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Having visited a wonderful little exhibition of Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, I was hoping there might be something else interesting to do in the area. My son surprised me by saying that there was another art gallery a little further down Queen's Road, so I thought it was worth going to investigate. The gallery turned out to be the Royal West of England Academy of Art, which I hadn't heard of before.
The Academy is housed in a Grade II listed building. On approaching, I was struck by Damien Hirst's enormous "Charity" figure that was standing on the balcony. I well remember the original, and much smaller, charity collection boxes in the form of a young girl disabled by polio from my childhood. Hirst's figure has had the box broken into, and outsize coins spill out onto the balcony and onto the street close to the academy's entrance. These are pre-decimalization coins such as threepenny pieces, halfpennies and silver sixpences. You can't collect them, though; they are firmly fixed to the ground. I am not a big fan of Hirst's work, but the figure was impressive.
The Royal West of England Academy is a charity, receiving no funding from either national or local government. They therefore have to charge for admission, but we hadn't had to pay to see Leonardo's drawings so I didn't object. Normal adult ticket price is £5, and concessions are £3. Annual membership is £15. Children under sixteen do not have to pay. There is a free booklet at reception listing current exhibitions and events. I asked whether photography was allowed in the gallery and was pleased to hear that it was.
The main exhibition area is on the first floor, and there is a lift that serves both the first floor and the basement. We chose to climb the rather grand staircase. At the top we were greeted by a charming seagull wearing Doc Marten boots, a work by an artist named Filthy Luker. Above this was a small but vicious-looking animal named a Squilligator by the same artist. Through the huge window we had a good rear view of Hirst's "Charity" figure, and we were able to go out onto the balcony for a closer look and to take a photograph or two. There are tables and chairs on the balcony, and if you visit the cafe on the ground floor you can choose to come and eat outside if you wish. If you are only visiting the cafe and the shop you don't have to pay admission, but I'm not sure whether you would be able to go upstairs to the balcony.
Coming back inside, we admired Jason Lane's Pelican before going through to the main galleries. At the time of our visit, there was a temporary exhibition by Josef Herman, a Polish artist who fled from Warsaw through Brussels and Glasgow to London during World War II. More to our liking were the intricate engravings of Trevor Haddrell RWA SWE, who trained at Bath Academy of Art and taught at schools in Bristol before becoming a professional artist. Many of his works are of Bristol itself, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but there were scenes of Venice and other foreign destinations too. Haddrell was due to give a relief engraving demonstration and an exhibition tour at 2.30pm that afternoon, but unfortunately I had a train to catch and couldn't stay that long.
The last room we went into housed works, mainly paintings, from the RWA's permanent collection. The collection began in 1849 with a number of works bequeathed by Ellen Sharples, and every new member of the Academy donates a work from their diploma show. Artists whose work features in the collection include Elizabeth Frink, Richard Long, Mary Fedden, Claude Rogers and Vanessa Bell. Also on display are old exhibition posters, photographs, catalogues and letters.
We went back down the stairs and browsed the shop area, which has prints, cards and a few books related to the current exhibitions. My son found a sofa to sit on while I went to the ladies' toilet in the basement. It was very clean and well appointed. Disabled visitors can use the lift, as there is no toilet on the ground floor. There are a few paintings on show in a corridor in the basement, mostly of boats. They weren't as impressive as the work we had seen on the first floor.
The Royal West of England Academy holds a number of events and workshops throughout the year. We had a peek of the "Scribble and Sketch" monthly drop-in workshop which is open to people of all ages who want to practise their drawing skills in an informal environment. It is run by Anouk Mercier, artist and founder of the Bristol Drawing Club. The Bristol Drawing School organises weekend and evening workshops at the Academy and also offers a ten-week course in drawing. In addition, there are art history day schools and talks on subjects are diverse as Banksy's urban calligraphy, photographing artwork and rediscovering oil paintings. According to the website, Andy Warhol's earliest known work is to be shown at the RWA in July.
The Papadeli cafe is located on the ground floor and serves tapas, cakes and drinks. We didn't sample any of their fare as we had had lunch at the Boston Tea Party before visiting the RWA. The main galleries, including the balcony, are available for private hire after 6pm. The Fedden Gallery can be hired during the day and has audio-visual equipment. There are volunteering opportunities for local residents interested in exhibition stewarding or fundraising, for example.
There are several buses from Temple Meads station that pass close to the Academy, and there is a taxi rank nearby. Car parks are within ten minutes' walk, and there is some on-street metered parking close to the Academy.
The RWA is not a huge gallery, but it is worth a visit. Its proximity to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is a bonus for art lovers, as the museum often has temporary art exhibitions that are well worth seeing. Some may be put off by the admission fee, but if the Academy receives no funding they obviously have to make a charge. If you time your visit to coincide with a "Scribble and Sketch" workshop, there will be no extra charge for that. It's free for children, and they will probably love to go and do some drawing of their own in the presence of an artist.
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 5.30pm; Sunday 11am to 5pm.
Royal West of England Academy
Tel. 0117 973 5129