In the swing in Swindon

EXHIBITIONS II: Few regional galleries can boast a collection of 20th- century art that wouldn't look out of place in the Tate. But Tim Hilton has found one - in Wiltshire
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YOU probably didn't know (and why should you?) that the British Council organised a "Britain in Greece" festival in Athens last year. I've seen the programme, and it looks pretty good. Theatre, film, dance, design were all represented, Craig Raine read poems, prominent Hellenists such as Jasper Griffin and Ruth Padel gave lectures. And for the visual arts? Well, there was an exhibition called "Modern Painting in Britain". The British Council didn't really compile this show, in the sense that they searched for exhibits. Everything on display came from one source, the local art gallery in Swindon.

The exhibition has now been reconstructed, is called "After Athens", is back in its home town and is worth looking at for more than one reason. First, there's the general interest and quality of the paintings. Secondly, the history - even the existence - of the Swindon collection is exemplary. It's so good. And yet it has been acquired on a shoestring. Many Swindon paintings would enhance our national collection of modern art at the Tate. If a small town can do so well with severely limited resources, why, one asks, are the modern-art holdings of our major regional galleries so dismal?

Maybe because Swindon didn't have the heavy 19th-century inheritance of our big municipal museums. When the collection was founded in the late Forties it was natural to buy new work. Contemporary art then was cheap to acquire. And Swindon Council (now Thamesmead) had the good sense to ask for help from people who know where new fine art was to be found. They appointed advisors, who in effect were purchasers. The first was the late Sir Lawrence Gowing. He was shortly followed by Richard Morphet of the Tate Gallery. Morphet has now helped Swindon for a quarter of a century.

In obvious ways "After Athens" is Morphet's show, but it has been selected on behalf of the British Council by Robert McPherson. A former director of the Air Gallery, McPherson has also worked for the National Art Collections Fund and has recently completed a survey of all the works belonging to the Arts Council in public places. Nobody knows more about the role - or the fate - of contemporary art in the regions. In his spare time McPherson is chairman of the Charleston Trust. Perhaps there's a little too much Bloomsburyishness in his selection. None the less, he's certainly chosen some good pictures from the Bloomsbury ethos.

First among them is Roger Fry's The Black Sea Coast, painted after a 1911 visit to Turkey with Clive and Vanessa Bell. I doubt whether this canvas owes much to its motif. It's a studio painting in which Fry almost forced his various aesthetic enthusiasms of the time - Matisse, Gauguin, Turkish mosaics - into his expression. An essay in indebtedness, maybe, but with a level of sophisticated concentration that could not have been equalled by any other English artist. Fry was an academic of early modernism. Of course, that shows in his art, and he never produced a completely original picture. This one is still excellent. Another almost-inspired painting by a usually dull artist is David Bomberg's South East Corner, Jerusalem of 1926.

In a nice tribute to Lawrence Gowing there are two of his paintings from the Forties, one a portrait of the youthful Alfie Bass and the other a Courbet-like study of apples. In his writing, Gowing (who died in 1991) was the final exponent of the Bloomsbury manner. Nobody much noticed this aspect of his work, probably because it was so old-fashioned. Anyway, it's to Swindon's credit that they also take in the new and unorthodox. Nothing could be more anti-Bloomsbury than British tachisme, the "experimental" art of the Fifties. Such work is not much collected by museums, so it's all the more exciting to see Jack Smith's Night Sky of 1957, a heavily impastoed black-and-white abstract whose surface has been worked like clay.

Other startling purchases included an early Howard Hodgkin (who for years was collected only by his friends), and Terry Frost's deceptively casual Grey, Red and Black Verticals. Such paintings as these may not seem challenging today, but were simply unknown in most public galleries, especially outside London, before quite recent times. Continuing the story of British abstract painting, Swindon has works by Gillian Ayres, John Walker (one of the first paintings he ever sold), Mark Lancaster, William Turnbull and Christopher Le Brun. At the moment one can see John McLean's beautiful Catterline, and an especially dramatic canvas from John Hoyland.

I find these paintings more interesting than those by the older artists - Christopher Wood, Graham Sutherland, Patrick Hayman and Vanessa Bell - but must applaud Sylvia Gosse. The Printer isn't precisely dated, but comes from the time of the First World War and has much to do with women's work of that period. Here's the reason why the image often turns up in books of feminist history. Gosse trained as an etcher (under Sickert) and those are her own works on the line. This is not however a self-portrait: she used a friend as a model. The message, we understand, is that both machinery and art can be used by women in the modern world.

! 'After Athens': Swindon Museum and Art Gallery (01793 493188), to 4 Feb.

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