‘Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition…’
– Engels to Marx
The big message to be taken away from Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on, a retrospective on the largest art exhibition ever held in the UK is that in developing (and subsequently redeveloping) Manchester, the city has always recognised the role of culture in making a place somewhere worth living.
Just as the Commonwealth Games of 2002 was headline act of a number of high profile events to shine a positive light on the city after decades of decline, so Art Treasures in Manchester was to show that the city was more than a concentration of dirty factories.
Although, as the world’s first industrial city, dirty factories loomed large and ensured Victorian Manchester was a grim place. Life expectancy was a mere 26 years, clean drinking water was scarce and visitors were warned to brace themselves for the smog that would hit them as they stepped off the train.
The same laisser faire culture that ensured so many suffered under early capitalism and convinced Marx and Engels of the inevitability of revolution, also enabled a can-do, get on with it attitude that is to be admired. This event was delivered, from conception to royal opening in just fifteen months, despite requiring major infrastructure investment including a water main to Old Trafford (in case of fire, rather than to quench the thirst of the masses, but hey).
And yet it was a surprisingly democratic affair. Philanthropic mill owners chartered trains to transport workers from all over the country, although surviving visitor comments reveal some were shocked to discover they couldn’t take they’re re-packed sandwiches into the great hall.
The first blockbuster art show, Art Treasures in Manchester was the first to show works in chronological order and so encourage study of the development of art over time and it gave the National Gallery in London a good kick up the backside, without which it probably wouldn’t be what it is today.
Anyway. What of the art? While the original exhibition was made up of loans from private collections, (including Queen Victoria’s whose endorsement encouraged many to participate) many of the key pieces are redisplayed today. Star of the show is the unfinished Michelangelo known as the Manchester Madonna, the loan of which 2007’s Daily Telegraph describes as a coup, betraying the snobbery that still prevents major artworks leaving London; as if Manchester can’t be trusted to show off it’s own Madonna. But they do link to some nice pics of some of the art on show.