Object in Focus: Modern art, chaos and controversy at the RBSA – Trevor Denning’s RBSA Gallery, New Street (c.1955).

A focused analysis of Trevor Denning's painting RBSA Gallery, New Street examining his use of caricature and facial expression to critique and comment on the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists

Faith Whitehouse
Collection: Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA)

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Keywords: Trevor Denning; Royal Birmingham Society of Artists; caricature

denning-rbsa-trevor-denning-rbsa-gallery-new-street Fig.1 Trevor Denning, RBSA Gallery, New Street (c.1955), oil on strawboard, 29.5 x 29.5 cm. RBSA Collection, photo by RBSA ©Artist's Estate. Reproduced with permission of Jean Denning.


In October 2014, The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) displayed RBSA Gallery, New Street (fig.1) by Trevor Denning (1923-2009) as part of an exhibition marking and celebrating the Society's history [1]. Denning had been a member of the Society, and upon his death in 2009 the artist's family donated this work to the RBSA Collection. While researching my dissertation, ‘Modernism vs Traditionalism: Trevor Denning', I began to consider the ways that the three figures that dominate this painting could be understood as caricatures representing Denning's views of the RBSA and its viewing public. This article will explore Denning's use of facial expressions in this work to comment on art institutions. The critical nature of this painting highlights the frustration expressed by contemporary artists at the perceived conservatism of the RBSA during this period, as evidenced in archival and anecdotal material gathered during my research.

RBSA Gallery, New Street is painted on strawboard, a favoured material of the artist, and depicts the interior of the RBSA Gallery at New Street, where it was located from 1829 to 1999. The setting is shabby, with paint peeling off the wall. There are four artworks displayed in the background. Though partially obscured by the close crop of the frame, from left to right these paintings depict a vehicle in a city, a reclining female nude, a cropped image, and a blue nude within a fairground scene. In the foreground of the composition are three elderly figures looking towards a space hidden from the viewer. It can be inferred that this space is an exhibition of Denning's work as the figure to the left is holding a catalogue, the cover of which reads ‘Exhibit … of pa …Trev …’. The depicted scene is fictional as Denning never actually held a solo exhibition at the RBSA Gallery; as his widow Jean Denning explained during interviews conducted as part of my research, ‘you had to rent the gallery for a solo exhibition which he couldn't afford’ [2].

The three viewers appear perplexed by the work that confronts them. The male to the left of the composition has his mouth wide open in shock or perhaps in mid-speech. The female figure next to him looks at the work with a disapproving expression. The final figure, a rotund male, appears to be considering the work with a certain level of interested amusement. To understand Denning's intention in depicting such expressions, it is important to consider the context of the RBSA Gallery and wider art scene in Birmingham during this period. After an initial exhibition in 1814, the Birmingham Society of Artists was founded in 1821; it was given its 'Royal' status by Queen Victoria in 1868. In the 1950s and 1960s, during the early years of Denning's career as an artist, there were very few exhibition spaces available for contemporary artists in Birmingham. The RBSA had become known for exhibiting work that was traditional in both style and content; ‘wistful records of last year's sketching holidays – fishing boats in Cornwall, cottages on the Cotswolds, autumn leaves and spring sunshine, winter wastes and summer gardens’ [3]. This somewhat contemptuous description from a 1946 newspaper article is supported by the account of Angus Skene, benefactor of internationally renowned contemporary art gallery Ikon, founded in 1965, who stated that at this time he and his contemporaries found the RBSA 'in the hands of the Victorians' [4].

Denning had become a member of the RBSA in 1954 and was elected as Honorary Secretary in the same year. He immediately began an attempt to instigate change from within the institution and introduce modern exhibitions in order to alter perceptions of the RBSA. What made Denning's work stand out from the more conservative art usually exhibited at the RBSA in this period was his bold style. Characters in Denning's paintings were often depicted with strongly emotive expressions as can be seen in other examples such as The Brothel (Private Collection), where Denning and his three friends are alive with energy and exaggerated facial features. It is also clear from material in the artist's personal archive that Denning had an interest in caricatures, even meeting with the editor of leading satire magazine, Punch. Punch featured bold cartoons depicting everyday life and politics and the influence of satire can be identified in Denning's use of characters as a vehicle for humour and critique. 

The figures in RBSA Gallery, New Street, like the cartoons used in Punch, are utilised to represent Denning's dissatisfaction and cynicism towards the RBSA as an institution, and by association its conservative audiences. The three figures are symbolic of the traditional art viewer who, in Denning's eyes, would not have appreciated his work even if he were to hold an exhibition there. This is supported by the visual suggestion of shouts of disapproval from the elderly male's mouth towards the exhibition that confronts him, representing his perceived misunderstanding of Denning's work. From this painting it can be suggested that Denning did not feel his work or ideas were acceptable to the RBSA. The society's resistance to Denning's attempts at modernisation led to the artist drifting away from the RBSA in the 1950s and instead gravitating towards the contemporary avant-garde group who would later found the Ikon Gallery.

Through this painting it is possible to elaborate on the context and difficulties that Denning faced at the RBSA; a gallery that he struggled to change and where he felt his modernist painting was not accepted. Denning moved away from the RBSA during the late 1950s. Since then, RBSA has become increasingly progressive with contemporary art finding a place alongside the traditional work at the well-known Birmingham gallery. 

About Faith Whitehouse

Faith Whitehouse studied for her BA in Art History at the University of Birmingham 2014–16 


Faith Whitehouse would like to thank Trevor Denning's widow, Jean Denning, for providing access to the artist's work and for sharing valuable memories about his time at the RBSA. This article would not have been possible without her help. She would also like to thank the Denning family, in particular the artist's daughters who kindly sent their father’s diaries for analysis as part of this research.



[1] For a catalogue of this exhibition, and an overview of the history of the RBSA, see B. Flynn, A Place for Art: The Story of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (Birmingham, 2014).

[2] Faith Whitehouse, ‘Trevor Denning, RBSA Gallery, New Street, Modernism versus Traditionalism’, unpublished BA dissertation, University of Birmingham (2016), Appendix: An interview with Mrs Jean Denning.

[3] Anon, ‘200 paintings in RBSA Exhibition’, Birmingham Post (1946), RBSA Archive, Press 7, Press Cuttings 1935–89.

[4] Jonathan Watkins and Deborah Stevenson, Some of the Best Things in Life Happen Accidentally: The Beginning of Ikon, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery (Birmingham, 2004), p.14.