An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Seventeen

Christmas had come and gone and, during the winter months of 1985, we had very few visitors to the Glevum. In spite of that, our hopes for the summer were high. The Queen was to visit Bristol that summer to perform the opening ceremony of the Maritime Heritage Centre and the City Council had asked us to mount an exhibition of marine paintings for the occasion. We readily agreed; it would certainly help raise our public profile and we were anxious to be seen as an asset to Bristol’s harbourside attractions.

In early spring all the plans received a setback when The National Maritime Museum cancelled its decision to expand to Bristol. Margaret Thatcher’s government had drastically cut funding for all museums and announced that the shortfall would be made up by the introduction of admission fees to the museums and galleries. Under such circumstances The National Maritime Museum had very little choice but to cut back on all planned expansion.

The Glevum was moored at Princes Wharf, outside the Bristol Industrial Museum, and we had developed a close working relationship with the staff. Amongst their collection, they had the builder’s half-hull model of the barge, and they had loaned it to us for display in the gallery. The assistant curator of the museum was Andy King. A young man who was full of energy, and that spring he needed to be. With the change of plans for the Maritime Heritage Centre, the council went into a panic. They still had the Queen coming to open it and somebody had to make sure there was something for her to open that was worthy of the occasion. The entire project was dropped into Andy’s lap and he was told that it had to be ready in three months! He had no budget.

The National Maritime Museum weren’t the only ones feeling the financial pinch that spring. Kate and I had virtually run out of money. We talked it over and realised that for the time being at least, the gallery could not keep two of us. Our intention had been for Kate to run the gallery while I painted the stock. Kate said she would look for other work and in March she got a job with an insurance company. At the same time we found that Ian, one of the many dockside characters, was looking for lodgings. As both the boys had now left home, we talked it over and decided to offer him a room at our house. This at least should tide us through until the summer trade started.

In the next three months, Andy King and his staff worked miracles in the Maritime Heritage Centre, filling it with displays from their collection which luckily, contained far more exhibits than they had room to display in the main museum. The centrepiece was a mock-up of one of Brunel’s early steam dredgers, assembled around its original engine. We prepared for the Queen’s visit and organised a stunning marine exhibition, with the work of many local marine artists.

Thinking back, I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as, on the day before the visit, having spent most of the day down in the gallery, unpacking paintings and hanging the exhibition, I came up on to the deck for a breath of air – only to find a steel security barrier had been erected along the quayside and completely cut us off! I was furious; but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The following day the crowds arrived and then a procession of boats carried the Royal Party from St. Augustine’s Reach, by Neptune’s Statue, down the dock to the landing stage at the Maritime Heritage Centre where the ceremony took place. I watched from the Glevum, it was galling to see the throngs of people on the quayside, none of them able to come aboard. It was two days before they removed the barriers and by that time all the excitement had died down.

But we had plenty of excitement during the rest of the summer and autumn. Bristol harbourside was becoming known for the splendid firework displays that were put on for events taking place in the harbour. Unfortunately, they were mostly set off from Princes Wharf, right alongside the Glevum. Before each display, we would have to dowse the Glevum with buckets of water from the dock. Then, as the fireworks were set off, we would stand by on deck with plentiful buckets of water to throw over the burning sulphurous debris that would shower down upon us. The spectacular displays soon lost their glitter in our eyes.


To be continued







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