I gaped. I sat down on a bench and gaped some more.

Museums About six months ago, though it seems longer, I visited Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. I suspect this is the longest time between visit and review ever in the history of writing reviews, or at the very least on this blog and I have no excuse other than that I actually thought I’d already talked about it before. Then, some time in November I realised I hadn’t and Christmas descended and here we are. New readers might want to look here for the back story.

There’s a good chance that some of the information I’m putting to screen now is horrendously out of date, but museums don’t change that much I don’t think, so it’s at least worth describing the experience. Which luckily, was vivid enough that I can still remember (almost) everything. The main permanent collection area is upstairs and set away from the rest of the museum. With the exception of cleaners and handlers using the goods lift which is part of the room, I was alone for much of the visit.

Which was very helpful, because the first thing I did upon entering the room was the burst out laughing, a big loud, haughty belly laugh of the kind which is usually only provoked by, well, nothing. It’s because I was clutching a copy of Edward Morris's Public Art Collections in North West England, and on the wall in front of me was the painting from the cover, The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons by Albert Moore. As ever, the photograph doesn’t do it justice, the colours rendered pastel on the cover popping out more vividly in real life.

Once I’d calmed down, I decided to put it to one side for a moment and take in the rest of the gallery. I gaped. I sat down on a bench and gaped some more. Having been on a fair few of these visits, I’ve generally come to know what to expect, from these regional galleries. There’ll always been something really extraordinary, some nice works and the rubbish. This is a room which I think would shame some of the nationals. It's a visual feast.

Every image is majestic, and I don’t have enough time to take it all in. I’ve also joked before about how these galleries, should you unkindly want to survey them, could be ranked based on how many pages of notes I write. At Blackburn I ended up with six large pages and the handwriting of the younger version of me shows signs of scrabbling to get my excitement down on paper. There are some words I can’t even make out.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Blackburn decided to purpose build a library and museum, having previously only offered a wing of the town hall to put some books in. Designed by London architects Woodzell and Colcutt and built at a cost of over eight thousand pounds, the style is Gothic. The collection itself is the usual amalgam of purchases and bequests though the council thought it important enough that by the early 1890s they’d added to the existing building with this upper floor added for what they described as ‘The New Art Gallery’ and after the installation of electric lights, the gallery was able to stay open until 10pm each evening. If only that was the case now.

Rather than offering proper information plaques, the gallery have supplied a black folder with information related to the work. Some of this doesn’t quite match. Above the door, there are three portraits by Hilary Coddington Lewis, her husband Richard and their son Thomas. Collected together they offer something akin to a family portrait and she’s the image of contentment, reading, and the impression is of the comfortable silence in company that’s often a feature of the best relationships. The folder simply offers a biography of him – a cotton trader and philanthropist – but I wanted to know more about her – how she gained her skills, what led her to produce such work.

Two sea themed canvases dominate the rest of that wall. The liberal brushwork Henry Moore’s Rough Weather in the Mediterranean creates a three dimensional vision of an imposing aquamarine sea crashing about as a ship falls into difficulty in the distance, an elemental drama with an inevitable, tragic conclusion. When I was at school I remember seeing an illustration of what the surface of Pluto looks like, cold and isolated and that’s also what Julius Olsson’s The Reef is reminiscent of, with its distant moon and the only indication of human life being a small blob of yellow paint on the horizon denoting a lighthouse, the men inside seemingly alone in the night as waves crash against the surrounding rocks.

Rather less nihilistic is E A Hurnell’s The End of the Butterfly Chase. A couple of pre-teens have finally captured a red admiral which one holds tentatively as the other brings in the net. They’re playing in the artist’s garden. As the accompanying information described, “Hurnell and his sister had a house backing onto the beach at Kirkcudbright. Since the people of the village liked and respected the artist, they often allowed their children to be painted by him.” Paint has been applied to the canvas using a pallet knife and brush, the thick layers giving the violets and greenery a lightly abstract quality. The artist was apparently influenced by the decorative aspects of Japanese art.

