“I’d best go and tell the curator what I’ve done.”

Art Marshall Claxton’s painting The Lifeboat offers an exciting image of a group of people clinging desperately to the mast of a ship which has sunk. Their anguished eyes wonder if they’ll ever be saved. A woman prays. Another is attempting to save her child as he sinks below the waves. A man hands an infant up to the waiting arms of its mother. In the distance (as you might expect from the title) hope is at hand in the form of a lifeboat, paddling through the rain in a desperate fight to get the group before they’re taken by the sea forever. It’s exciting and action packed and startling and then you discover that the artist is reputed to have been witness to the scene as he travelled back from Australia having set up an art school there. This is from life.

Rossendale Museum in Rawtenstall is rightly very proud of this painting (which has recently spent a couple of years on loan to a gallery in Oz) – it’s the highlight of a small but rather wonderful assortment which deserves more attention that it probably receives. Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England devotes a single page to the place but that’s understandable given the paintings are but one aspect of a general museum collection which also includes a natural history display and thorough exhibition about the area. Opened in 1902 in Oak Hill, the former residence of mill owner George Hardman, it’s how Sudley House might have turned out if they’d also had to find room for the collection of World Museum Liverpool too.

As I strolled up the hill towards the museum from Rawtenstall I was slowly gaining the impression that it might not be open. It wasn’t. Although two locals sat in a bench in the grounds looking out towards the Lancashire countryside which is beautiful and visible from up there, all of the lights were off and oddly some construction tape had been wound around the fence posts on either side of the front door. I walked to the side of the house anyway and tried pushing the disabled entrance door open but it didn’t budge. I thought for a moment, sighed and knocked on the door.

No answer. I noticed a bell. I rang it. Still nothing. Deciding that at least I could say I’d been, I began to walk away, but then heard noises from inside and moments the later the door opened. A man stood looking at me. I asked him if they were closed and he told me they were closed all of Monday and Friday for maintenance. I tried my luck and told him I’d travelled all the way from Liverpool to see the museum. “Well,” he said, “You’d better come in then.” And basically opened up the venue just for me, switching on all the lights and explaining to me where everything was kept. I felt very honoured by that and grateful and tried not to take up too much of his time.

“I’d best go and tell the curator what I’ve done.” He said.

The fine art settles in two rooms on the ground floor and the hallway. The drawing room recreates the style and furnishings of the 1880s like a concentrated Dunham Massey, though its not an accurate representation of what would have been their originally – there’s no surviving photographic evidence of that. It’s a lush, opulent space where the labeling highlights the furniture but doesn’t mention the rather nice portrait on the wall opposite the fireplace. This woman with silky smooth skin in crimson drapery reclining with a sword is something of a mystery – the attendant says their not sure of its origins but there must be some story behind those eyes. You’d like to think that she’s had some previous connection to the house, perhaps an obscured clue to one of its secrets.

The Lifeboat is in the fine and decorative arts room next door. Presumably because the display apparently changes periodically the guidebook is more interested in the wall paper, but you’re more likely to find yourself standing opposite Pamela, a girl depicted in a full length portrait. The sub-heading for John Collier’s painting is Stepping Stones and my impression is that the stones she stands upon symbolically representing those tentative steps into adulthood. She looks like a younger version of actress Heather Graham, a not yet society deb dressed in nothing but a white dress within a wood. It’s probably as unproblematic as Collier gets and has a far more innocent atmosphere in comparison to the likes of Lilith which scorches up the main gallery space at the Atkinson Gallery in Southport. I’d be intrigued to know who this Pamela is – none of the biographies I can find online mention her or this painting for that matter, even though it was donated by the artist’s wife.

I ended my look at the fine art collection at the Devil’s Bridge on the St Gothard Pass, Thomas Creswick’s untypical landscape in which a wooden bridge is mercilessly wrecked by a violent torrent of water gushing down a mountain. Dark satanic hills overlook a scene in which what remains of humanity’s stamp on the landscape is washed away, wooden logs strewn and broken against rocks. As Edward notes: ‘There’s no room for man’ and you genuinely hope that someone wasn’t crossing the bridge just before Atlantic rocked. As global tragedies in recent weeks in China and Burma demonstrate we might think that were in control of our own destiny, but nature has other ideas.

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