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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Manchester’s Third Niche

Jonathan Schofield finds a gap in the Great Hall of the Town Hall as artist Anthony Gormley begins his Fourth Plinth project in London.

Written by . Published on July 8th 2009.


The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Manchester’s Third Niche

Category: Good

You want to talk about a niche?

Oh yes, the empty third niche in the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall, next to the organ on the end wall of perhaps the city’s grandest room. This is Manchester's equivalent of the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square - now the site of temporary artworks of varying quality.

We don't have four niches though, just the three. We should fill it every now and then just as they do their vacuity in Trafalgar Square.

Aside from the statues in the niches there are several corbels (stone brackets) with busts of Royals placed upon them.

You see, sculpture was always part of the scheme architect Alfred Waterhouse had in mind when designing the Town Hall.

The whole place was supposed to be an embodiment of the various disciplines of the arts and crafts: architecture, fine art, plastic arts, decorative arts and so forth.

What are the other statues in the Great Hall?

They are of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, finished 1879, and radical campaigner Charles Villiers, finished 1877. Both are by an artist called William Thead. The busts are of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Edward, Prince of Wales and Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

Who was Villiers?

As I said he was a radical progressive, much admired in Manchester for his work fighting for Free Trade and for his stance on social issues. The interesting thing is that both statues are of men who weren’t Mancunians but who represented the values of the city: Gladstone was a Scouser and Villiers from Wolverhampton. No petty-minded parochialness there eh? They were also very political statues, both men were still alive and both men were free thinking libertarians. These statues are saying Manchester is radical and liberal in mood: a progressive city.

Who should have gone into the Third Niche?

Nobody knows. I can’t find even any suggestions. It seems to have been forgotten about.

So who should we put in there?

A statue of Councillor Pat Karney? Sir Richard Leese, Sir Howard Bernstein perhaps. Or their best chum Graham Stringer? What about a woman: surely this could be the perfect place for Emmeline Pankhurst or Lydia Becker, the Votes for Women people? Or what about Wilson? Tony Wilson in a niche. I remember him mc-ing one awards ceremony in the Great Hall and using expletives so frequently that I felt the walls must have learnt them. I hoped they’d repeat them back whenever some pompous ass started missing the point about Manchester.

Interesting idea, I’m sure the readers have others. Anything else you’d like to include?

Yes some quotes about the Great Hall. What about John Ruskin, the renowned nineteenth century critic, writer?

Ok, off you go.

He described the Great Hall as ‘The most truly magnificent Gothic apartment in Europe.’ He didn’t mention the niche though. Nor did he mention that unfortunate thing with Effie Millais. Look it up. It’s a hairy story. How about a quote from John Bright, the Free Trader, as well?

Go on what did John Bright say here?

In 1877 he stood in this room as the Town Hall opened and said: “[We are] standing in a district more wonderful in some respects than can be traced out on a map in any other Kingdom of the world. The population is extraordinary in its number, extraordinary for its interests and industries, for the amount of its wealth, for the amount of its wages, and for the power which it exercises on other nations.’’ Confident chap. Actually he goes on to say that one day all the factories and warehouses may be gone, so the city better not be complacent. Clearly he had a bit of second sight our John. He never mentioned the niche either.

But you're mentioning the niche.

I am. It seems like a perfect opportunity to involve the art world inside the Town Hall and gave the old space fresh inspiration. Maybe this is something for the next Manchester International Festival. The organisers could get in a top artist and then use viewing the third niche as an excuse and a reason to allow people to wander round the whole wondrous building. 

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJuly 8th 2009.

Why not Pat Karney a man who many have said 'single handedly dragged this city into the 21st Century' !

Ann LeeJuly 8th 2009.

Pankhurst was a Tory though, so sure the city fathers wouldn't allow her into the Town Hall. Bit sad to put her in Stevenson Square, surrounded by buses. Somewhere a bit more prominent surely?

cllr sue murphyJuly 8th 2009.

Hi Steph. Couldn't agree more - we're planning to commission a piece of public art for Stevenson Square to commemorate the Women's Suffrage movement. It's taken 10 years to get agreement but we got there in the end. As lead for the council on women's issues I think the town hall has far too many statues and portraits of men and we need more women!And look out for our Emmeline Pankhurst billboards next year for International Womens Day in March. Women helped create Manchester and we don't pay enough tributes to them.

StephanieJuly 8th 2009.

That Third Niche just has to go to Mrs Pankhurst. Manchester should be proud of its reforming political history and celebrate it in style.

GordoJuly 8th 2009.

Pat Bloody Karney? Nagh, lets have Gordo!

Tanner GrideJuly 8th 2009.

She was a Tory only in the 1920s and late in life. Ann Lee would be an interesting suggestion. A woman who had given up sex and thought we should all die out and get to heaven quicker. And she called herself the Bride of Christ.

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