It’s always a bit redundant to describe large paintings filled with people in classical dress epic, but in the case of Edwin Long’s Diana or Christ, there’s little choice. Straight out of DeMille’s 1916 film Intolerance, this offers a cast of thousands in mid shot most ready to pounce should the poor young woman, a rich Christian, decide not to offer a sacrifice to the goddess Diana, against her own religious conviction. There’s some impressive experimentation with the depth of field, with a Roman coliseum and forum in the background but the real interest is in the collection of serving girls to the left all of whom look to have variations of Diana’s face as though to suggest they’re interchangeable somehow, all the same (though that could also be because the artist has used drawings of the same model as guides over and over).

Next, there’s the Albert Moore (pictured above). In his book, Edward Morris is very pleased with this, dedicating a whole page and of course the cover. He quotes a poem Moore wrote to put his ideas for the painting into words, the depiction of the courtship of four male winds with four female seasons. But as Edward ponders: “It is not clear why Summer, the female figure on the left watching the courtship of the South Wind and Autumn should have been abandoned, not what the (presumably) much less enticing Winter should have the North and East Winds quarrelling over her in a patch of snow under dark clouds in the right background.”

I’m not sure what to think; I appreciate the skill of the artist, the particularly in the flowers. But the figures are uncomfortable in the space and a bit vacant. The reason I love the Pre-Raphaelites is that even in the most stylistic or symbolic of works, there’s always a light in their eyes, a trace of humanity. Moore’s painting lacks that and though I appreciate the approach, there’s a lack of warmth to the work, no sense of young love. I suppose I agree with the quote provided at the gallery from Sidney Colvin on all of Moore's work: “The subject, whatever subject is chosen, is merely a mechanism for getting beautiful people into beautiful situations.” Sounds like Mtv.

So I continue walking, continue to take everything in. Stanley Corshiter’s Roberta features a woman, her hair in a Louise Brooks style, against a black background, in a pose which reminds me of a fashion photograph, including the slightly startled look in her eye from a flash bulb. Adreotti’s The Music Lesson in which two aristocratic ladies are being taught to sing by a spectacled gentleman, painted with minute brushstrokes that pick out the floral designs in their dresses. Charles Dixon’s The Battle of Juttad, an exciting documentation of the battle with the fire of war, the sea blasting into the air, as abstract as the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now.

The rest of the permanent art collection can be found in the stairwell, though its mainly animal pictures which aren’t really my thing. I could be flippant and put it down to my cat hair allergy, but I expect it's because I have an affinity for the narrative and the unusual and the profile of a horse doesn’t seem to have that. Though there is a very good painting of two lions in repose, A Siesta by G. Nastagh, the male and female dozing, shaded by a rock and looking as unthreatening as the king and queen of the jungle could ever be.

At which point, I turned around realised how much more there was to see. There's room housing something called the Hart Collection. Inside there's a selection of Japanese art, including The Great Wave, and costume. There's also, without doubt, one of the best print collections I’ve ever seen. At this point, my notes become almost completely illegible and mostly a list, but I can make out four names, Gutenberg and Caxton, Morris and Burne-Jones.

A William Morris edition of the Works of Chaucer and the Well at the World’s End illustrated by Edward Burne Jones. Even in these line drawings I see the life missing from the Moore, though because of the way they’re displayed, only two pages can be seen which is a bit of the tease. I wonder in my notes if a reproduction could not be produced for browsing and study.

Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery also actually has a leaf from Gutenberg’s Mainz Bible of 1455, which is exciting enough. But it also has an original 1495 manuscript of St. Jerome Bis Patrum from The Lives of Saints by Wynkun de Worde of Westminster which the accompanying information says was completed by William Caxton himself on the last day of his life. He printed this and then a couple hours later, he was dead. I took a step backwards at that. I might have said the ‘No!’ word rather loudly, and people may have looked.

There’s earlier than that. How about a messenger tablet from Lagesh, Babylon in the third dynasty of Ur c.2,2000 BC? Well, alright, this grand sounding document is a shopping list, but still it’s a piece of history and since this ancient shopper was sending out for beer, bread and oil – it just prove that even in Babylon everyone knew what I found out when I was a drinker -- that the best remedy after a night on the tiles (literally in their case) is a fry-up.

I’m being frivolous, but this Hart Collection just underscores why I’m doing this and why I should begin again very soon. If I’d hunted through their website, I might have found out about these treats and that might have led to some expectation. But there’s nothing better than a surprise, moments in which the works of masters almost appear before your eyes, items which you didn’t ever think you’d have a chance to see. Amazing.

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