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Five unmissable gems in Leeds' museums and galleries

Rob Martin
Written by
Rob Martin

With a steady flow of temporary exhibitions arriving at Leeds’ cultural hotspots throughout the year, it’s easy to forget about the delights on offer in the city’s permanent collections. Over the centuries and through the efforts of bodies such as the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, private enthusiasts and generous donations, a wealth of unique, priceless and downright bizarre items have made their way into the mix.

Here are five must-see items to watch out for.

‘Reclining Figure’ by Henry Moore, Leeds Art Gallery 
The Henry Moore Institute may bear the name of Leeds School of Art’s most celebrated student but its exhibitions usually feature other artists. So to appreciate Moore’s sculptural genius, hop next door to the city art gallery, where ‘Reclining Figure’ sits prominently at the entrance to the first floor. An early work, this 1929 piece may not be as monumental as the later ‘Reclining Woman: Elbow’ sited outside but it still projects a confident solidity, helped by its attractive brown Hornton stone. Influenced by ancient Mexican chac-mool figures and by Picasso’s Cubism, the woman’s curvaceous limbs pull off the familiar Moore trick of appearing both beguilingly organic and in urgent need of a chiropractor.

‘The Sognefjord’ by Adelsteen Normann, Leeds Art Gallery 
Leeds Art Gallery’s ground floor is where you’ll find the big ones: 19th-century paintings aiming to provoke awe not just through size, but with some of the most epic and overblown scenes committed to canvas. No imperialist battles or religious miracles for the Norwegian artist Adelsteen Normann, though. Painted around 1885, ‘The Sognefjord’ puts humans in their place with its depiction of unforgiving sheer rock faces towering over tiny buildings, letting the harsh beauty of a landscape shaped over unimaginable stretches of time speak for itself.

Penny arcade machine, Abbey House Museum 
Kirkstall’s Abbey House Museum contains a treasure trove of toys and childhood delights, and what could be more fun for all the family than a good old-fashioned public execution? This Victorian penny arcade machine offered punters the chance to see their coin set in motion a series of animated tableaux depicting the consequences of moral dissolution, culminating in a gruesome beheading by guillotine.

Iron Age bone pipe, Leeds City Museum 
This modest looking musical instrument is thought to be the oldest three-hole pipe yet discovered in England. Carved from a sheep’s leg bone, it was found at Malham and dated to between 500 and 300 BC, suggesting that rudimentary melodies could be heard drifting across the Yorkshire landscape long before its creator’s descendants dreamed up ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at’.

Nesyamun, Leeds City Museum 
Purchased in 1823 by Leeds banker John Blayds, Nesyamun is also known as the ‘Leeds Mummy’, which seems a bit presumptuous seeing as though he’s been resident here for less than 200 of his 3,000 or so years. When alive, he enjoyed high status as a priest and incense-bearer at the temples in Karnak, and his two exquisitely painted coffin lids have provided invaluable information about ancient Egyptian religious life. He died in his mid-40s around 1100 BC, after which his mummified remains were carefully surrounded by a thick layer of spices and wrapped in 40 layers of linen bandages. Nesyamun’s recent repose hasn’t always been peaceful: in 1941 he lost his nose to a German bomb that destroyed the city museum’s other mummies.

Words: Abi Bliss

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