Public Art Collections in North West England:
West Park Museum.

Art To Macclesfield. Those of you who’ve been following my travels around the public art collections in North-West England will have detected a fairly large gap since my last visit, Townley Hall in Burnley which I wrote up in January 2011 but actually happened a few months before. I hadn’t actually realised it had been this long, but life intervened, various Liverpool Biennials and the fact that most of the remaining venues are pretty difficult to approach without public transport. But along with all of the other projects I’ve had on the go, I’m going to try and complete this by the end of the year, weather, life and health permitting.

To Macclesfield and to West Park Museum, which in the end was more accessible than I expected, with a train from Liverpool changing at Manchester Picadilly and a short walk from the city centre to West Park where it’s inevitably situated. Macclesfield also boasts various exhibition centres and a Silk Museum which seems to be the key recommendation for most visitors to the town. But because of time and my ongoing adventures with this lingering cold, after a quick wander around the town centre I pretty much mostly concentrated on the museum. Which is fine. Given the distances I’ll be travelling to elsewhere, there won’t be much time to do much else there either.

I did manage to see two of the local sights:

In St. Michael's Church, the tomb of Sir John Savage the Fifth (d. 1492) who commanded the left wing of Henry Tudor's victorious army at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) and at the siege of Boulogne (says the accompanying information card).

Sarah Storey's gold post box for her fourth gold medal win in the Paralympic Road Women’s C5 Road Race, athough I've just had to look that up.  There are no plaques on site.  No words of explanation.

Edward Morris dedicates just two longish paragraphs to West Park Museum in his book each highlighting the institution’s main features. As he explains, this is another example of philanthropic curatorship, having been donated by the Brocklehursts, one of the wealthiest families in Macclesfield, who made their fortune from silk and banking. The endeavour was mainly spearheaded by Marianne Brocklehurst, who had amassed a relatively notable Egyptian collection after three expeditions there and she wanted somewhere for this to be displayed as well as parts of their art collection and various natural history curios collected by her husband.

A museum leaflet, researched by Luanne Collins to celebrate the centenary of the museum in 1998 suggests that the whole thing was quite scandal. Having selected an architect Purdon Clarge, the then deputy director of the South Kensington Museum in London, and approved of his design, for some reason the local town councillors took objection to it, and according to a letter to the local press, it was variously described in a meeting as looking like a “dog kennel”, “an abortion”, “a tool-house” and “a mortuary” though as Collins ponders, perhaps the plan they saw had been misinterpreted by the copyist. In the midst of these objections, Mrs Brocklehurst withdrew her offer.

Then four years later she quietly proposed the whole thing again, with the same plans, actually modelled on the interior of the South Gallery of the Whitworth in Manchester, and it was built and opened in October 1898. Mrs Brocklehurst sadly died just a few weeks after the opening and didn’t live to see the museum completed. Luanne Collins notes that arrangement of the museum was in the style of the time, every exhibit for itself, “Egyptian relics and the paintings would have been packed closely beside tropical beetles, models of Canadian settlements, ostrich eggs and a stuffed tiger.”

The floor plan is still somewhat within the spirit of this original structure. The fine art collection is predominantly overwhelmed by a particular artist, which I’ll return to, but amid that are still related natural history items and at the far back a walled off section displaying Mrs Brocklehurst’s Egyptian finds. It’s not unlike the Lady Lever Art Gallery in miniature. While I was there a small school class of infants aged children dropped in to inspect a single item, but I could imagine large groups spending an afternoon here investigating the whole display, perhaps seeking tangential connections.

The reason for my visit, the fine art collection, is essentially split between that single artist and everything else. When in 1974 Cheshire County Council took over management of the museum and began to develop a display of works by the Macclesfield born painter Charles Tunnicliffe, best known as a wildlife painter (most of that work on display at the Oriel Ynys Môn in Angelsey) but earlier in his life, the period predominantly covered by the West Park’s collection, he was interested in a much wider variety of subjects and it’s this display the visitor is confronted with on first entering the museum.

Although some of his later nature work is here, arguably the stronger works are the illustrative etchings and paintings of Macclesfield town centre. Of the former, he seems most comfortable reporting on rural life at a turning point, with some atmospheric images of life on the Sutton farm where he grew up and illustrations for Richard Church’s book Greenhide all of which reveals an almost surreal element of isolation, loss and destruction. One etching, of bell ringers in various states of repose and work within a shadowy stone space demonstrates perfectly how a group of men can be in the same room, relating to one another, yet still seem totally alone.

In some ways, in many ways, I prefer Tunnicliffe's town paintings to Lowry's. As the artist himself admits in the relation to his The Cattle Market, the architecture of the town is just as interesting to him as the people and he paints both with a richness of character. But unlike Lowry who was determined to force dour abstraction and desolation into his scenes, Tunnicliffe utilises an almost Mediterranean colour pallet to his scenes, which in its own way may be less realistic, but does a least focus on the positives, why someone would live in this town, albeit again in the transitional moments between rural and metropolitan.

Tunnicliffe was also attempting portraiture in this period. One of his strands was a collection of images of locals and on display is a head and shoulder portrait of a nameless local policeman, sternly regarding us from the space between where his helmet stops and his uniform begins. Painted in the 1920s, the cop is wearing a cape originally introduced in 1843 though it’s not made clear from the accompanying information if it was still a standard part of the uniform or whether Tunnicliffe was indulging in some municipal nostalgia. From the same period is a study of a Reclining Nude. This lacks any accompanying information.

Some highlights of the rest. As with most of these regional galleries, West Park has a Landseer, Interior of a Highland Byre, a milk girl and a rather startled looking cow. Mabel Layng’s A Seat in the Park is an impressionistic scene of two turn of the last century ladies gossiping on a bench as a handsome man reads his paper trying not give the impression of listening in. One of the women looks just ready to burst into laughter, an emotion the painter achieves with just a few brush strokes. Nearby is a landscape of Durham Cathedral, attributed to Edward Hastings, which is notable for putting its subject in the background, its towers almost hidden behind trees.

But my two favourite works from the collection are at the opposite corner, right at the back of the room. One is a panoramic painting of West Park itself on a summers day, in which the artist George Stewart captures the diversity of people who have utilised this green space, women in beautiful Victorian dresses with the working class playing ball games. The other is Nina Colmore’s The Panda, painted in 1935 featuring the animal almost submerged in a grey background which is accompanied nearby by a stuffed Panda which Mr Brocklehurst shot himself one of his hunting trips. Colmore’s painting show that there are other means of demonstrating their majesty.

The curatorial assistant on duty this afternoon was extremely helpful, introducing me to the Egyptian collection, noting that it’s one of quality rather than quantity. He showed me in a catalogue investigating the museum’s shabti collections (The Shabti Collections by Glen James) two paintings by Mrs Brocklehurst of her digs, which are currently on loan abroad because of the accuracy with which they depict one of the digs, unafraid to show the local labour involved in shifting the sarcophaguses across country. Should these be part of the fine art or archaeological parts of the collection? West Park is one of those museums where these distinctions are blurrier than ever.

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