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Perhaps it is the ordinariness of arranged inanimate objects that makes the still life an alluring subject—it gives scope for experimentation and the honing of skills without the cost of a model or the unpredictability of a changing landscape. The enduring popularity of the genre in the UK is being explored this weekend in a new survey of more than 100 artists at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, southern England.

The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain (11 May-20 October) is a chronological sweep through the experimentation found in the domestic confines of Modern and contemporary British art—with a big dash of influence from the European avant-garde. The show’s highlights include Duncan Grant’s The Mantelpiece (1914), capturing the unmistakeable palette of Bloomsbury Group interiors; a near-umami-tasting Mushrooms (around 1919-20) by Walter Sickert; and an erotically charged cuckoo-pint plant in Gluck’s Lords and Ladies (1936). Elsewhere, the rise of consumerism in post-war Britain can be seen in the Pop antics of Peter Blake’s Cigarette Pack (1959-60) and David Hockney’s Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961), through to Gavin Turk’s bronze replica of a black bin bag titled Dump (2004) and Maisie Cousins sumptuous close-up of oozy rubbish, Sweet Chilli Sauce (2018).

There have been surprisingly few exhibitions dedicated to still lifes in British art, with this likely being among the most comprehensive. While it is not the sexiest of subjects, the show goes someway to expressing that the still life—traditionally the lowliest of the painting genres, behind history, portrait and landscape—was enthusiastically embraced in domestic Britain. And this sentiment stretches to the key sponsor of the show: not a multibillion-dollar investment bank or oil company—but a sofa company (Sofas & Stuff). And why not? Getting sponsors outside of London is not easy, says the institution’s director Simon Martin. And we all need somewhere to park our bums after a long day appreciating the many sides of Britain’s still lifes…

The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 11 May-20 October

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