Public Art Collections in North West England: Museum of Wigan Life (nee The History Shop)

Museums So to Wigan, the last venue listed in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Collection In North-West England (though not my last journey by any means). Something of a revisit, I was last at The History Shop (as it was called then) about five years ago. My most vivid memory was how this single room gallery had been split in two. Near the door the walls had been painted in burgundy and this was were five or six permanent collection items were on display, but the rest was a contemporary display space, at the time of my last visit showing some kind of community exhibition.

The reason for my tardiness in returning to such an accessible place was a year long refurbishment project, renovating the building and creating the Museum of Wigan Life (the details of which can be found in this entertaining blog). Now there is a permanent display to accompany the local history library (which you can see for yourself in a video from the architect’s website) with a range of objects from the town’s history, generally focusing in its sporting, political and culinary histories, very by the people, for the people, and vitally important at a time when local identities are being eroded by amongst other things, the commercial cloning of city centres,

What isn’t now on display is much from the fine art permanent collection, but the four paintings and one bust are for once pertinent to the history of the building and the local area around the museum. The most prominent painting is by James Archer, “Thomas Taylor”, of a rather austere Victorian gentleman. As Edward writes, Wigan has never really had an art gallery, but often displayed paintings in this library building which was bank rolled to the tune of £12,000 in 1878 by Taylor, a local cotton entrepreneur and sometime mayor. Taylor did not leave is vast collection of paintings to Wigan, instead opening up a private gallery in Oxfordshire when he moved there later.

Taylor also appears in bust form by Jules Dalau, whose work is most often seen in the palaces of Europe. A neoclassicist, Dalau was most interested in creating as realistic a depiction as possible, which accounts for why the former mayor’s features almost seem ready to move, its eyes almost twinkling. The piece was created during a time of exile for the artist, who in the 1870s had taken refuge in England, after publicly identifying himself as part of the Paris Commune, and giving a life sentence in absentia when the next government moved in, only returning after an amnesty in 1879.

Someone who did grant a rather large bequest, coincidentally £12,000, was Joseph Taylor Winnard, who’s representation by Charles Mercier is next door. He was a surgeon to the Wigan Poor Law Union and is shown sombrely leaning against a table on which sit the texts of record. After the opening of the building in 1878, Captain Mercier put on an exhibition of his works to raise funds for the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary and you could imagine this portrait at the centre, the reminder of an absent friend.

The other most recent purchase on display is Edward Haytley’s Sir Roger and Lady Bradshaig from 1746, which startlingly demonstrates that despite Wigan’s gloomier post-industrial reputation, it was once the scene of great wealth, with doublets and corsets and stately homes. Because of this, the painting stands out against the rest of a display that largely concerns itself with a working class diaspora but an important addition because the Bradshaigs were the Hapsbergs of Wigan, members of their family becoming local mayors and statesmen and a legacy stretching back across many centuries.

The only other "art work" (as such) is a 37 foot long painted mural by the late Gerald Richards stretching across bottom the mezzanine floor that houses the local history library. This was commissioned in 1996 during the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the Charter and was installed when the original History Library opened (source), and suits perfectly the new exhibition space, the visitor is able to glance up and see how the piece of history they may be seeing fits into the overall chronology of the borough.

Employing a grid structure, it displays the architectural history of Wigan from medieval castles to municipal buildings to monuments, the red clay brick which is evident throughout the town given due prominence. First settled in the 7th century, Wigan eventually became ratified as a borough in 1246 following the issue of a Charter by King Henry III of England, whose portrait and crest also appear and completes what’s probably the most impressive work on display. As this obiturary explains, Rickards had a life long fascination with buildings and that's reflected in the accuracy of his rendering.

It’s perhaps understandable with the limited space that Wigan would decide to concentrate on the unifying subject of their collection. But it is a shame that so much of this small collection is in storage, especially since I’d quite looked forward to seeing William Blake Richmond’s classical works, which Edward laments were in storage for ages until Wigan took responsibility for them in the middle of the last century. Now Richmond’s interpretation of Theseus, Prometheus and Diana are back there again. But you can make an appointment. Let’s mark this as a potential revisit, perhaps, shall we?

[With thanks to Julie Baker, Heritage Assistant at the Museum Of Wigan Life for background information on Gerald Rickards's life and mural.]

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