February 26, 2024

‘From Downs to Sea: A Slice of Life,’ Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, 5th April-25th June 2014


Aristotle once said that the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and for a group of Sussex residents it would seem that he was right.

‘From Downs to Sea: A Slice of Life’ is an exhibition that draws upon individual interpretations of popular and lesser known artworks to take the viewer on a cultural journey of personal discovery and shared experience.

Chosen from the Arts Council Collection by a group of residents of Portslade and West Hove, the artworks explore the relationship between man and the natural world, country, city and coast, to give voice to the themes of homelessness, belonging, nostalgia and humanity’s eternal struggle to establish a sense of place in a world of transience and impenetrability.

This diverse collection of seascapes, pastoral scenes and urban impressions creates a dialogue between culture and the individual, one that is both deeply personal and highly relatable on a larger scale. The artworks represent a response to the experiences of everyday rural living, each one imbued with a deep and intense level of personal significance.

Mark Neville’s ‘New-born Lamb’ injects some humour into the proceedings, reminding us that nostalgia does not always have to be a sombre affair. The image juxtaposes young and old, human and animal, to capture the sense of possibility that comes with new life. A potent symbol of Christianity, the playful baby lamb stands atop a wooden table at feeding time, surrounded by the men and women charged with its life and, eventually, its death.

Many of the artworks have been presented alongside a piece of literature or poetry, selected to emphasise not only the power of interpretation in art, but the relationship between different artistic disciplines as unique forms of personal and political expression. In the words of one resident: “This exhibition helps to tell the story of our home – between the Downs and the sea.”

Of all the artworks in the exhibition, Peter Doig’s ‘Red Deer’ seems to command the most attention. Atmospheric, bright and richly textured, the painting creates a snapshot, a look back into the depths of the past in a rare and fleeting moment of shared introspection.

Placed alongside a 2013 work by multi award-winning poet Helen Mort, the painting evokes a powerful sense of memory and nostalgia, of missed opportunities, regret and a wistful longing for everything that might have been.

A rare and striking seascape by LS Lowry is paired with Michael Symmons Roberts’ poem ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, a union that seems to pay homage to the power of nature as a mysterious, unpredictable and awe-inspiring force.

What sets this apart from other exhibitions is its accessibility. The interpretations are varied and intensely personal, but the collection is far from alienating; on the contrary it works to emphasise the universality of art and its capacity for shared understanding.