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Artistic ambition

Jonathan Schofield recommends a break from the rigours of Christmas shopping with a trip to the Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on

Written by . Published on December 10th 2007.

Artistic ambition

Give yourself a visual gift this Christmas. If you’ve not been already, take a trip to Art Treasures in Manchester and enjoy.

This Manchester Art Gallery show marks the 150th anniversary of the largest ever temporary art exhibition. It does this in a coherent and exciting manner displaying key artworks that featured in the original 1857 show but also describing how the exhibition was put together and the audience response to it.

It took less than two years from conception through execution to demolition. If you want Victorian energy and organisation bottled up in one event, nationally or internationally, then Art Treasures is your boy.

It also gives an insight into the attitude of our ancestors. In that lovable self-confident manner, our Victorian forebears knew exactly how important this Manchester event was. John Cassell’s catalogue contained these grand statements.

“The masterpieces of the great chiefs of the various schools (of art) were gathered here and will, in all human probability, never again be united under the same roof.”

This wasn’t meaningless hyperbole. Most of the leading authorities of the day recognised the event’s significance and the lessons it provided for the art and gallery worlds.

A distinguishing feature is the speed in which the project was delivered: this puts the nonsense surrounding the rebuild of Wembley into cruel perspective.

In March 1856 one CRJ Deane came up with the idea of a temporary art exhibition to be held in Manchester featuring works largely taken from the aristocratic collections of the UK. Led by the manufacturer Thomas Fairbairn, the city got behind the idea immediately. Not only would such an event counter the notion that the city was solely concerned with money-making and never culture, but it would also help educate people to the joys of art and thus help civilise them. Only those with a Manchester postal address could contribute to the project.

By May 1856 the organisers had royal approval, by August they’d started building, at Old Trafford, a structure twice the size of a football field with its own railway sidings. By February 1857 this was completed and the artworks started to arrive. It opened to the public on 6 May and ran to September with more than 1.3m visiting. The audience included the humble, the rich and everybody in between. The famous flocked to Manchester, celebrities of the day such as Dickens, Tennyson and Ruskin as well as countless monarchs including Queen Vic and her beloved Prince Albert, the main patron of the event. By March 1858 the works had been dispersed back to their owners and the building had been demolished.

So that was less than two years from conception through execution to demolition. If you want Victorian energy and organisation bottled up in one event, nationally or internationally, then Art Treasures is your boy.

The effect of the 1857 event was international.

Out of the exhibition Manchester cemented a growing idea of ordering art galleries chronologically so the development of styles could be traced. Out of the exhibition came the idea that Britain’s national collection in the National Gallery in London was inadequate, so in the following years it was greatly expanded. From the Old Trafford event came the idea of the temporary blockbuster art show.

Unexpectedly perhaps, the only permanent memorial in Manchester of this colossal undertaking was musical. Charles Hallé had been asked to provide musical diversion for guests to the Art Treasures. His success led him in January 1858 to formally create the Hallé Orchestra.

Even more unexpectedly the city got an unfinished work by Michelangelo named after itself: the Manchester Madonna. The painting was first displayed here after being recognised as coming from the hand of the Italian master.

This work from the National Gallery is a corner-stone of the current exhibition in Manchester Art Gallery. But you also get Van Dyck, Hogarth, Landseer, Constable, Turner and much else, including some astonishing early photography. The contemporary reports reproduced on the walls make for interesting reading too.

Art Treasures: 150 years on runs until 27 January 2008. Don’t miss it. This is the biggest show the gallery has staged since it re-opened in 2002. It has superb art and a good story to tell. For Mancunians it’s something to be proud about. If we want to be brave it’s something to measure ourselves against as well.

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