How we display our art...

From hanging galleries to homes

When I say 'we' I don’t mean the gallery, although it was this weekend’s massive re-hang that got me thinking about this. By ‘we’ I mean us as a nation (as a species I suppose). We’ve changed the way we interact with our art and the way that we display it.  Lets go back….way back, to cavemen in France and Spain, and the very first examples we have of humans expressing themselves through the medium of drawing. Whenever I discuss Cave paintings I’m always reminded of the comedy genius Mel Brooks who started his movie “History of the world part I” with a caveman painting on his cave wall and the narrator exclaims – “Here we see the worlds first artist” and the Neanderthal looking quite pleased with his work steps back from it and shows his family and friends. One of the other cavemen looks at the image and then clubs the artist over the head and urinates on the painting; the narrator says – “and here is the world’s first art critic”. Not much has changed in that department, but the need to decorate or tell a story with our art is a constant of our species. Whether it’s Egyptians adorning their tombs and temples with Hieroglyphics, a graffiti artist tagging a train tunnel, or a master at work in their studio, there’s something in humans that goes back at least 40,000 years that inspires us to create, document, or express ourselves in some way.

Paleolithic cave painting of bisons (replica) from theAltamira cave, Cantabria, Spain, painted circa. 20,000 years ago (Solutrean).


Image from Wikipedia

Fast forward to the 1800’s and we can see that displaying paintings was a way of showing wealth – the more you crammed onto a wall the more financial prowess your family displayed. Often the wealthiest and most famous of these families would engage the most renown artists of the day directly to paint commission pieces to fit in certain parts of the house. Many of these family’s paintings were portraits or religious themed paintings, they would show their family histories and display their devout nature to the church. However, some of these patrons were a little cleverer than that. I’m reminded of one stately home where in the dining room they have a fantastic view over the outside of the property, and when they were designing the dining room they commissioned (I think it was Turner) to paint that view, and the finished painting was displayed in a purpose-built recess on the opposite wall. This was designed so that when guests sat at the table to dine with their backs to the windows, they could enjoy the same view as the guests who sat facing them.  I love that attention to detail, if you walked past the painting on a tour of the property, unless that fact was pointed out to you, you’d have no idea just how much thought and design goes into this one aspect of these magnificent properties.

Take a look at this image of Chatsworth House, even the ceiling has been decorated in stunning murals. What an incredible collection they have, from the marble busts lining the room to the paintings sitting on the walls above themand that wonderful Mural on the ceiling looking down on them all.


Have a look at Chatsworth house on their website here and see the amazing collection that 16 generations of the family have amassed.

But what about our institutions? Well the Royal Academy until recently utilised every single part of the walls to display their collections. This etching (below on the left) shows the extent to which they wasted no wall space.

from: 'Microcosm of London' by Thomas Rowlandson and Auguste Charles Pugi

Royal Academy 2018 Summer show - 

Image from Social media

On the etching we’re talking literally not an inch spared. I’m in awe of this hang. Hanging a gallery is a big job, it took two of us 5 hours to rehang the upper floor of our gallery on Sunday and we were both exhausted when we had finished. The planning and execution for this room must have been truly epic. Today the Royal Academy still utilises as much space as it can, but they certainly don’t hang as high as they did in the mid 19th century.  Grayson Perry's 2018 hang in the same room as the above etching provides the necessity of space for the sheer volume of work, yet at the same time shows a basic conscientiousness for giving everything in the show an identity, without being overpowered by a larger or stronger work. I'm much more a fan of this style of hanging and I think the Royal Academy Summer show is all the better for it.

This leads me onto our homes in modern Britain and Europe. We don’t fill every wall to the brim any more. We give each piece space, and we group pieces together by movement or by colour. Statement pieces take the largest walls or maybe three or four of a similar type or theme. 


There are several types of art buyers but in the interests of brevity, we will focus on just two: collectors and decorators. Collectors buy their art based on the artists reputation and the quality of their work, attraction to the style and colours also play a part in the avid collectors mind, and whilst Decorators regard these points as equally important they place more emphasis on the look and feel of a room rather than the year of execution for a piece of art, and will seldom find themselves motivated to finally get that missing piece from a series or movement. I once had an avid collector of Howard Hodgkin prints. He bought purely to add to and complete his collection, and many of the pieces he bought would be stacked up in spare rooms and rotated out into the display across his property, he did this so he could alternate his walls and enjoy his collection more. 


This goes back to basic psychology, if we buy something like a lamp and place it in our homes and use it every day, it becomes less decorative and more functional, you stop enjoying it as a piece of furniture and appreciate it more as a source of illumination when you read. By not moving it, you stop noticing it and you become accustomed to it in that place. If you were to move it and replace it with a different lamp, you would begin to notice the lamp again and appreciate why you bought it. The same goes for paintings. You walk past your collection every day in your homes, and I bet you never really take the time to enjoy them, to study, and explore them; certainly not as much as you did when they were first hung. If you moved that picture, I bet you’d start to see it again and appreciate it more. 


Having just moved everything around in the gallery, I have noticed more colours and details in some of our works. It really is something worth trying in your homes. 


I guess in the end, the reasons for collecting and how we display our art is a constantly changing dynamic. Collectors and decorators aren’t set in stone, you can go from being a collector and then needing to decorate a room and buying for that purpose, or you can be a decorator and realise you have three or four pieces from a certain period, and you could complete the set of prints with just one or two more. The constant change in art and collecting is one of the reasons I love it. It never becomes stale and it is always interesting. 


I hope that this blog was interesting for you. If you'd like to talk about getting help with your displays or for any in depth discussions on collecting etc, please feel free to drop into the gallery at anytime.


Images are not our own and are from various sources - links supplied. 

All opinions are my own and not De Lacey Fine Art's or any other company or body.

Copyright G Farmer 2019