this small collection

The Oratory

Museums This week’s Heritage Open Days afforded me the opportunity to visit one of Liverpool’s little secrets and another of the venues listed in Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in the North West and as far as I can tell the smallest. One of Liverpool’s little secrets, it's a place that hundreds of visitors must pass on their way to the Anglican Cathedral and a short straw poll of a few people suggests that few people have heard of it. For years it seemed like the spookiest of places and something to ponder on visits to the cathedral for school Founders Day and I’ve written about all of that before. These days most people think of it as the structure which sits behind Tracey Emin's Bird on a Pole (when it's in residence).

It’s The Oratory, the neo-classical building near the front gate opposite the cathedral’s security office and as if you hadn’t noticed, it’s pictured above. Originally the chapel of St James’s Cemetary, The Oratory pre-dated the cathedral by over fifty years having been completed in 1829. Designed by the architect John Foster, the chapel functioned as additional space for funeral services in a city which due its growth was requiring an increased number of burials and it was simply more convenient to have them at the cemetery rather than a church. It was still a working building through to 1936, then the council took responsibility in 1980 which is when it first became a tourist attract and then in 1986 it became the property of the organisation which is now called National Museums Liverpool.

The design was inspired by Foster’s experience as an archaeologist at the sites of ancient Greek temples, a style which didn’t just result in this mini-masterpiece but a grand scheme in Liverpool where, as leading architect, he oversaw “the city’s market, customs house, station frontage and seven churches, as well as providing for Liverpool a network of wide regular streets” [Morris, 2001: p109]. All gone now, which leaves the Oratory the only example of what was once a rich architectural heritage. Liverpool’s like that. The city protects dozens of single buildings here and there offering clues as to how the place once was, Terrance Davies’s film Of Time and the City in architectural form.

Two statues dominate the small interior. Opposite the front door, manifested as an angel by Pietro Tnerani sits Agnes Jones, who under the direction of Florence Nightingale, helped to introduce trained nurses in the workhouses of Liverpool, a practice which was then repeated throughout the rest of the country. One of the unsung pioneers of the NHS, she sadly contracted Typhus and dies at 36, but she’s commemorated movingly by Nightingale in one of the inscriptions: “She died at her post among the poor and sick, while yet in the flower of her age. And thus she lived the life and died the death of the children of God who are the children of the Resurrection.”

Watching over her and seemingly, in pose, about to offer some advice is William Ewart, who was a Scottish merchant who took up residence in Liverpool and was friends with prime minister William Gladstone’s father. Joseph Gott’s statue sets aside the usual tendency towards robes and instead presents Ewart in contemporaneous dress, a move which would be repeated when similar figures were designed for the interior of St George’s Hall. I would say Ewart one of the reasons to visit the Oratory; as realistic a piece of sculpting I’ve seen, it’s as though Medusa mustered into being in whichever was his favourite drink establishment and fixed him in the eye, but rather than fear, offered curiosity perhaps wondering what the mythic being’s favourite tipple might be.

The rest of this tiny collection consists of monuments (detailed here), one of which contains a story of unrequited love ripe for dramatisation. John Gibson was from a lower-middle class Welsh family and moved to Liverpool to apprentice with a family of stone masons, where he became a sculptor after falling in with the local crowd which included William Roscoe and Solomon d’Aguilar, whose daughter, the very married Mrs Emily Robinson became his teacher, as Edward notes, Gibson was “deeply attracted by her character and beauty [and] he evidently thought that she was in love with him. She died in 1829. He erected the monument which sits in The Oratory depicting her in her prime, in quiet moment book in hand, looking longingly I think at a lamp which might contain a genie ready to grant her any wish.

About The OratoryPlease Mind The Steps And Uneven FloorsAgnes Jones and others.William EwartWilliam EwartThe Oratory.  Interior.  Day.William EarleWilliam HammertonMrs Emily Robinson

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