‘Art is meant to be lived with’ is the latest exhibition at the Peter Scott Gallery as it showcases a selection of Irene Manton’s personal collection. Irene Manton (1904-1988) was a botanical scientist who bequeathed her art collection to the gallery in the late 1980’s. While she was a scientist, her other passion was for the visual arts, and as she grew her collection, she also lived with it. Manton never kept the collection to herself but hung them around her offices and laboratories at Leeds University where she worked so as many people could see them as possible. She was interested in how art could be incorporated into everyday life. 

One piece I particularly liked was the Electron Microscope picture by Manton in 1958. It not only created a connection between art and her scientific work but showed that there is artistry in science. Here they are not separate disciplines but integrated together, and this is one of the main themes that run throughout the collection. This piece in itself looks like it could be a line drawing, a work of art in its own right but instead, art is within nature and nature is seen through science.

‘The paintings I chose to buy were never merely those I liked because I felt and I feel that you like what you understand and you understand what you know. I bought only if I had feeling that there was something in a painting that I might understand’– Irene Manton

There were various styles scattered throughout the exhibition; however surrealist paintings seemed to dominate. There is something strangely unknowable about surrealist paintings that can either attract you, repulse you, or both. Some Terry Frost pieces were included too. ‘Walking down the Quays, St Ives, 1954’, for example, held this textured blue interest within a tiny canvas, demonstrating the power even shapes on a page can have over you. 

There is a sense, however, that the very form of showing these paintings as an exhibition is restricting. If art is meant to be lived with, then enclosing it behind glass within the space of the gallery itself limits their accessibility and their enjoyment. As Irene spread her collection through her offices and with her students, perhaps if we had dispersed these paintings around campus, from the library to the corridors in the hallway then there might have been more of a sense of what it means for art to be incorporated into life. The gallery, while traditional, almost contradicts that fact. Equally, some of these paintings because they have such an abstract feel as though they should be in an unexpected place, not in a gallery but someone’s front room. Even those personalised elements, like Manton’s book on Chinese art below a painting in the same style, are made inaccessible by a glass pain. It distances the viewer from the piece because just as books are meant to be read, art is meant to be lived with.  This is a personal collection, and while a white room is beautiful, it creates an impersonal space between Irene, the art, and us as the viewers. It’s those blank spaces between that detracted from the collection for me. 

Image by Ruth Walbank

Overall, there is a piece for everyone to find enjoyment in. As it is a personal collection rather than a gallery piece, there is something for everyone because even one person’s taste has variation within it. There were pieces by Lowry and Picasso, each with individual styles and subject matters. There is something for everyone.