Thoroughly modern: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester - Museums Association

Thoroughly modern: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Caroline Worthington applauds the transformation of Chichester's Pallant House into an elegant and accessible modern art gallery
Caroline Worthington
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On 28 June 1967, Daily Mail photographer John Twine snapped Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser through the window of a police van on route to Chichester court where they were to face charges for possessing drugs. But before he appeared in front of the judge, the Rolling Stones singer changed from his lime green jacket - so famously captured by the British pop artist Richard Hamilton in his Swingeing London series - into a rather more sombre charcoal grey suit.

Thirty-nine years on and it's Sir Mick Jagger to you and me. And Chichester's Pallant House has shed its Georgian makeover, which was applied in the 1980s when it was converted from council offices into a historic house museum. It's now the Pallant House Gallery, with an important modern art collection, including several Hamiltons, in a Grade I listed building with a new extension. The redevelopment cost £8.6m and corporate sponsors include Bonhams and Rolls Royce. Talk about upward mobility.

The original Queen Anne townhouse has been transformed - all tasteful Farrow and Ball colours. And it has been skilfully enlarged on a small site by the architect Colin St John Wilson (of British Library notoriety) working with his wife's practice, Long & Kentish. The Heritage Lottery Fund properly insisted that the architects won the commission on merit and not because Wilson was donating a large part of his collection, which not only includes the Hamilton, but work by other friends such as the pop artist Peter Blake.

After the cool, intimate lobby - cream stone floors, white rendered walls and pale woodwork - I opted for the historic house first. The cable hanging system that incorporates spotlights means that you can see the paintings (previously not always possible) while enjoying the historic setting. Hat's off to the volunteer guides, six per two-hour shift, for working with the original window shutters, closing and opening them as the sun moves, while keeping a panel or two open so that you can enjoy the fine views out.

A courtyard garden design by a Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist is just one of the treats. You can also enjoy the view of Chichester Cathedral while standing in a gallery devoted to several works donated by Walter Hussey, who was an art collector and dean of the cathedral from 1955 to 1977. The cultivated cleric's bequest is the cornerstone of the collection and thanks to him, the council was bullied into creating the museum. It is now an independent trust paying a peppercorn rent.

Perhaps the most memorable room is a homage to surrealism. Its champion in Britain, Edward James, was another local resident. Incredibly, the council turned down his collection - what a blunder. The room is a witty taste of what might have been, featuring a four-poster bed, covered in James's bedspread, a Victorian cabinet of stuffed birds and Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone on a bedside table.

On the staircase, the artist Susie MacMurray has responded to the sad history of the house with an extraordinary installation made of more than 20,000 mussel shells, each stuffed with red velvet. The house was built with no expense spared by newly weds Elizabeth and Henry Peckham - spending her money.

It is a stage set for their unhappy marriage: they never moved in and she was left penniless. Called Shell, MacMurray's work echoes their hollow relationship. MacMurray was also inspired by the seashells found while digging the foundations for the new extension next door. It replaces a neo-Georgian office building, which some vociferous local Nimbys fought to save. The architects had to tone down the new extension by cladding it in local red Sussex brick with a flourish of purple-red glazed terracotta.

Inside, the new galleries, like the exterior, feels ever so slightly 1970s, but in a good way - think Kettle's Yard in Cambridge or the Christchurch Picture Gallery in Oxford. The skylights allow reflected daylight to wash the gallery walls. Unsightly machinery is concealed, but it is a shame that the lighting system looks rather cumbersome for the domestic scale of the galleries. Dhruva Mistry's Regarding Guardian stands sentinel at the join between the old and new buildings.

The first exhibition, Modern British Art: The First 100 Years, is a chronological survey of British Art in the 20th century from the collections, which is hung in both old and new spaces. There is also an artfully arranged open store featuring works by Frank Auerbach and Ivon Hitchens that did not make the first hang. That says plenty about the quality of the collection. The storage space doubles up as a lecture room and mini concert hall, with a baby grand in the corner.

A meeting-come-study room celebrates two Royal Academicians, Eduardo Paolozzi and Patrick Caulfield, who both died recently. Their prints sit alongside an artfully placed tea trolley by Alvar Aalto and a maquette for gates by Wendy Ramshaw. The gates are yet to be installed having been seen off at the last minute by Chichester's planning department, even though English Heritage was happy.

The longest sightline in the new wing ends with a view of Michael Andrews' Colony Room 1 - a who's who of the celebrated Soho drinking den. It seemed too large for the space and perhaps one of the many works of pop art would have packed a stronger punch. No doubt, in time, the staff will get the hang of the galleries, which they got into only recently after building deadlines slipped.

During the gallery's closure, an outreach programme involved members of the local community - young and old - whose work is on show in the Studio, which is a glass-fronted workshop on the ground floor. Also on the ground floor there is a smart cafe and an even smarter library space. You cannot fault the place for its ingenious use of space. There is even a small print room, forming the lobby to the library. The hanging system must still be on order, because mounted prints are just propped up behind the glass, sagging under their own weight. It is the only off note in an otherwise pitch-perfect combination of access and elegance. Lucky Chichester.

Caroline Worthington is the curator of art at York Museums Trust

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