Chris Malpas gets the low down from curator Kate O'Donoghue

It has been over three years since the Walker Art Gallery removed their Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque works from public display. The end of July will see new acquisitions by Giovanni Andrea Sirani and Willian van Aelst join old favourites by Rembrandt and Holbein. Kate O’Donoghue, Curator of International Fine Art (pictured above), takes time out of her schedule to talk with me about the run-up to the grand reopening, and to stress the importance of examining old masterpieces in a new light.

The main aim of the reinterpretation is to make the collections more engaging and accessible

“The main aim of the reinterpretation is to make the collections more engaging and accessible for contemporary audiences,” Kate begins. This ambition is alluded to in the new exhibition’s title: Renaissance Rediscovered. Audiences may remember how the collections were curated three and a half years ago, but it’s not simply the gallery’s interior which has been subject to a £4.5 million transformation.

“In the old space, lots of histories were overlooked, especially women’s, Black, and LGBTQ+ histories,” Kate says. “We also wanted to draw more attention to the fact that many of these treasures only ended up in Liverpool because of the transatlantic slave trade.”

Walker Art Gallery
Walker Art Gallery Image: Wikimedia

I ask whether Kate believes galleries are obligated to reimagine classic pieces of art for the present day. From her perspective, interpretations are always changing. 

She uses the figure of St Sebastian as an example: “We can see depictions of him change from an old man to a young, muscular, naked figure. There’s an association between suffering and spiritual pleasure, about being closer to God. In the 19th century, St Sebastian actually became something of a gay icon.” 

The modernisation of art labels has been a fundamental part of this process. A strict word count and a target reading age of 12 means the curatorial team has been limited in what they’re able to include. “A common misconception is that people entering a gallery already need to know things about the works on display,” says Kate, 

A Church Interior
The exhibition taking shape with 'A Church Interior' by Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger Image: Gareth Jones

Allowing visitors to form their own opinions is crucial; the labels are simply a potential way in. 

“When choosing what angle to come from, some of the questions we ask are, ‘Is this something that’s not been said before?’ and ‘Is it actually relevant to the painting and the viewer?’” she says. 

I’m curious which works Kate expects visitors to resonate with most, and whether they’re established pieces in the collection or recent arrivals at the Walker. She’s quick to acknowledge the heavy-hitters, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as a Young Man and Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII, which audiences will have missed over the last few years, but Kate is particularly excited by Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s Allegory of Painting and Music (main image at the top of the page).

“It’s the first of his works to be included in a public collection in the UK,” she explains. “It’s especially significant to the Walker because his daughter’s works are actually featured in our drawing collection.” Elisabetta Sirani took over the family workshop, employed female apprentices, and established the first European professional art academy for women. This relates to the subject matter of her father’s painting: women painting and reading sheet music.

“The whole collection is about centuries of creativity, but it’s rare to see depictions of women engaged in the arts,” says Kate. “Allegory of Painting and Music will greet people as they enter the new space.”

Coronation Of The Virgin And Angels Playing Musical Instruments
The exhibition being installed with 'Coronation of the Virgin and Angels Playing Musical Instruments' by Giovanni del Biondo Image: Gareth Jones

The Walker’s Renaissance collections were previously curated chronologically. In some cases, Renaissance Rediscovered will re-tread this proven ground to aid accessibility. An extensive Madonna and Child collection, however, has enabled Kate and the team to consider ways to group works thematically as well. “The closure has given us time to take a break and study the collection. Some of the works haven’t been shown since 2000; others haven’t been off the walls in decades.”

One Of The Madonna And Child Paintings In The Collection
Careful does it with those masterpieces: this one is 'Madonna and Child' by Francesco Signorelli Image: Gareth Jones

Kate has been at the Walker for five years, and Renaissance Rediscovered presents a rare opportunity for any curator. 

“I feel a huge responsibility to do the works justice,” she  says before continuing. “Everything is for public benefit. People have great affection for the collections, and this is the first time in thirty years we’ve had a chance to rethink them.” 

Kate is especially proud of the way decorative art has been integrated into the fine art collection. One of the spaces has also been reconfigured as a gallery with works on paper. “We don’t want displays to be static,” she says. 

The opening of Renaissance Rediscovered doesn’t only fill a gap in Liverpool’s art scene; the collection is also of international significance. 

 “Liverpool has so much to offer,” Kate says, “but these works offer such a window into the past. They still have an incredible power to be relatable.” Kate reels off a few of the universal motifs: faith, family, diversity, and migration. Each work tells its own story, but the new curation also considers “the stories the works tell together.” 

Renaissance Rediscovered will open at The Walker on July 29.

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown St, Liverpool L3 8EL.

Get the latest news to your inbox

Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!