In praise of Poole artists

The catalogue for the 25th anniversary PEDAS exhibition in 1956 with a distinctive woodcut by Edward Lister

Its founder members include Augustus John and Henry Lamb, two of the best known names in 20th century British Art, and George Spencer Watson was an early president, but today’s Poole and East Dorset Art Society is a much more approachable group than the one they helped initiate in 1924.

Conceived as a means of fostering public appreciation of Art locally, it seems PEDAS intended to invite all artists working in the area to submit work, but didn’t. In the event for its first exhibition it ‘made do’ with stellar contributions from John and Lamb alongside work by other founders including Associates of the Royal College of Art like John Adams and Hugh Llewellyn, best known for their Poole Pottery designs.

John had been presiding over his Bohemian enclave at Alderney Manor since 1910 and no doubt made warm welcome of Lamb who moved to Poole in pursuit of peace and quiet after World War 1 having been badly gassed. Lamb’s paintings of Poole streets perhaps echo that quest for calm, although maybe not given that he counted many of the high living Bloomsbury Group among his friends and was visited by Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Gilbert and George Spencer, as well as Lytton Strachey whose portrait is among Lamb’s best known works.

‘In the early days the emphasis was on working artists bringing together a group of paintings to exhibit, as opposed to being an outlet for members’ work,’ says Liz Magee, a member of some thirty years’ standing.

These days PEDAS membership is non-selective, fully inclusive and kept to around a hundred, with a small waiting list. Enthusiasm and commitment are as important than skill, according to Liz’s fellow artist Sally Holland.

Augustus John as a young man

Members support one another to improve and try new things; we’re very open to all forms of figurative and abstract work in any media including also ceramics, textile art and photography,’ she says.

PEDAS quickly established a fine reputation that was only enhanced by the likes of noted maritime painter Edward Gribble who moved to Poole in the early 1930s and served for many years as chairman and vice-president; also renowned portraitist Sir Gerald Kelly who spent 30 years as PEDAS president including five years from 1949 to 1954 when he was also president of the Royal Academy.

From the outset the society fostered close links with Poole School (then College) of Art that became part of Bournemouth and Poole College and during the 1950s supported its principal Arthur Andrews as he secured funding for The College Art Collection. He went on to acquire significant works by leading artists including Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens, Jacob Epstein, Bridget Riley, Stanley Hayter, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland, many of which were sold amid great controversy in 2013 as the College sought to fund new facilities.

‘That was a terrible tragedy for Poole,’ says Sally. ‘Arthur Andrews collected the works for the college, which was in local authority control and where they were on show to the public in The Study Gallery, or KUBE as it became. They were intended for the people of Poole and yet they were sold without consultation.’

It’s not the only time PEDAS has felt aggrieved by the apparent disregard of Art by those in authority. In 1978 the society bought Dorset Coast, a large collage by its late president Edward Lister, who taught at the college and had studied under Gilbert Spencer at the RCA, and presented it to Poole Arts Centre on its opening. Subsequently, PEDAS chairman at the time Brian Tofield rescued it from a skip as the Arts Centre underwent its transformation into Lighthouse in 2002.

Now entrusted to the safekeeping of Dennis Hill, a long-standing PEDAS member who was taught by Lister and remembers him fondly, Dorset Coast still bears the mark of its maker who, standing in a gallery and looking to light a cigarette, spotted some sandpaper on the artwork and used it to strike his match.

By the 1980s the society was in decline and according to current president John Bowen, who took up the post of Lecturer in Charge of Fine Art Studies at Poole College in 1980, struggling to reconcile its reputation with the need to find new members. Working with the then chairman Peter Hardwick PEDAS began to develop an entirely inclusive approach to membership to create an environment of mutual support and encouragement.

‘For many members, myself included at times, PEDAS is an absolute lifeline,’ says Liz. ‘We’re a very sociable group, we like to get out and do things. Most of my friends now are in PEDAS.’

There are regular gallery trips to London and elsewhere, painting excursions, even some foreign travel and recent destinations have included Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, The Hague, Bruges and Brussels. Future plans may include painting trips abroad.

Central to the society’s activities at home though is its management of The Gallery Upstairs at Upton Country Park where a busy programme of exhibitions changes every two weeks and accommodates the society’s own biannual shows.

High Tide at Sterte by PEDAS member Dennis Hill, born in 1924, and still painting, still exhibiting and, crucially, still selling

‘It’s owned by the Borough of Poole but managed and run by us as a community gallery,’ says Liz who sits on the gallery sub-committee, ‘showing work by local art clubs and small groups of local artists, or sometimes solo exhibitions. Of course selling is important, there’s nothing like the feeling that someone you don’t know likes something you’ve made enough to want it on their wall, but sometimes an artist will say it’s enough just to see their work properly hung on a gallery wall.’

That said both artists sound cautionary notes that PEDAS must guard against complacency. The society used to exhibit in various Poole venues including Lighthouse and St James Church Hall – it even showed work aboard the SS Shieldhall steamship moored at Poole Quay.

‘It’s very easy to not look beyond the Gallery,’ says Liz, ‘but we must. In the same way it’s good to be challenged out of our comfort zones as artists, which is why I like the themed exhibitions because you have to research and make something specific.’

As in Ekphrasis, last year’s PEDAS show for Dorset Art Weeks.

‘We had fun with that – it’s the use of one art form to describe another art form,’ Sally explains. ‘So a painting could be explained as sculpture, or music as painting. It was very interesting.’

And exactly the sort of thinking that should preserve PEDAS well into the 22nd century.

• First published in Dorset Life in Poole 2017/18

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