Art institutions and urban society in Lancashire, 1780–1914

During the nineteenth century industrial Lancashire became a leading national and international art centre. In 1857 Manchester hosted the international Art Treasures Exhibition at Old Trafford, arguably the single most important art exhibition every held. By the end of the century almost every major Lancashire town possessed an art gallery, while Lancashire art schools and artists were recognised nationally and internationally. This book examines the reasons for the remarkable rise of visual art in Lancashire and its relationship to the rise of the commercial and professional classes who supported it. Lancashire is rarely seen by outsiders as a major cultural centre but the creation of a network of art institutions facilitated a vibrant cultural life and shaped the civic identity of its people. The modern industrial towns of Lancashire often looked to the cultural history of other great civilisations to understand the rapidly changing world around them. Roscoe’s Liverpool of the late eighteenth century emulated Medici’s Florence, Fairbairn’s Manchester looked to Rome, while a century later Preston built an art gallery as a tribute to Periclean Athens. Yet the art institutions and movements of the county were also distinctively modern. Many embraced the British fashions of the time, while some looked to new art movements abroad. Art institutions also became a cultural battleground for alternative visions of the future, from those that embraced modern mass production technologies and ‘commercial art’ to those that feared technology and capitalism would destroy artistic creativity and corrode standards of excellence.

The formation and development of the Walker Art Gallery

The opening of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery provided the city with one of the country’s most modern art galleries, complementing the impressive neoclassical architecture that had emerged around the famous St. George’s Hall. Yet a gallery aimed at promoting popular art education was decidedly unpopular with many of Liverpool’s population. The partisan nature of the gift by well-known brewer and Conservative A.B. Walker was flavoured with corruption and revealed the difficulties that municipal art institutions faced when accepting financial support from controversial local donors. It also revealed that although municipalisation promised a more democratic age, financial limitations on local authorities meant that elite influence in the local art world remained strong.

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Manchester’s municipal ambitions and the ‘failure’ of public spirit

The 1870s and 1880s saw the Manchester art world arguably reach its cultural zenith. The rise of the proto-Impressionist ‘Manchester school’, the municipalisation of the Royal Manchester Institution building and the plans for a new city gallery produced an art community and institutional infrastructure second to nowhere in England, except London. However such progress concealed a growing disagreement about the purpose of municipal art institutions. As attendance at exhibitions fell, critics questioned the ability of large galleries to engage the public and called for more community-based art initiatives. The crisis point was reached when proposals for a new city art gallery in Piccadilly Square fell foul of Conservative and Labour opposition. At a time of economic slump, had art become an expensive luxury?

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The alternative visions of the Whitworth and Harris galleries

The Whitworth Gallery and Manchester and the Harris Museum and Gallery in Preston provided an alternative vision for the future of art galleries. Rejecting what they saw as excessive commercialism and populism these galleries defined different approaches to public art. This chapter examines these approaches and assesses both their successes and their cultural significance for the region. It also raises question about the nature of ‘public art’ – could it be genuinely inclusive, while being led by an essentially small group of cultural leaders?

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The public and private dimensions of local civic art

By 1914 most Lancashire towns, including many small towns, maintained an art gallery at municipal expense. The origins and practical purpose of these galleries were more diverse than one might imagine. Yet, by 1914, the Lancashire art world faced something of a crisis. The generation of great Lancastrian patrons seemed to be receding. Modern revisionist thinking viewed many of Lancashire’s Victorian public art collections as outdated. The grand galleries of the nineteenth century were expensive to maintain and often poorly attended. This final chapter examines the reasons for this crisis and the way some innovative thinkers attempted to respond.

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Art in the first industrial society

The book opens with a discussion of the rapid economic and social changes that overtook the region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and, in particular, the consequences for urban cultural life. The changes produced important debates about the importance of culture, and particularly the visual arts, in a modern, civil society. The promotion of the visual arts became an important part of the civic humanist agenda and consequently they became central to the identity of the new industrial, commercial and professional classes.

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William Roscoe, civic myths and the institutionalisation of urban culture

The impact of William Roscoe’s circle in Liverpool is re-examined and, in particular, his particular interpretation of the ‘Florentine model’ which continued to be so influential in the city in the early nineteenth century. The chapter explores the various manifestations of this cultural legacy and, in particular, the development of key art institutions and associations. While these were important in promoting Liverpool as a centre of high culture, they also limited the cultural perspective of Liverpool’s merchant class and created an essentially elitist view about the purpose of cultural capital assembly.

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The Royal Manchester Institution and early public art patronage in Manchester

The rapid rise of Manchester as Liverpool’s commercial rival produced an industrial and commercial elite determined to forge a community based on cultural achievement as well as economic endeavour. This chapter explores the cultural plans to reshape Manchester and the role of the Royal Manchester Institution in providing a focal point for the leading figures in the Manchester art world. In doing so it explores how art was used to position Manchester as a major British city and an alternative source of patronage and power to both Liverpool and London. Public exhibitions may not have been commercially successful but they offered a challenge to the dominance of the Royal Academy and a platform for a new generation of emerging northern artists.

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The diverse origins of the municipal art gallery movement

While early regional galleries were the product of private initiative, the growth of municipal government in the 1840s encouraged several towns to develop art galleries as both mass educational tools and symbols of their political independence and cultural sophistication. In the 1850s the Salford Museum and Art Gallery was so successful its visitor numbers rivalled those of the British Museum and it was an initiative soon copied by neighbouring towns of Warrington and Stockport. This chapter explores the people and ideologies behind these pioneering galleries and how their values were reflected in exhibitions and patterns of collecting. It also reveals how they became quickly outdated as fashions and popular culture changed.

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Art schools and art education

Despite the success of municipal art galleries in some quarters, the prevailing Liberal economic ideology of much of industrial Lancashire remained suspicious of state intervention in the arts. Many feared it would become economically costly and threaten local civic independence. However Royal Commissions that exposed the lack of artistic skills among industrial textile workers meant that attitudes gradually changed. Liberal Manchester became one of the first state-supported art schools. This chapter explores how local communities fought to shape art education and the successes and failure of local art education. Although aimed at the industrial worker, the art school remained a sphere in which bourgeois values and middle class students predominated, much to the chagrin of local critics.

in High culture and tall chimneys