Public Art Collections in North West England: Bury Art Gallery and Museum

Museums My luck in relation to visiting these art galleries and museums and being able to see their fine art assortment hasn’t always been spectacular; from venues in which the permanent collection is rarely on display to buildings which are largely closed for refurbishment, it’s taught me that website aren’t always accurate and that you really can’t always get what you want.

So I was unsurprisingly unsurprised when I stepped up to the information desk at Bury Art Gallery and Museum and asked about their collection, only to be told that most of the galleries were closed for a rehang and that in any case over fifty paintings, the cream of the collection, were on loan for a tour around Japan and Korea due to finish in October to complete in 2010.

Manchester Art Gallery was apparently supposed to be the main source of paintings for the exhibition but when they couldn’t fulfil their requirements and withdrew a month beforehand, so Bury agreed to pick up the slack. The first venue is the Toyohashi City Museum of Art and History in Japan and the press release for the exhibition features images which I recognise from Bury’s own catalogue.

So there go the Landseer, the Constable, Arnesby Brown, Fred Hall, Sit George Clausen, the Turner, Miles Birket Foster, William Henry Hunt and Samuel Palmer. A shame that I’ve missed them but exciting for Bury and regional art galleries in general that they’re reaching this international acclaim and opportunity. Plus I’d much rather have them being seen by someone rather than sitting in the store room for whatever reason.

The building itself, was designed by Woodhouse and Willoughby of Manchester, the style adopted according the them and quoted by Edward Morris in his book Public Art Collections in North-West England (seems important to keep mentioning the source of this adventure) “the English Renaissance of the eighteenth century, freely treated” and despite its municipal origins on the inside resembles an old fashioned town house, albeit on a grander scale, of the kind that a hero from a Dickens novel might aspire towards with its marble floors and sculptural friezes.

The process of setting up the museum and its collection is much the same as Blackburn, Blackpool or Bolton. Local philanthropist and mill owner Thomas Wrigley (born 1808) amassed a collection of work across his life and after his death, his children (in 1897) presented that work to the town council on the condition that they build an art gallery within which to display them as a memorial to their father which they unanimously agreed to and within two years began work.

The swiftness was partly due to the local MP, James Kenyon offering a thousand guineas a year earlier towards such a building which he guessed would quickly be filled with paintings. He was correct, though official approval was only granted (as was so often the case) if a public library was included as part of the plans (see also Liverpool, Southport et al). The arts centre opened by the turn of the next century and the internal structure still stands, library on the ground floor, art gallery above (with a tiny museum and archive room in the basement).

With so much of the main exhibition area closed off, it’s difficult to know exactly how grand a building it is; with so much of the collection it’s equally impossible to say if I agree with Edward’s sentiment that it’s “probably the best single surviving collection of Victorian paintings formed by the Lancashire Merchants and manufacturers of the later nineteenth century” comparing it favourably to Sudley House. Though I’m sure he’s right. He’s the expert. Plus it’s certainly good enough to be travelling here there and everywhere.

For the moment, what’s left of the collection is being displayed in the main stairwell and smaller room on the top floor with the exhibition “Big Art: Big Ideas” which focuses on large canvases filled with dramatic stories. The space seems necessarily too cramped for them; like a Robert Altman film, it’s difficult to concentrate on one of these stories when there’s another one happening close by. It’s also less fair on those pictures which haven’t been cleaned or have a muted pallet as the eye is drawn to primary colours or visceral action.

Visceral action like the undoubted highlight Jack Cade’s Rabblement by Keeley Halswelle inspired by the rebellion scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Two, specifically the moment when Cade’s severed head finds itself jammed atop a spear. All of the action in the painting and so our eye is drawn towards this point, but the nearly abstract shapes of the soldiers generally ignore its presence because the fight continues. Paint is slapped about the canvas though the angles are precise. It’s a curious mix.

On a similar theme, Anna Lee Merritt’s War depicts in piercing technicolour a group of women on a balcony as a victory parade passes by, as they realise that some of their husbands will not be returning home. It’s a refreshing contrast to the number of these late Victorian paintings depicting the fog and smoke of war, of men in battle. The figure who is clearly widowed shows little emotion, perhaps for the sake of her children which makes the scene all the more tragic.

Cleverly nestling between these two paintings is Drawing For the Militia by John Philip which is also a painting despite what the title suggests. In the foreground, the militia is being signed up, measured, questioned whilst in the far background we see the families of these men, crying, unable to cope with their spouses and father’s taking this step. It’s a clever use of a kind of cinematic deep focus to demonstrate both sides of the story, of the two paintings on either side.

The other of the room’s superstars which isn’t currently lost in translation is The Cruel Sister by John Faed which I’m sure I’ve seen elsewhere before. Illustrating a ye olde border ballad, it’s the story of a knight who enters the life of two sisters, one virtuous, the other cruel and the tragedy that ensues. There’s a pantomime element to this – the cruel sister wears black and a scowl, nothing subtle here, and the overcast landscape underscores that the knight has stepped into the wrong domestic situation.

Back in the stairwell, there are some other notables: JR Herbert’s The Crusader’s Wife which shows in profile a woman with a very robust, angular face, almost male in some ways, but with startling realistic brown hair falling down the sides of her head and down her back. Daniel MacLise’s The Student, a Shakespearean story of boy meets girl, she deeply touched by his gift of a daisy symbolic of their collective innocence which is a good as many pre-Raphealites. Rather underscores (alongside a glance through the accompanying catalogue) what else I missed.

Let's add this to the list of potential revisits.

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