Public Art Collections in North West England: Stockport War Memorial and Art Gallery

Closing out his entry on Stockport War Memorial and Art Gallery in his book Public Art Collections in North West England, Edward Morris offers a brief incident of brutal honesty:
“Stockport is the only major industrial and commercial centre in north-west England without a notable public art collection”
But this isn’t a critical assessment, it’s a statement of fact, the reasons for which he’s already unpicked over the previous three rather large paragraphs and which are worth summarising a bit here.

Essentially Stockport missed the boat in creating an art collection with a strong legacy due to a series of critical errors by the original benefactors. A couple of local MPs James Kershaw and Benjamin Smith made provision – as similar worthies had in other towns – for the building of a local art gallery.

But against the protestations of the local council who knew that such a building could only be successful in a town centre (no doubt eyeing similar local projects) Keshaw and Smith built it in the nearby Vernon Park outside of the tourist loop instead.

After they handed over the keys in 1860 they set about appealing for art to fill its walls. None was forthcoming. Out of what looks in hindsight like a desperation to validate their position, Smith bought the collection of the Marquis of Brancadori (which he'd seen during a European tour) on the cheap.

After keeping a few for himself and loaning the rest to the gallery; but before too long what seemed like a bargain hoard filled with old masters by the likes of Murillo and Velazquez turned out riddled with misattributions and copies. So when he bequeathed them to the gallery on his death, they were, perhaps, of little or no interest.

By the late 1800s the Vernon Park Museum was dedicating itself to natural history and antiquities; the art collections such as they were transferred to a Bramwell Hall in 1936. By then, however, another serious public art gallery provision was already in hand.

This was to include a war memorial for those who’d fallen in the first world war and opened in 1925 and still stands on Wellington Road, as pictured. But with a few notable exceptions because of the depression which was gripping the area, the bequest of art had all but stopped.

On reflection to complete this journey I should have visited Bramwall Hall and perhaps I will, it does look rather atmospheric with its Tudor stylings. But since this has dragged on long enough, I’m keeping to the edifices and collections on Edward’s contents page.

So last Wednesday I climbed the steps in front of the Wellington Road building – and climbed them again two hours later when the gallery had actually opened at one in the afternoon. I’ve now reached the museums with a really tricky or limited opening hours.

[Just as an interlude I should add that Stockport isn’t otherwise without its museums. Before the trip I asked twitter what else there was to do. To a person, the twitterers suggested the Hat Museum or more accurately the Hat Works. I visited the Hat Works. There are lots of hats:

Now, back to the art gallery.]

Some geography of the interior. The war memorial is directly opposite the entrance, a kind of marble chapel, with, at the centre, a giant group by Gilbert Ledward depicting Brittania comforting a nude man holding a broken sword to symbolise sacrifice.

As Edward suggests “the style is as austerely neoclassical as the building itself”. The permanent fine art collection is displayed in a largish room to the left, and is displayed in three phases, portraits, people in place and people in isolation. Aptly, considering how I’m feeling at the moment, I visited during the third.

Apart from, depending on your tastes, the usual two Lowrys, the most striking piece presently on display is a Jacob Epstein bust of a young Yehudi Menhuin produced just as the violinist would have been at much the same age as Nigel Kennedy.

As ever, Epstein emphasises the most prominent sectors of the face, his nose and neck, an ice cream whipped mop of hair atop his head, quite a contrast from the balding figure I grew up with when classical music performers were still allowed on popular television during prime time.

Accompanying literature on the purchase suggests that the museum (perhaps keen to beat the price down) questioned whether a crease in the bust’s forehead was damage incurred on the object. The agent for the seller confirms that in fact this was a measure of Epstein’s accuracy.

Menhuin sustained the scar during an accident in his youth. The agent then cites that all six versions of the bust have the same gash. The bust is also accompanied by a note in Epstein’s own handwriting confirming the authenticity of the piece.

The bold lines of this bust are mirrored in a painting by Laurence Isherwood of an “old Spanish lady” from 1972. Interesting for its technique more than anything else, I think it lacks a certain character, the lines of the woman’s face and disembodied heard obscured in the mass of pink and purple hues.

It's an experiment I think in trying to produce a Turneresque effect within a portrait which doesn’t quite work, for me at least. Like an old analogue television which hasn’t quite been tuned in or a new television when a plane is flying past interfering with the digital signal.

I mention it only to contrast with David Stefan Przepiora's People in which similarly broad brush strokes are brought to bear on a crowd scene but which has much more cohesion of colour – a range of autumnal colours – and I’d say purpose – how strangers may walk down the same street but inhabit their own world.

Whilst it’s true that recently I’ve seen photographs treated by computer to look similar used to decorate coffee shops and artists impressions for major architectural developments, there’s something very poignant about these gloomy figures painted in the year of my birth.

A couple of the works on display are listed as having been bought at the Bradford Print Bienniale in 1972. Costing £8 was Roger Savage’s Sunday Morning Walk, in which, from the rear, we see a father taking his son along a promenade.

A world of emotional significance is drawn from around twenty blocks of muted colours, greys and blues because the shape of the child on his shoulders is mimicked in the rocky islands which lay out to the coast, suggesting, perhaps, the weight of responsibly the son or daughter has brought to them.

Someone with an imagination like mine might consider that the woman depicted in Elisabeth Von Holleben’s colourful etching nearby is the mother and wife awaiting their return, even if the grey hairs and scarf suggest something different. The patterning in the lace top is exquisite, the overall effect similar to late Raymond Briggs.

Which is rather the story of the collection overall – a few notables and other works by artists who aren’t quite notable yet. If Edward’s correct in suggesting that this isn’t a major collection this certainly didn’t feel like a wasted visit though I'd also plan to include the Hat Works as part of your day trip.

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