The very English modern art gallery: a treasure chest of postwar stars, by the architect that knows them.

There he is, on the wall, in a portrait by William Coldstream: architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson, better known as Sandy Wilson. He hangs next to Michael Andrews’ famous study of Soho’s Colony Room bar, stuffed with the postwar artists who were his friends and whose work he has always collected. That work, including the likes of Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Lucien Freud, Howard Hodgkin and R.B. Kitaj, is all around him in this brand-new gallery of modern art. And he designed it.

There was a bit of muted controversy years back when Wilson won the commission to design this big new extension to the Pallant House Gallery, in the West Sussex town of Chichester. This was because Wilson was also donating his own, very valuable art collection to the gallery. To the suspicious-minded, this was evidence of some kind of collusion. Only in Britain would such a gift horse be looked in the mouth. Because as a consequence of the donation, the new Pallant House is a very rare example of an art museum designed by one of the principal movers and shakers in its collection.

Wilson, now 84, is an architect who has always worked with, and knocked about with, artists of broadly his own generation and locale: the London School, and the Independent Group. Over 60 years he has bought and traded their work, sometimes taking a painting in lieu of fees for design work. It’s a side of his character that informs everything he does. Art commissions – of an unashamedly old-school, monumental character – were integral to his mighty British Library building at London’s St. Pancras. But Pallant House brings this way of thinking right down to the domestic level.

Chichester might seem an odd place to find a nationally important gallery of modern British art, but why not? Nobody complains about the excellence of the Chichester Festival Theatre. As it happens, the Pallant House Gallery originally evolved from an art bequest to the local authority, and later went independent. But for years it consisted of little more than the fine Queen Anne house that gives it its name. The £8.6m Wilson extension, done under the directorship of Stefan van Raay, has given it something like five times as much space plus all the add-ons a modern gallery needs: comprehensive modern art bookshop, agreeable café spilling out onto the courtyard landscaped with gurgling water feature by Christopher Bradley-Hole, library, conservation studio, education room.

If the British Library was all about designing at city scale, this is the very opposite, an exercise in designing in miniature. The finished building is rather like a scale model of a larger gallery. Even so, there is a clear aesthetic connection: as at the Library, this is Wilson’s alternative-modern, English-freestyle architecture, with an acknowledged dash of Nordic influence. He and his wife and fellow architect Mary Jane Long’s firm Long and Kentish, have made a two-storey L-shaped configuration of nine new galleries around the new courtyard at the back of the old house. Space was found for this by demolishing a 1930s council office building alongside, and clearing outbuildings at the rear.

All this had to be done in the tight little jumbled streets of Chichester. And although I encountered one old lady with a stick glaring at it and muttering “It’s an absolute disgrace”, I have to say, you’re wrong, Ma’am. Van Raay makes the obvious Tardis comparison, and he’s right. From the outside you catch glimpses of the new building, but get no sense of how relatively big it is. It is all very understated. Wilson has used red Sussex brick, glazed terracotta that looks strangely like stove-enamelled metal, lime render, a limited amount of glass to give orientation. Outside it is solid and defensive on the main street, breaking down into looser shapes round the corner on a side street. Wilson likens the whole thing to a coconut: strong and rough on the outside, white, smooth and delicate within.

And so it proves. The gallery spaces are classic pure-white, top-lit rooms floored in light oak. The painted concrete of the roof vaults is a bit cruder than intended, and I find the heavy lumps of partially-concealed ceiling-mounted equipment slightly intrusive. There’s one gallery which is oddly low because of a rights-of-light issue with the house next door. But the overall effect is excellent. Modern painting and some sculpture from Sickert to the present day is displayed broadly chronologically in a sequence of domestic-sized spaces that suits the scale of the works.

Wilson is defiantly an old-fashioned architect of solidity rather than transparency: as long ago as the early 1960s, this approach was scorned by architectural theorist and gadfly Cedric Price as “Just the middle ages with power points”. Luckily, solidity is just what you want in both a library and an art gallery, which have to be secure internalised spaces. But at Pallant House, there is that added twist of the interlaced connections between many of the artists on display, and the architect who has displayed them. When you go there and see them, gathered in their chummy or bickering way, it’s a bit like a country outpost of the Colony Room as was: the Soho of the 1950s and 1960s on retreat. This will become – already is – an extraordinary historic resource.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, as “Friends in high places”.

Links

Pallant House Gallery: www.pallant.org.uk
Long and Kentish, architects: www.longkentish.com