Public Art Collections in North West England: Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum

Towneley Hall - the North East Front

Museums The visitors guide to Towneley Hall is quite direct in its introduction as to the period on which is being covered. “Towneley was the home of the Towneley family for over 500 years but in 1901 it was sold to Burnley Corporation”, it says, “The family departed in March 1902 leaving behind a building almost complete empty except for a couple of tables and few pictures in the chapel”.  Since then, the corporation has set about collecting the objects owned by the Towneley family, supplemented by long term loans by the decedents.

Edward Morris devotes seven pages (two with large pictures) to Towneley, emphasising Burnley’s fortune in having such a building and grounds just outside the city centre. It’s not a new building; in 1702 Ralph Thoresby remarked that it was a “collage of a castle-like house” commenting on the additions by various owners across the years which accounts for its maze like interior, which also now includes a museum of local history, natural history centre and preserved kitchen and servants' hall, musty smell intact.  Like many National Trust properties, the interiors are a recreation of how the hall used to be.

Edward explains that the sale of the hall was precipitated by the death of John Towneley in 1878, who lacking male heirs passed it to his daughter Alice Mary who missing an income was unable to maintain the place, the council ultimately purchasing it for far less than its market value. This was her equivalent of similar philanthropic gestures in other towns when local gentry paid for the building of cultural venues, but its previous application as a family home adds a sense of history absent to those other chunks of architecture.

I devoted eight notebooks to scrabbling down notes on the collection which boasts many of the big names, not least John William Waterhouse, who’s Destiny hangs on one of the window walls in the main room which I previously stood in front of at an exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. This image doesn’t do justice to the red of the woman’s dress which burst out in both locations drawing the eye straight to this depiction of a toast for departing warriors (the painting was produced in aid of the Artists War Fund).

There are too many brilliant works in the collection to list here, this a rich spread.  Turn your head one way and find Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Picture Gallery, turn the other and see Joseph Farquharson's The Sun had closded the Winter's Day, one of his expressions of a bygone age, of a farmer herding his rams through snow.  These are paintings that calenders and posters are made of and I think I may even have had the Farquharson on my wall at university.

Amid a collection that crystalises various elements of social history through its collection of portraits and documentary paintings there's still room for fantasy. A small canvas by Marten van Valkenborch, The Building of the Tower of Babel.  It's clearly inspired by the famous Brueghal painting but whereas that us out and out fantasy, the Towneley painting tries to rationalise the endevour logically and realistically albeit still underscoring the huge scale of the resulting building, the workmen becoming specks as the tower reaches into the sky.

But as an Elizabethan, my favourite painting is Samuel Sidley's Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox.  It's quite a naive thing, not unlike the plates you'd find in some old Shakespearean collected works, but there's something impressive about how majestically coloured the queen's household is shown in comparison to Knox who at this point is essentially pleading for his life as his religious views depart from his monarch's.  Mary's open hand indicates that perhaps all will be well.  Like the best of these scenic paintings, it's impossible not to be sucked into the unfolding drama.

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