In a modest Victorian terraced house on a side street off the Magdalen Road in East Oxford, ex publisher turned curator Vanessa Lacey has opened a small contemporary art gallery in the home she shares with her young family. Before launching Irving Contemporary in late 2019, Vanessa had a fifteen-year career in academic publishing, first at Cambridge University Press, then at Oxford University Press. But with a background in art and art history, she had long wanted to return to working in the visual arts: Irving Contemporary is the realisation of that dream, and an exciting addition to the contemporary art scene in Oxford.

Irving Contemporary exists both as an online curated selection of contemporary art, and as a physical gallery hosting five to six exhibitions each year. In the light bay-fronted room at the front of the house, which was once the family sitting room, Vanessa curates both solo and group exhibitions, showing work by emerging and mid-career artists, alongside a selection of ceramics by a number of makers from across the UK including Oxfordshire ceramicists Joanna Oliver, Leighan Thomas, Robyn Hardyman, and Emily Marston.

Oxford Mail:

In the gallery’s fourth exhibition, Inside Out / Outside In, Vanessa is showing the paintings of three very distinctive artists: Midge Naylor, Gemma Petrie, and Alex McIntyre. The exhibition’s title reflects the idea that some of the works in the show bring the outside world in and onto the walls, while in other works the artists’ inner worlds are explored outwardly in the imagined landscapes or ecosystems of their paintings. In these paintings memory and the psyche are bound up intrinsically with nature and the landscape.

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Midge Naylor is a Scottish visual artist whose formative years were spent in a fishing and mining community east of Edinburgh, but who now lives and works in Bristol where she is an academician of the Royal West of England Academy (RWA). Midge’s striking and curious paintings sometimes contain an isolated piece of furniture seemingly floating within an empty landscape, prompting all sorts of questions. As Midge says of her work: “Painting can be one of the richest and most complex ways in which aspects of the psyche can be externalised. My work is derived from fragments - of place, memory, experience, and imagination. These elements are conjured up and arranged through a process of addition and subtraction until I reach what is to me a formal ‘rightness’ where I feel at ease with the work.”

Oxford Mail:

These paintings defy any sort of literal reading; when there is a landscape within the picture, it does not abide by the rules of the real world, since here we are in a different landscape of the psyche, the paintings essentially depicting a state of being.

Scottish artist Gemma Petrie was brought up on the Isle of Skye, and now lives and works in the small seaside village of Portmahomack, in the north of Scotland. Gemma’s island upbringing and coastal location mean that natural form, landscape, and wildlife have always been important in her work. Her intricate, richly coloured abstract paintings in watercolour and acrylics, sometimes incorporating found objects and materials, are for the most part about finding a pathway through nature to memories. “The small hidden worlds in nature, for example the mini ecosystems found within rock pools and forests, allow me to portray a representation of protection, to describe the need to protect our families, ourselves, and our environment.” The exhibition is showing six new ‘Wee Beastie’ paintings by Gemma Petrie, as well as a group of eight delicate ‘Fidget’ watercolours.

Oxford Mail:

Artist Alex McIntyre moved to the countryside five years ago, having lived in London for most of her life. Almost overnight her practice changed as she began to dream of horizon lines and sky, and her paintings emerge from a sense of gratitude, awe, and wonder. They are not specific locations but the result of accumulated and translated experiences outside. Alex uses the device of sky, weather, and landscape to offer the viewer an embodied sense of space. The paintings speak to us of light, sky, journeys, the touch of weather, or the smell of different seasons.

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Alex makes her beautiful paintings in her Hertfordshire studio using acrylic ink and mixed media on a traditional gesso ground on birch or poplar panel. She writes of her process: “Gesso is a sensitive and responsive material which remembers being a liquid and communicates every minute scratch or bump. This means that the painting process is like a conversation. I create texture in the surface with a brush and palette knife or by sanding and carving back into the gesso. The painting gradually evolves through an intuitive and physical interaction with ink and other mixed media. I know they are finished when I feel a sense of ‘lining up’, when the painting and I have both said enough.”

Make your way to East Oxford to see this beautiful and diverse exhibition at Irving Contemporary, and head to the website to find out more about the artists represented. Irving Contemporary is definitely a business for art and ceramics lovers to keep a close eye on, as Vanessa builds her portfolio of artists and reveals exciting exhibition plans for 2021.

  • Inside Out / Outside In continues until October 31 at Irving Contemporary, 28 Essex Street, Oxford
  • Opening times: Thursday 11-5, Friday 11-3, Saturday 2-5 (or by appointment).
  • Visit for more information and to view the exhibition online.