by Dennis Wood
The opening of the South Reading Community Hub took place in June this year after the Whitley Library had been moved there. After I attended the opening and told some friends about it, they mentioned to me about the two large paintings that they remembered from their younger days as hanging in the main hall of the South Reading (Whitley) Community Centre and wondered whether they were still there. Although I knew they were no longer in the hall, there were various recollections of these paintings and clearly a bit of research was needed to unravel their story. This is the result with the valuable help of Reading Museum.
Two pieces of art of related subjects were painted in the 1930s by the artist William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881-1941), who lived locally for many years. The two subjects were:
- ‘Gathering the Grapes in Provence, France’ (c. 1937) and
- ‘Spraying the Vines in Provence’, France (c. 1936)
They were both very large paintings; the first was about 2.2m high x 2.4m wide, the second about 2.2m high x 3m wide.
William Ranken was born in Edinburgh and, after Eton College, he attended Slade College of Art. His first exhibition was in 1904 in London where he was then living, and it was well received. He went to America during the Great War and received commissions from the wealthy to paint portraits. On his return to England after the War he painted portraits of Royals and the aristocracy. Around 1920, he purchased Warbrook House in Eversley, where he lived until the mid-1930s, by which time it had become too costly to maintain so he moved into nearby Farley Hill Place.
In 1941 he died suddenly. It is clear that he was a very popular and well-respected artist, particularly of portraits. After his death, William Ranken’s sister, Janette, donated a large number of his works to museums, galleries and elsewhere. This included four paintings that were given to Reading Museum in 1946. Two of these paintings were loaned to the South Reading Community Centre and hung in the main hall, probably because of their size and because the Centre, which had opened a few years previously in 1939, had the space to hang them. There they remained until the late 1990s, by which time they had become affected by the environment. They were removed by Reading Museum and put into the collections store.
For storage purposes, the surfaces of the paintings were consolidated with reversible glue and tissue until the opportunity for restoration became available; that still remains the aim today. As no images were retained of the paintings when they went to the conservationist before storage, the only ones available were taken after the protective covering was put in place – this rendered them less visible and gave them an appearance of poor quality. These are the images shown here:
People who lived in Whitley during the 1950s and 1960s remember seeing these paintings while involved in various events there. This included attending lessons when George Palmer Senior Girls used the hall until Southlands School opened in 1960, or for the youth club when it was held there in the 1960s. Before Christ the King Church was consecrated in 1959, Mass was held in the Community Centre for a while. Other visitors would have attended various evening classes.
Perhaps there are other people who have memories of being at the community centre, now the South Reading Community Hub, and seeing the paintings and would like to share them with us? Maybe there are photos that have been kept of these events which show the paintings as they were at the time and which could be shared.
Reading Museum is looking into the costs of restoring the paintings to their original state with a view to completing the work once funding for the work is available.