Published  05/07/2006

Palliative pallant

The most discreet, yet perhaps the very best of small post-war collections of modern art has quietly settled this June into the public domain in Chichester - this is Architect Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson's superb gathering of up to 35 works assembled over half a century. There has been a minimum of publicity, yet this is one of the great art events of the decade. What brings a special distinction to Wilson's collection is that it has accrued from the inside - almost all the works were produced by artists whom Wilson knew personally as friends or collaborators, as a practising architect who became, as collectors frequently do, an obsessive perfectionist in his period. Now the collection has been provided with a fine new gallery, Pallant House, in the centre of the cathedral city; and, second to the cathedral and its gardens, becomes another jewel in the city's landscape. The architects were Sir Colin St John Wilson and his distinguished American wife and partner, MJ Long. One cannot write of the trials and tribulations that 83-year-old Wilson had to surmount in dealing with planning permission, conservation pressures and the rest – suffice it to say that now, it has all come to be. Here one finds the essence of the thinking of the whole period from the 1950s to date. Sir Peter Blake, Sir Howard Hodgkin, Lucian Freud, Ron Kitaj and the late Eduardo Paolozzi are exceptionally represented here, as are many other luminaries. But what is also moving and inspiring is the way in which the whole ethos of the period is distilled and discreetly embedded in this modest work of architecture. As the architect of the British Library at St Pancras, Wilson became a famous veteran of the bureaucratic arena, duly successfully vindicated as the masterly institution rose anew. After all this, the Pallant House Gallery becomes (and for Wilson and Long too) a therapy at long last, as the public step in. There is also something reassuringly English abut the way this contemporary monument has been tactfully inserted into the soft core of this historic cathedral city.

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