the undoubted ‘find’ of the visit

Museums Writing in Public Art Collection in North-West England, Edward Morris is very enamoured of Salford Museum and Art Gallery, since it was one of the first museums to be founded after the passing of the 1845 act which allowed councils to set up such institutions if their populations numbered more than ten thousand, beating both Birmingham and Manchester, though not Liverpool (of course). The gallery was also the first to be set up in park land, inhabiting Lark Hill Mansion in Peel Park and has since enjoyed a number of extensions with the Langworthy Wing ultimately making the available space far greater than most municipal museums of the time. It’s not the easiest of buildings to find. There’s no signage from Salford Crescent Railway Station which is more interested in telling University of Salford students were their lectures are. I went in completely the wrong direction to begin with.

The present building was one of the extensions in fact, the original sadly deemed “structurally unsound” by the twentieth century, which could account for why the display space for the permanent painting collection is mainly a single room, the Victorian Gallery (the rest of the museum filled with temporary exhibitions and “Lark Hill Place” a recreation of an old street). As ever, the collection is the result of a series of bequests and purchases with, as the title for the gallery suggests, the interest tilting towards close of the nineteenth century and until Lowry came along. Like many of these municipal collections it’s a mish-mash of styles and subjects, mixing local subjects and landscapes with the mythical and though there aren’t any ‘named’ works, there’s certainly some exceptional work here.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Peel Park on the 10th October 1851. Hundreds of people turned out to see them in a carnival-like atmosphere as illustrated by G.E.O Hayes’s Visit of The Queen and Prince Consort to Peel Park 10th October 1851 as close to photo journalist as painting can be. Painting journalism, then. What’s remarkable is that rather than showing the royals in close-up, he places us in the crowd; perhaps this was the spot from which the painter was sketching (unless he pissed off a lot of people by crushing his massive canvas in amongst them). We’re right in the middle of the action and just like a photograph, the crowds in the background are impressionistic and lose focus and there’s a genuinely feeling of movement throughout. It’s also a valuable glimpse of the area now that the land has been taken away and turned into the University of Salford.

Outside the Victorian Gallery, given its own display area is Arthur Perigal’s rather magnificent painting depicting the Manchester Fancy Dress Ball in 1828. The culmination of a Manchester Festival of Music in 1828, it features the portraits of some three hundred people who each paid a guinea to appear along with the three thousand odd other guests. Like a massive Peter Blake Beatles album cover, the scene is filled with hundreds of miniature representations of historical figures from Julius Caesar and Alexander to Queen Anne and the King of Hearts. Just as Hayes’s painting suggests photography, this is painting as collage; the accompanying text explains that Perigal only sparingly pre-prepared his composition, simply filling the foreground with the multitudes, presumable as they paid for their appearance. Which is a rather awesome leap of faith but does mean that only now than do the figures interact with each other. Except for in one corner where a love triangle between Oscar Wilde, Napoleon and a lady in green is developing.

Forbidden love also seems to the order of the day in Philip Calderon’s The Queen of the Tournament. A fairly standard courtly wench in a long flowing golden gown is conferring a knighthood on the bearded winner of said jousting contest Which should be perfectly innocent, except the ladies-in-waiting surrounding the scene are all gossiping with each other, their knowing looks suggesting that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Like Waterhouse, Calderon was influenced by the pre-Raphaelites but would later move on to join the St John's Wood Clique which also included the likes of William Frederick (And When Did You Last See Your Father?) Yeames concentrating on historical and contemporary realist subjects. There’s no date with this painting but it does seem to be from a transitional period; such tournaments did take place and unlike the ethereal beauties of Waterhouse’s work, there’s a realism to these faces making them seem like there’s the same element of dress up seen in Perigal’s painting.

J.C. Dollman’s Famine (1908) is one of those works which, if you’re at the other end of the room, you have to see it first suggest to confirm what you’re seeing. A tall, skeletal being in a long grey cloak raises a bony hand to rally teaming army battalions of wolves and ravens across a ravaged land. Read that sentence again and reflect. About the scariest image I’ve seen inside a municipal art gallery, this looks a like the source of a hundred heavy metal album covers, the evil canine eyes illuminated by the significantly unpresented moon looking ready to leap from the canvas and create mayhem on the other paintings in the gallery. Such images were not unusual for Dollman as this image search demonstrates. I’ve no idea what’s going on with the woman trying to order the chimps about. Standing apart from every other painting in the collection, Famine is the undoubted ‘find’ of the visit. Edward suggests it’s “a useful corrective to the general view of late Victorian and Edwardian art as cosy, genial and complacent” and he’s absolutely correct and how cruel to display it so close to the structurally similar image of Victoria’s visit, somehow underscoring the pessimism which slowly gripped the nation during her long reign.

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