About the Nottingham Castle Open

For more than 100 years Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the first municipal Museum & Art Gallery outside of London, has played host to an ‘open-style’ exhibition, an event which celebrates the enormous creative talent within the region. The Nottingham Castle Open is one of the busiest and most exciting events in the Castle’s Annual calendar.

Each exhibitor has the chance to receive a wide variety of prizes, which include the Grand Prize of £1,500, alongside other cash, materials, exhibition and residency opportunities courtesy of the many sponsors who support the exhibition.

 The exhibition is always a ‘visual feast’ that demonstrates current artistic practices from the widest possible range of work made over the past 12 months, and as such, the Nottingham Castle Open is a valuable and respected vehicle for the region’s emerging and established artists.

Nottingham Castle Open 2014, Slideshow images. Photo credit: John Hartley

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In his semi-autobiographic work entitled ‘Sons & Lovers’ set in 1913, the writer D.H. Lawrence accounts a story of an aspiring young artist called Paul Morel. Chapter 10 begins with a reference to the Nottingham Castle Open exhibition:

‘…when he was 23 years old Paul sent in a landscape to the winter exhibition at Nottingham Castle.’

The picture won first prize and sold for 20 guineas. Whether fictitious or based on his own experiences, we cannot find any records of D.H. Lawrence exhibiting here, but it clearly shows the status of the exhibition as far back as the 1900s. As a result, we invited freelance Curator Nicola Gauld to look into our archives and see how the exhibition has been staged over the years.

‘When Nottingham Castle Museum opened on July 3rd 1878 works by local artists were a major priority for display. The following year the first “Exhibition of Works in Oil and Watercolour by Local Artists” opened on May 1st in the Dawson Gallery. Due to its success the exhibition was quickly established as an annual event and the reach extended to artists living within a 30 mile radius of the city. In the first exhibition catalogue, G. H. Wallis, the Museum’s first director, wrote ‘how far the Local Art Talent of Nottingham and the district around it would sustain itself in a separate exhibition, could only be ascertained by giving the Artists of the locality an opportunity to bring their works before the public’. It was declared that the purpose of this first exhibition was ‘the encouragement of local artists and [to give] hopes of advancement in the future. Such an exhibition is of great advantage to the artists themselves, as it brings them in contact with one another’s works, and thus causes an interchange of ideas, apart from bringing them to the Museum to see the works of eminent painters’. In total, 61 oils and 32 watercolours were displayed, including work by Thomas Cooper Moore, one of the founding members of the Nottingham Society of Artists, and Frank Miles, a close friend of Oscar Wilde. The following year saw the submission of 200 works and in 1881, 400 works were entered into the competition.

1880 saw the founding of the Nottingham Society of Artists. The group aimed to bring together artists resident in Nottingham and district for ‘mutual help and inspiration’. This eventually led to a decision by the Museum to suspend the Local Artists Exhibition at the Castle. The minutes from 1904 record that ‘it was suggested that in consequence of the Nottingham Society of Artists having established an Exhibition of their own, it was unnecessary to continue the Local Exhibition at the Castle’ (Minutes of Meeting of Castle Museum & School of Art, 3rd February 1904). However, the Local was re-instated four years later and held in the Long Gallery from May to June 1908; out of 485 submissions, 353 were accepted.

The exhibition ran throughout the First World War apart from in 1915. During the 1930s many famous artists and curators presided over the selection committee, including the painters Harold Knight in 1934 and Bertram Nicholls in 1936, and S.C. Kaines Smith, Director of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1935. The Local was held in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War; an exhibition of works by ‘Nottingham Artists Today’ was held ten years later, in 1949. 1985 saw the last year of the exhibition known as the Local Artists Exhibition; in 1986 it was renamed the Artist’s Open Exhibition, announcing ‘a new name and a fresh approach to the most popular exhibition on the Museum’s calendar’.

Long Gallery, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery (Illustrated London News) 1878

Long Gallery, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery (Illustrated London News) 1878

The Open has continued to grow in the 21st century. 2010 was the Open’s most successful year to date, with a record number of attendees and sales, and in 2011 the traditional geographical spread of the Open was extended to allow artists from the West Midlands to enter. The Open includes art in all forms of media, including (but not restricted to) photography, prints, painting, glass, fine art textiles and film and is selected by an independent panel of experts from outside the region. Since the early 2000s, there has been an increase in contemporary artists entering the competition, which in turn has seen a growth of new media and new materials (specifically in 3D, performance and sculpture), moving away from the more traditional work often associated with Open art exhibitions. Following the traditions of The Open to reflect the work being made within the region, the exhibition continues to respond and adapt to the applicants, now welcoming over 1000 submissions from 250 artists each year.’

Nicola Gauld
Independent Curator and Researcher.