Small Charismatic Spaces: The Artist’s Studio Museum Network

Posted by Admin on 4 Apr 2016, 4:44 p.m.

by Kirsten Tambling, Studio Museum Administrator

Across Europe there are around 200 small museums established in the former homes or studios of visual artists. With the opening of Watts Studios, Watts Gallery – Artists' Village has become one of them. We have also just launched the Artist's Studio Museum Network website to profile and celebrate our own studio museum as well as some of the others.

Often built or bought originally as artistic retreats from the world, these homes and studios often remain secluded or off the beaten track, even after becoming established as museums – much like Limnerslease itself. Astruptunet, once home of the painter Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928), is a working farm along the Jølstravatnet lake in Norway, while Charleston, East Sussex, was a country retreat for the luminaries of the Bloomsbury set.

'Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic', wrote the Wakefield-born Barbara Hepworth of her Cornwall studio, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. 'Here was a studio, a yard and garden where I could work in open air and space.'

Yet just as many artists craved the bustling, vibrant city as sought secluded 'air and space'. Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sanbourne (1844-1910) decorated 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington, as the typical bourgeois home of the Victorian gentleman, and he used his butler and family servants as models. Before his bankruptcy in 1656, Rembrandt van Rijn similarly set himself up as wealthy gentleman-artist in the heart of busy Amsterdam in the impressive interiors of what is now the Rembrandthuis.

These city-centre museums offer another perspective on the role and place of the artist within society. It is a view that contrasts with the Romantic notion of the 'solitary outsider', though that notion is very much in evidence at Saint-Paul de Mausole, Saint Remy. This, the final studio of Vincent Van Gogh, is still a working psychiatric hospital, set among cypresses.

The Rembrandthuis is among the oldest extant artist's studio museums, but it is altogether typical of the genre in having opened in 1911. Indeed most of the museums in the Artist's Studio Museum network were established in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this sense, they were part of a burgeoning Europe-wide interest in the museum in general, a product both of increasing middle-class tourism and a general interest in educating the public about the past.

Along with studio museums, the nineteenth century also witnessed the opening of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon (1860) and the establishment of London's 'Blue Plaque' scheme six years later. Blue plaques, like house museums, assume that 'the actual house in which a person lived can […] afford some guide to that individual's personality' (this from a 1967 report to the Greater London Council), and studio museums came into being in this context.

Indeed the lines between a 'studio home' and 'portrait of the artist' can often become blurred. What are we searching for when we visit a studio museum but a closer communion with the artist themselves? It seems appropriate, then, that the surrealist artist James Ensor (1860-1949) should have operated from a room above his aunt and uncle's kitschy souvenir shop, and that the Museo Sorolla should include more of Joaquin Sorolla Bastida's family portraits than any other Spanish collection. Here in Madrid, pictures of Sorolla's wife and children line the artist's high-roofed studio, where they are surrounded by other private artefacts – porcelain, pillboxes, a model boat – a densely layered juxtaposition that would be difficult to find in any white-walled gallery.

The Artist's Studio Museum Network seeks to bring these charismatic, out-of-the-way spaces to ever-wider audiences. We hope you will enjoy exploring as many of them as possible.

Learn more on the Artist's Studio Museum Network website.