Public Art Collections in North West England:
Manchester City Art Gallery.

Art Right then, the penultimate venue. Hello Manchester Art Gallery! Or rather, hello again Manchester Art Gallery because even though I’ve been purposefully ignoring your permanent collection for seven long years since the beginning of this project because I decided early on that you’d be next to last in the list of visits, you’ve not been a stranger. Your temporary displays have often been one of the reasons I’ve travelled over to my second favourite city in the country (sorry Leeds but London is third) and I especially liked the Kylie one. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to change out of this open letter format because I’m not sure it’s worth sustaining over the next however many paragraphs this is going to take.

The visit itself took about four hours, not because it couldn’t have gone on longer, because I now realise there was a whole display section I forgot to go back to, but because as I’ve discovered on the occasions when I’ve visited the larger displays (see also Tullie House in Carlisle), there’s only so much looking a person can do, or at least this person can do. Even with a soup and coffee break between the third and sixth rooms there’s only so much intense scrutiny of paintings and information labels that the eyes and brains can entertain without tiredness setting in at least the way I do it which is to look at every painting and object for a few minutes each before moving on. Lawks knows what I’d do at a national.

Much of this fatigue of course has to do with the quality of the collection. Only now and then, here and there are there signs of, for want of a better description “filler”. Every wall is filled with paintings the visitor could spend whole hours, hours and hours looking at. Now that I do know what’s there, when I do return for the temporary displays, I’ll definitely be walking through the other galleries and stopping at some of these to see them again and look again. Now I wish, back when I was working in Manchester, that I’d spent some of my hour long lunch times sitting in these rooms, though obviously after I’d eaten my sandwiches. Thank goodness that line hasn’t been crossed yet. Visitors taking flash photos in the gallery is bad enough.

In his book, Public Art Collections in North-West England, Edward Morris spends eight and a half long pages describing the history and collections and the history of the collections of Manchester Art Gallery. The summary is pretty much the same as all the collections in the area, a mix of interested artists and industrial philanthropists providing the initial idea and funding, early exhibitions giving way to the forming of a collection which is ultimate displayed in a building, then another building then yet another building with various bequests across the years fattening up the collection into the knock-out it is now. What is different is the time period. The process began earlier than most, in 1823, even before the city had a local council.

As Edward notes, this longevity led to the collection’s reputation developing to such an extent that when bequests came, they were even from outside of the city because Manchester was considered to be the premier collection in the north, a reputation no doubt aided and abetted by The Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887. Though he’s also pretty quick to notice that Liverpool has the upper hand in terms of chronological breadth and purchasing power (some of which I’ll only really understand when I read the Walker’s entry). Manchester’s display at least very much focuses on a period which begins at the collection’s inception in the 1800s, only really dipping earlier within their displays of Dutch art which begins in the 1600s.

If all of this is short on detail, it’s because as the history tangled, and for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not sure how interesting you’d find it. Edward’s final paragraph is worth comment. He notes that for all the richness of the collections, their displays aren’t as adequate as they need to be. He’s writing at the turn of the century and notes the gallery’s extension into the Royal Manchester Institution next door in 2001. That’s all completed and has had over a decade to bed in but as has often been the case when I’ve visited these regional galleries it still doesn’t seem like enough. Your Paintings suggests the collection contains 2,132 oils. There must be an exponential number of other objects on top of that.

Manchester’s strategy is to augment its permanent displays, clustered themselves around thematic points, with semi-permanent exhibitions. So amid the 18th century, early 19th century, pre-Raphaelites and Victorian displays, there’s Natural Forces: Romanticism and Nature, A Highland Romance: Victorian Views of Scottishness and Channel Crossings: French and English Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and it works. It means that more corners of permanent collection are seen, clustered around thematic connections and the gallery also has extra destinations for locals who may feel that they’ve otherwise already seen the display. If you don’t mind me jumping ahead, this is exactly something the Walker in Liverpool should be doing right now.

