Charles Williams on hanging the NEAC Annual Exhibition 2021

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The first time I got involved properly in hanging the Annual Exhibition I was Tom Coates’ gopher. He was the big cheese: we used to race each other to get to the gallery first and I always won, because I lived in Hackney at the time and the bus got me there before Tom’s T Cruiser was parked in Carlton House Terrace. The problem was that he knew how to get in the doors before me. ‘I won’ he would say. Then we’d spend a couple of hours lugging paintings around the gallery. He never said much - it was pretty early - but we’d work out roughly what was going where before anyone else turned up.

There are hundreds of paintings to find a spot for. It’s not like hanging a degree show or a solo show, where you are telling individual stories in a space, or like a curated exhibition, where there’s a theme, an idea that you need to explore. In a show like this, you are trying to get every single painting to show itself at its best, alongside all the others. And there are so many others.

There’s the famous story about Turner letting Constable hang his vividly coloured painting next to his own, misty seascape and then putting in a Venetian Red funnel in the middle of his grey harmonies, which made the Constable look gauche and overdone. I don’t know that I buy that story now. I am not sure that effect would have lasted long anyway. Constable didn’t really make unsubtle colour decisions after all. But it’s the anxiety you have - will my decision to put this painting next to that painting make one of them look dull or the other clumsy? With such a large show, how can you make all these relationships work?

The answer is of course that you don’t. Well, I don’t. When Tom handed over the job to me, at an Executive Committee meeting when he became our second ever President, I was flattered. Then he explained that the reason was that sometimes artists were upset by where we hung their paintings and that, as a big chap, they’d think twice about taking a swing at me. It’s never happened! But it might. I delegate the hanging; anyone in the Club is welcome to lend a hand, and I put people in charge of different sections, after I’ve sort of worked out the larger decisions, where the big works will go, whether we should group all the smaller pictures together and so on. I take the responsibility though and if a swing is taken, it should be at me.

An example of what gardeners might call ‘companion hanging’ that I did make though is placing Robert Wells’ paintings with Peter Brown’s - I was very surprised to see the correspondence between colours and tonalities in paintings with such differing intentions. Funnily enough, I hung Toby Ward’s wonderfully playful and extremely vivid work, with Laura Smith’s right opposite them - again, such surprising correspondences. There’s another strange grouping elsewhere, Ken Howard’s with Paul Gildea’s and Grant Watson’s, but they’re just the ones that spring to my mind.

One of the most interesting things this year was the route that visitors must take, turning right at the front doors and going around the East Gallery first, and the big screens in the middle of the West Gallery. The New English Art Club is a rambunctious and unconforming lot but one thing we all agree on is the importance of spending time drawing from observation, and the path we ask visitors to follow moves through a section dedicated to work on paper. There are also walls of small, eminently possessable paintings as well as huge great show-off things like my own. Who’s going to put a painting like that in their house? Well, that’s not entirely the point; the New English Art Club’s ethos is not in making sales - there are private galleries who do that job - but in artists setting their own standards of what’s good in painting. Perhaps after all the Chief Hanger does have a theme to explore in the Annual Exhibition: it’s ‘this is what good painting looks like’.

Our 2021 Annual Exhibition has now ended. But you can still enjoy the show online.