walls of the gallery such as Kipling, Milton and Hardy."

There were a couple of disappointments, however, in that pictures of the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley were too fragile to travel.

Charlotte Johnson, in her gap year before going off to study the History of Art at university, along with Annie Korn-Morris and Catherine Roberts, was with the project from its original discussions to the installation in the gallery this week.

"I really fought for Angela Carter to be included and also Virginia Woolf, who I knew about but realised I hadn't actually read any of her work," she said. "So I made sure I did. Hopefully the same thing will happen with people who come to see the exhibition."

"For me this has been a dream opportunity," she enthused.

Writers of Influence: Shakespeare to JK Rowling is a collaborative exhibition between the National Portrait Gallery, Museums Sheffield, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

"The idea of working with young people was mooted by us," explained Louisa Briggs. "A strong part of our NPG partnership is encouraging that and it has worked as an extension of our existing youth forum.

"For me as a curator what was interesting was how they made decision of works that would sit well together and chose interesting pictures in themselves as well as portraits of important writers."

Thus from a number of options to represent TS Eliot they selected Patrick Heron's two-in-one portrait and the Virginia Woolf is the one painted by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

They were also keen to include a variety of media so that while it is predominately photographs and paintings there are life masks of John Keats and William Blake displayed on plinths as well as small sculptures of James Joyce and Jane Austen.

Then there is the illuminated 3D portrait of JK Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright with distorted perspective of the Harry Potter author sitting at a table in a room of her Perthshire mansion and eating a boiled egg and toast soldiers.

The pictures are hung on the basis of a system of themes determining how they are grouped. Leila Prescott, enabler on the project, providing the link between the gallery and the young people. explains: "We could have arranged them chronologically but that was one of the things they were all against because people tend to just find the person they were interested in and we want to encourage people to look at different writers and be surprised.

"Alongside Shakespeare are other people who have engaged in a dialogue about his work - both pros and cons - so there you find Benjamin Zephaniah ('I've tried Shakespeare, respect due dere') and Virginia Woolf (Shakespeare's Sister, a section of A Room of One's Own).

As other examples JK Rowling features in Celebrity, JRR Tolkein and Angela Carter in Other Worlds, Seamus Heaney and Catherine Cookson in Inner Lives and Jean Rhys and Salman Rushdie in Anti-establishment (in the literary sense), proving the arrangement is fairly arbritary.

But that's the joy of it. Where else would you find William Shakespeare hob-knobbing with Dizzee Rascal?

Writers of Influence: Shakespeare to JK Rowling opens at the Graves Gallery on Saturday and runs to July 3.

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