Art Treasures Exhibition Returns To Manchester After 150 Years

By Richard Moss | 05 October 2007
an engraving showing a vast hall with a glass roof crowded with people

Engraving of the Great Hall with Visitors. Published in The Illustrated London News, 9 May 1857. © Manchester City Galleries

Richard Moss goes to Manchester Art Gallery, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city’s famous Art Treasures of the United Kingdom exhibition with its own exhibition running until January 27 2007.

When a group of Victorian businessmen decided to put the city of Manchester on the map by staging the biggest art exhibition the world had ever seen, the Duke of Devonshire responded to a request for a loan from his collection by saying: “What in the world do you want to do with Art in Manchester? Why can’t you stick to your cotton spinning?”

The Duke was not alone in doing down the city and its ambitious project, but with the backing of some key collectors including the Royal family, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ went ahead in 1857. The Art Treasures of the United Kingdom Exhibition held in the city’s Trafford District between May and October became a truly unique and peculiarly Mancunian achievement.

That the industrial ‘Cottonopolis’, with its satanic mills, squalor and belching chimneys could hold an exhibition containing over 16,000 exhibits and open it up for the enjoyment of all (some 3.1 million visitors attended during its five month run) was a triumph for Victorian civic pride and ingenuity.

It was a mega-exhibition of art that served up a vast collection of painting, sculpture, watercolours, early photographs and a wealth of decorative arts including ceramics, glassware, antiquities, textiles and armour - all housed within a quickly constructed, purpose-built steel and glass structure.

a painting showing a pastoral scene looking towards an industrial city

William Wyld, Manchester From The Cliff, Higher Broughton, 1830. © Manchester City Galleries

To celebrate 150th anniversary of the show, Manchester City Art Gallery is hosting an anniversary exhibition that celebrates this famous civic achievement by bringing back some of the amazing treasures the Victorians - from the workers, to the middles classes and the aristocracy - feasted their eyes on 150 years ago.

And what treasures they were… the Manchester Art lovers who made up the exhibition Executive Committee brought together works by everyone from Titian to Turner and the whole thing, from conception to completion, took just 14 months.

Visitors are welcomed to the exhibition celebrating this remarkable moment in history via a period depiction of smoking chimneys and dark satanic mills together with a quote from Heywood’s pictorial guide to Manchester and Companion to the Art Treasures Exhibition, 1857:

“The dingy aspect of the atmosphere upon the visitor’s arrival to Manchester will have been its first noticeable characteristic. This effect is due to its thousand mills, workshops and factories.”

an unfinished painting showing a woman and child figures

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Manchester Madonna (The Madonna and Child with Saint John and Angels), c1497. © The National Gallery, London

It’s a familiar picture, reinforced by the writings of Frederick Engels, and visitors are invited to smell the odours of Victorian Manchester: Horse Manure, Steam Engine Oil and Dirty River.

Evidently mid-Victorian Manchester was a city looking to re-invent itself; it already had its Free Trade Hall, Athenaeum and Portico Library and a slew of grandiose and magnificent cotton warehouse buildings, all it needed now was an art exhibition that would be the envy of the world.

The central room mimics the Victorian exhibition architecture with arches that, as in 1857, bear the names of some of the artists featured - Landseer, Frith, Hogarth, Gainsborough. Of course, not everybody could read in 1857 but the joy was, and still is, encountering the paintings and other works of art.

To the left and right are remarkable examples of master paintings from the Italian, French, Spanish, German and Dutch Schools. Flemish art by Teniers, Cupid and Psyche by Anthony Van Dyck, Carracci’s Dead Christ Mourned can be seen with Michelangelo’s Buonarroti’s Madonna and Child with Saint John and Angels.

The latter, an unfinished work attributed to Michelangelo just before the exhibition opened, became known as the Manchester Madonna and was just one the treasures that excited audiences at the time.

a painting showing a pale faced man with auburn hair laying dead on a bead in a garret with an open window. He is wearing a silk shirt and blue breeches

Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856. Bequeathed by Charles Gent Clement, 1899. © Tate

A contemporary journalist writing a working class dialect guide under the pseudonym Tom Treddlehoyle commented that it was worth seeing: “becos it wor a maister-piece a art; and becos a holy family are rairly ta be seen.”

Excursion trains brought in thousands of working class visitors and amongst the modern exhibition’s scene-setting contemporary material - newspaper reports, guidebooks and individual accounts - is the story of the largest of them.

Three special trains from Leeds brought 2,600 workers from Saltaire near Bradford, accompanied by their employer Titus Salt. In their Sunday best clothes, their employer escorted them through the palace of art. Three brass bands accompanied them on the trip and entertained the vast crowd of mill workers as they ate in the dining tent adjoining the second-class refreshment room.

Music was an important component of the 1857 exhibition, with two free concerts given daily: an organ recital and an orchestral recital - organised by Music Director, Charles Halle (of the Halle Orchestra which formed the following year). A listening post plays popular tunes of the period, providing an evocative and sometimes ghostly aural window into the past.

a pastoral painting showing a women and children outside a woodland cottage

Thomas Gainsborough, Cottage Door with Girl and Pigs, 1786. © Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries

British Art Treasures were displayed separately from the old masters, and modern visitors get the chance to see some key Pre-Raphaelite pieces including the bright hyperrealism of Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd and Arthur Hughes’ April Love. Singled out for special attention is Henry Wallis’ Death of Chatterton, which caused a stir in 1857.

Celebrating the national school is William Etty’s the Storm, Constable’s the Lock and a typically overblown piece of Gothic fantasy from Henry Fuseli called Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent.

There are also paintings by Hogarth, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby. Popular pieces such as the Death of General Wolf by Benjamin West have also made the journey back to Manchester together with a beautifully idealised portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of his mother, Georgia Maria Leicester.

The watercolour section contains modern-day crowd pleasers with exotic subjects such as George Cattermole’s Salvatore Rosa painting amongst a band of Italian bandits or Lions Disturbed by Samuel Hewitt.

a painting showing a man making advances to a woman in a field next to a woodland and corn field with a flock of sheep in the background

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851. © Manchester City Galleries

A photographic section boasts fascinating examples from the early days of photography including James Robertson’s albumen prints of the fall of Sebastopol, as fascinating now as they must have been in 1857.

A panorama of the Alps by Victorian favourites, the Blisson brothers, predates Ansel Adams by a century or so but compares favourably, whilst the star of the photographic exhibition was and still is Oscar Gustav Reijlander’s Two Ways of Life.

The complex allegorical study features 25 models from Madame Wharton’s Pose Plastique Troop, some of them bare-breasted, posed as a tableau inspired by Raphael’s The School of Athens in Rome. Ridiculously overblown and Victorian in its composition it caused mild outrage at the time - although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased three copies prior to the exhibition’s opening.

The Prince was closely involved in the planning of the exhibition and opened it with great fanfare at an official ceremony and later visited it with Queen Victoria.

an engraving showing a man and woman in Victorian dress looking at a painting exhibition

Royal Visit to the Art Treasures Exhibition. Published in The Illustrated London News, July 11 1857. Courtesy Manchester Archives and Local Studies

But in this day of the blockbuster show and with free art galleries such as Tate Modern welcoming millions of visitors a year, it is well to remember that many visitors to the original Art Treasures exhibition would have never seen a real painting before, whilst none, with the exception of the Royal Family, would have seen so many in one place.

For that alone, I hope visitors to this free commemorative exhibition will similarly wonder at the art displayed and remember the words of Keats that were once painted above the arch at the end of the central hall: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

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