Wednesday 22 May 2024

The Art of Friendship: Exploring the Portland Museum of Art and the Laing Art Gallery With My Best Friend

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Fran and I enjoy sharing our lives as much and as richly as possible. That’s not always easy, given that we live three thousand miles apart, but few things are out of scope if you approach them with a little creativity! We often meet on video calls while we’re out and about, either locally or when we’re on vacation. The sounds of traffic and bird song. The trees and flowers, houses and gardens. Public transport and passers-by. All these and more take on a fresh vitality when shared with a friend, especially one who lives on the other side of the world. In this post I‘d like to share visits we‘ve made to the keynote art galleries in our respective cities: Portland‘s Museum of Art, and the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Robert Indiana's Seven outside Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine

The Portland Museum of Art

Earlier this year, Fran took me to visit the Portland Museum of Art. It wasn’t the first time we’ve visited an art gallery together, but it was my first time at the PMA. Fran showed me most of the exhibits. I enjoyed the wide range of paintings, including land and seascapes such as Georges Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine by Newell Convers Wyeth, and the drama of Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten. No less interesting were more modern pieces, such as Cheryle St Onge’s Untitled from the series Calling the Birds Home in which she documented her mother’s descent into dementia. Bernard Langlais’ collection of bird and fish sculptures brought our visit to a delightfully quirky close.

Bernard Langlais, Untitled

Outside, we paused to appreciate Robert Indiana’s impressive steel sculpture Seven. I was interested to see it because a few years ago Fran and I read The Isolation Artist, an account of Indiana’s final years at Vinalhaven in Maine, written by arts writer and storyteller Bob Keyes. Bob interviewed us in 2019 for the Maine Sunday Telegram to discuss our book and our experiences as long-distance friends.

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Laing Art Gallery

I was able to return the favour a few weeks later when I visited a new exhibition of work by English artist J. M. W. Turner at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. It was my first trip into the city in more than two years, apart from my covid jab late in 2022 and two opticians appointments last year. I made the most of the adventure, treating myself to breakfast at my favourite city coffee shop, and a drink down by the Quayside before heading home. The exhibition was the main focus of the day, though. I’ve been fascinated by Turner since watching Timothy Spall’s mesmerising performance in the title role of Mike Leith’s 2014 drama Mr Turner.

Because of the five hour time difference between Newcastle and Portland, I had chance to explore on my own before connecting with Fran. It’s fair to say that I was initially frustrated because it was difficult to get close to the keynote work The Fighting Temeraire due to gallery staff being filmed talking about the exhibition. I do think that could have been done before opening to the public! That said, there were plenty of other works to look at, and filming had completed by the time I went back with Fran. Note to self: maybe don’t go to a new exhibition on the first day, within an hour of the doors opening!

J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire

The fact that I’d looked around first helped me describe some of the highlights and background to Fran. HMS Temeraire played a key role in the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner’s painting shows her at the end of her life, being towed up the Thames by a steam tug to be broken for scrap. The exhibition includes models of the ship made by prisoners of war.

Many of the paintings and sketches in the exhibition are on maritime themes, which connects Turner’s masterpiece with the north-east’s proud history of shipbuilding and seafaring. The Temeraire was built in Chatham, but the tugs which towed the ship to its final resting place were from this region. Her fame reflects the fact that she was the only ship mentioned by name in Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood’s despatch from Trafalgar after the battle. Collingwood was Nelson’s second-in-command. He was born in Newcastle and is commemorated by a striking monument at Tynemouth which overlooks the mouth of the river. The Laing houses Chris Killip’s photography exhibit The Last Ships which documents the decline of shipbuilding in the region in the 1970s and is well worth a visit.

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

I enjoyed taking Fran round the rest of the gallery too, pointing out pieces I knew from when I used to visit far more regularly. We sat to experience John Martin’s epic painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. At the touch of a button, we were immersed in crashing sounds and flashing lights that echoed the thunder, lighting, and chaos depicted in the painting. Fran was fascinated by a large, intricately carved piece by Gerrard Robinson depicting a boar hunt. Nearby, I pointed out her silver Best Friend Award which, sadly, must remain in its display case as it’s too large for me to mail to her. (It’s possible the piece has a different provenance, but to me it will always be Fran’s Best Friend Award!)

Two powerful modern works engaged our attention. Shot Boy by Ken Currie is a tragic yet hauntingly beautiful painting which depicts the body and spirit of a teenaged boy killed in a firearms incident. Beside it hangs Dysphoria by local artist Lizzie Rowe. I’ve long been fascinated by this work. The large (8ft by 8ft) canvas is hung somewhat claustrophobically in a corner near one of the doors, which makes it difficult to study for any length of time without having to step aside to let people past. The vague frustration and unease this evokes is in keeping with the painting’s theme.

Lizzie Rowe, Dysphoria

Seeing the painting for the first time in years was made all the more poignant because the artist died in December 2023. While researching this post I came across a beautiful celebration of Lizzie Rowe’s life and work on Fiona Mcandrew’s Coffee Crafts and Chats YouTube channel. It’s clear that Lizzie was very well-loved. The tribute helped me feel I knew her just a little. It also reminded me of what Fran and I hope to portray in all we do: the importance of friendship, caring support, and connection.

Turner: Art, Industry and Nostalgia is on at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle until September 7, 2024. Admission charges apply.

Over to You

Being in a mutually supportive friendship isn’t just about being there for each other when times are hard. It’s about sharing the good things too! In this post l‘ve related two recent occasions where Fran and I spent time together despite living thousands of miles apart. We invite you to try it out, if you‘re not already doing so. We‘d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photos and video call screenshots by Martin Baker.


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