The Raven of the RWA: Tristan Pollard and the Permanent Collection

We visit the RWA’s outstanding Permanent Collection of artworks, overseen by Curatorial Technician Tristan Pollard…

In the depths of the RWA, hidden behind the false wall at the back of the Cube Gallery, is an extraordinary treasure trove of art. Some 1,850 works are stored here: paintings, photographs, drawings and sculptures – the oldest dating back to the mid-1800s, the most recent donated this year by the 2019 crop of new Academicians. This is the RWA’s Permanent Collection, perhaps Bristol’s greatest art secret. It also includes a library of hundreds of art books including antiquarian editions owned by Ellen Sharples, plus a vast horde of newspaper clippings and other documents.

The guardian of the trove is Tristan Pollard, the RWA’s longest-serving employee. This October will mark his 21st anniversary at the Academy, and Director Alison Bevan calls ‘TP’ its ‘Raven’ (as with the birds at the Tower of London, if he ever leaves the place will fall). His official title is Curatorial Technician, although when he first joined in the 1990s it was as a ‘Porter’- a rather blue collar-sounding moniker that doesn’t really capture the wide-ranging nature of his work.

Tristan with some of the RWA’s artworks – including Rolinda Sharples’ portrait of her mother Ellen, the oldest painting in the Permanent Collection.

 

Inside the Collection

Tristan probably knows the Permanent Collection better than anyone else, and has been in his post during two of the most important changes in its history: the installation in 2013 of proper sliding picture racking to replace the ancient shelving system, and the introduction of a digital database in 2015, both funded by Lottery grants. His daily duties include the maintenance of the works, repairing frames, remounting pictures and taking care of and cataloguing new acquisitions.

Regular additions to the Collection come from donations by artists, including on average six or seven given annually by the latest intake of Academicians under the Diploma Scheme, and from commissions and purchases made using funds from the Arts Council or (very occasionally and not for a while) the Talboys Bequest, a trust established for that purpose in 1944.

It means the Collection is a living, breathing thing, forever expanding into new areas of artistic endeavour, as well as being a comprehensive record of British art movements since 1900. It should date back further, Tristan explains, but the bulk of the RWA’s Victorian works – including numerous Sharples portraits and Bristol School paintings – were sold to the Bristol Museum in 1931. But thanks largely to the energies and vision of Lord Methuen, who was President from 1939 to 1971 and prioritised quality acquisition and Academician appointments, the 20th century is exceptionally well represented, with important works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Dod Procter, Mary Fedden, Julian Trevelyan and many more.

The extraordinary ‘Portrait of a Young Lady Seated’ by Frederick George Swaish (1879 to 1941) – Tristan’s favourite work in the Permanent Collection.

 

The Art of Hanging

The richness of the RWA’s Permanent Collection means that there is frequent demand for loans to other galleries and museums around the country: another element of Tristan’s work. And of course, artworks are often required for the Academy’s own exhibitions – which brings us to the skill for which the RWA’s ‘Raven’ is best known: his remarkable ability to hang a very large number of paintings in a very small space, and in very rapid time. Think of the Autumn Open, where hundreds of works must be fitted onto the walls in a sort of giant Tetris puzzle – only with an extra dimension because the selectors also want works displayed by theme.

This unfathomable hanging ability is a mixture of art and science (Tristan attempts to explain a complex mathematical equation involving measuring gaps between pictures, adding them and calculating an average, but I can’t follow it). He learnt it back in the 1990s when he was still a ‘Porter’, assisting his taciturn predecessor John Burzynski, who, without ever explicitly explaining how he did it, nonetheless gave Tristan an old-fashioned apprenticeship in exhibition hanging.

Back then the RWA was a very different place, however, shutting for weeks at a time between shows and even closing in the summer to host Bristol University exams. Now it stays open all year round and Tristan – along with Facilities Manager Ben Rowe plus a team of volunteers and freelance technicians – must oversee a ceaseless turnover of exhibitions large and small in the building’s various galleries.

Tristan putting his hanging skills to work for the 2019 Friends’ Exhibition. (Photo: Angus Gregson)

Funnily enough, the high-density shows like the Open or the Friends’ Exhibition aren’t actually the hardest ones to handle. Tristan has the master hanger’s knack and can easily put up a hundred small pictures in a day. Much more  challenging are the awkwardly-shaped works or the ones in heavy antique frames, or, of course, the monumental sculptures. Tim Shaw’s Man on Fire – a highlight of the RWA’s summer ‘Fire’ show – required four people to lift its base, and it only just squeezed round the staircase.

Not that Tristan is complaining: putting up new shows within the Academy is his favourite part of the job. Prior to joining the RWA he’d always wanted to work in the art world (he studied art to foundation level and still sketches). Now he’s the leading expert on an outstanding art treasure trove, and gets to curate his own mini-exhibitions, rotating works from the Permanent Collection in the various rooms, corridors and stairwells. As Tristan explains: “I know what hasn’t been shown for a while and deserves an airing. I might say ‘I think I’ll go for black and white prints this time’”.

His work – and his eye – is appreciated. Numerous grateful artists have gifted him prints, and this year Alison Bevan nominated Tristan to visit Buckingham Palace for a Royal Garden Party, which he attended along with the Friends’ Chair Jane Boot.

In the event, the RWA didn’t actually collapse while its Raven was away mingling with royalty, but everyone was glad to have him back.

Tristan and his wife Sue at Royal Garden Party, 2019.

 

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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