Irene Sumner: Memories

Supporting local talent and creative activity is central to all we do within the Culture Development & Events Service, so this week, we’re remembering an inspirational local artist who has left a wonderful legacy for the people of Knowsley to enjoy. We were contacted in 2018 about the potential donation of a collection of paintings by a local lady who had recently passed away, and when we looked into it, it turned out to be her entire lifetime’s worth of painting.

Irene Sumner was a self-taught artist who came to painting in her later years after retiring from a long career in nursing. Born in Litherland in 1917, Irene first picked up a paintbrush aged 60 during a course at Newsham Park Adult Centre in 1977 and then she did not stop!

Despite problems with her health, Irene found a real passion for art and her enthusiasm resulted in dozens of fabulous colourful oil paintings reflecting her childhood and memories through the years. She covered a wide range of subjects, from local landscapes and events such as Sunday School processions and Bonfire Night at Sefton Park. Like most artists, she painted what was around her too, including many domestic scenes from her home in Whiston.

Irene’s work was exhibited at many venues including The Liverpool Academy of Arts and even entered into the John Moore’s exhibition in 1985. She won several local art prizes including 1st prize in Liverpool’s Garden Festival art competition. Irene also won 1st prize in the 1993 Knowsley Open Art Exhibition for ‘1920s Memory’, a captivating self-portrait as a child. The painting, along with a selection of other entries then went on display at Prescot Museum. We recently exhibited ‘1920’s Memory’ in Kirkby Gallery, and it is now an important part of our permanent collection housed at Prescot Museum, along with a selection of Irene’s paintings kindly donated by her family.

Irene said after winning the Knowsley Open Art Exhibition at the age of 76 “Everyone has a talent. I discovered mine quite late but it proves you are never too old”. When we staged the 18th Knowsley Open Art Exhibition in Kirkby Gallery in Spring 2019, we presented a small selection of her paintings alongside the entries. It offered a perfect and fitting tribute to Irene, given how many Knowsley Open Art exhibitions she had previously featured in.

Although the vast majority of her paintings are peaceful scenes, Irene didn’t shy away from capturing the challenging times she lived through. Some of her incredible artworks depict the Toxteth Riots, and Irene’s hopes for unity and equality in the area. Irene was even interviewed by the BBC and Finnish TV talking about them! Another impressive claim to fame is that she appeared on Top of the Pops after appearing in a video recorded in St John’s Precinct, Liverpool!

We wanted to share the positive legacy that came from her family estate’s generous donation of her artwork to Knowsley Council and Prescot Museum as well as funding to The Friends of Kirkby Gallery & Prescot Museum. This funding is specifically towards the delivery of a new and free series of art workshops for adults, which take their inspiration from the gallery exhibition themes and subjects. The workshops are to give people access to and enjoyment of the creative learning opportunities which Irene was so passionate about. With that in mind, we called the workshops The Sumner Art Sessions, as a special tribute and nod to Irene.

The Sumner Art Sessions started in February of this year and were almost immediately fully booked, such was the level of demand. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all workshops stopped mid-March when our buildings were forced to close; when Kirkby Gallery can safely re-open and accommodate group workshops again, we will run the Sumner Art Sessions again.