Philip Hensher: The art of idle curiosity

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One of the curious features of arts coverage is, surely, the way that the public seems to be drawn to familiar locations and events which are universally agreed to be worth writing about. Outside quite a narrow ring of well-known theatres, sites of interest and the most famous of museums, even first-rate events have to take their chance, depending largely on the idle curiosity of commentators and visitors.

Notoriously, the problem is most acute outside London. It must be said that, in many cases, regular trips outside London would only occasionally reveal enterprises to rival the constant level of cultural riches we take for granted in the capital. There are a good number of excellent provincial theatres, of course; orchestras outside London struggle on, often very effectively; museums sometimes find it possible to put on an exhibition, and perhaps draw attention in the meantime to their own permanent collections. There is, as well, probably a much livelier popular music scene outside London which seems to wander from city to city - at the moment, the energy seems to be in Sheffield.

Arts in the provinces do, generally, get covered - there is a definite sense of duty about this among the arts commentators, and a new production of a play in a major provincial theatre, or a concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or an exhibition at Tate Liverpool will generally get written about. But even within London, there may be a sense of important and fascinating enterprises which lie just off the beaten track getting passed over. It may not even be a question of radical fringe endeavours; just relatively unfamiliar destinations.

I was struck by the peculiar chanciness of these enterprises quite recently, after visiting a really impressive and fascinating exhibition of the work of the Victorian painter William Frith at the Guildhall art gallery in the City of London. I wouldn't have thought that I'd been to this gallery more than a couple of times in my life, and it certainly isn't on one's usual radar. Nor does it seem to be on most people's; I've hardly seen any mention of the exhibition in the press, and in fact I only heard about it when a friend of mine alerted me to it, knowing how much I liked Frith and busy Victorian cityscapes.

When I went, it was almost empty, though the attendance may have risen since. Considering the hunger for art, and the general fascination of these authoritative shows, it's surprising that a Frith show doesn't gather a significant fraction of the crowds or the acclaim that the National Gallery's Velazquez show does, three miles to the west. I'm sure, however, that a Frith show mounted by the National Gallery or Tate would, indeed, get a lot of attention and command popular success. It's just that people regularly go to those galleries, and very rarely and irregularly to the Guildhall, if at all. It seems sad that something like this should be so much a matter of habit.

It's still odder, considering that Frith is really not a painter you're going to have to persuade anyone into liking, and this exhibition needs no apologies. You certainly know his work from old paperbacks of Victorian novels - they seem to sum up the crowded, exuberant world of Dickens very efficiently, and it isn't at all surprising that he was a friend of Dickens. The exhibition culminates, with almost an excess of riches, in three great panoramic paintings, of a railway station, of a day on a beach, and, supremely, of Derby day.

When these paintings were unveiled, some of them were so popular that private art galleries could charge a shilling a head to view them, and had tens of thousands of visitors. It must have been a struggle, sometimes, to see the paintings at all, and looking at them now, in all their wonderful profusion, it's not hard to see why they were so popular. They've really remained just as absorbing as they always were. The odd thing is that when I, at least, went to look at them in the Guildhall, I had all three of them to myself. It's an exhibition which deserves to be popular, and would be hugely enjoyed by most ordinary art-lovers. Most of them, however, don't seem to have heard of it.

I suppose it's an inevitable consequence of the cultural riches of the nation, the liveliness of its enterprises, that one simply can't see everything worth seeing. In dozens of private art galleries up and down the country, the considered and professional work of hundreds of artists is constantly being shown, largely unobserved. One's always passing exhibitions of national societies of watercolour artists and portraitists, and only very occasionally being tempted to wander in. All that overlooked ability presents a slightly sad spectacle. But it would really be very odd indeed if an exhibition as exciting as the Guildhall's Frith show came and went unnoticed, just because it isn't in one of the galleries on the standard gallery circuit.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away