In the midst of all this, how do I even begin to start choosing highlights as is customary in these non-reviews? Usually it’s been pretty easy, small displays, small collections, mostly local artists but city art galleries can’t be approached in that way. Half of Edward’s pagination makes a good job of it and although I agree with most of his suggestions, especially John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs which I had on my bedroom wall at university. The best idea, probably, is to arbitrarily choose a theme and talking about some of the objects which are about that theme. How about Shakespeare? The collection has at least a couple of renowned paintings related to his works. Yes, that will do.

The first ever purchase for the collection, back in 1826 was Shakespeare related, James Northcote’s portrait of the actor Ira Aldridge playing Othello. Amongst his many portraits, Shakespeare was one of Northcote’s key subjects. He was one of the artists commissioned to produce work for the ill-fated Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London which was to simultaneously create an exhibition and book illustrating his plays. This Othello was not one of them. Instead, this shows the Moor of Venice in a style that might suggest it was the character that commissioned the portrait, Aldridge not shown in any of the usual cliched “jealous” poses, instead presenting the noble, gentle figure that Desdemona originally fell for.

The other renowned object (which I also have as a postcard on the wall above my desk here) is Arthur Hughes’s Ophelia. Painted when he was just nineteen, it also depicts a very youthful noblewoman with elfin features. The painting and the frame are of equal importance, Gertrude’s description of the scene depicted inscribed into the gold leaf, the edges carved with vines. The overall effect is biblical. The garland of herbs crowning her head, not just indicating a succession which would surely have come with Hamlet Jr as her husband but also a crown of thorns. She’s sitting it seems, but there’s an inevitability to the moment. As she glances down to the water, we're catching the moment when she realises her fate.

William Bromley’s Catherine of Aragon is perhaps the most theatrical but the lengthy description at Your Paintings doesn’t indicate that there’s any particularly famous actors from a production of Henry VIII, a scene from which this illustrates. I love authority with which she addresses the Cardinals even though she’s sitting, her hand up in defiance. Unfortunately within the gallery, the whole thing’s rather ruined by the glaze which covers it and the rather odd circular mark in the top left hand corner where the man is standing holding open the curtain. A similar mark appears on the glass frontage of James Archer’s otherwise remarkable La Mort d’Arthur. Right in the middle, destroying the composition.

When I saw it on the Archer I asked the invigilator what it was. He explained it was the high impact sucker which was used at some point in its transport which has left a stain on the glass, concentric circles about the size of the base of a coffee mug and presumably went unnoticed when the picture was hung. I asked him if there were any plans for them to be repaired. He said that it would be, to boil down what he said less diplomatically, too much hassle. To which I replied that this was rubbish and that there wasn’t much point in displaying the painting in this condition. Or words to that effect. Really, Manchester Art Gallery, this is a terrible way to treat these ancient paintings and no state to leave them hanging.

The rest of the paintings on display illustrate some of the so-called minor works. There’s William Frederick Yeames’s Prince Arthur and Hubert, the latter having been tasked by King John with killing the boy (as per Act IV, Scene 1). The accompanying text says a reviewer at the time “found the painting trivial and anti-heroic” which it really isn’t, as we see in Hubert’s face the turmoil of the choice he has to make and trying to hide that emotion from his potential victim. There’s Winter Fuel by John Everett Millais, an image of survival within a harsh landscape which was accompanied by a line from Sonnet 73 on first display, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

There may be more Shakespeare related works in the archives, but the Your Paintings search only works if items have been tagged manually and I haven’t the time (at the moment!) to go through the couple of thousand images there. Suffice to say this is just a snip of what’s there though it’s worth checking which galleries are open beforehand.  The contemporary and main temporary spaces were both closed for rehangs. But like I said way up above, I’d probably well and truly seen my fair share by then. Anyway, there we are then, Manchester Art Gallery, tick. Just the Walker Art Gallery to do and it’s the collection with which I’m most familiar. Why am I so nervous? Ends of projects. Ends of projects.

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