History of art and capitalism in Manchester, England

This music video from Britain is The Oldham Tinkers singing “Peterloo” by Harvey Kershaw, about the massacre by the Conservative government of workers demonstrating in Manchester for universal suffrage on 16 August 1819.

By Robert Stevens:

Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on—Part one

23 January 2008

Showing through January 27, 2008, at Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”—John Keats, 1818

The following is the first of a two-part review.

The exhibition Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on, currently displaying at the Manchester Art Gallery, is a retrospective of a major and historic art exhibition held in the city in 1857.

It brings together 160 works of art from the original display, including paintings by artists ranging from Michelangelo to Anthony Van Dyke, Nicolas Poussin, J.M.W. Turner, William Hogarth, to a number of works from Manchester’s large collection of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Ford Maddox Brown. The exhibition also includes watercolours, sculptures, ceramics, majolica ceramics, photographs and furniture.

These are only a tiny fraction of the number displayed in the original Art Treasures of the United Kingdom. The original exhibition was a vast and unprecedented undertaking. Some 16,000 works of art were exhibited in a huge purpose-built glass and wrought-iron structure modelled on the recently built Crystal Palace exhibition centre in London. The Crystal Palace had then just housed another large-scale project, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851—dedicated to industry and science.

The 1857 exhibition in Victorian Manchester was one of several major events open to the public in the 1850s. These included the Dublin International Exhibition of 1853 and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855. “Polytechnic Exhibitions” of art, science and manufacturing had been held in the city of Leeds in West Yorkshire as far back as 1839.

Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, held in the Trafford Park area of Manchester, was the first such event to be solely dedicated to the arts. It was and remains the largest temporary exhibition of works of art ever assembled in Britain.

Over a period of five months, it was attended by more than 1.3 million people from all over the world. These included Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Ruskin, Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Gaskell. But most were workers who travelled from all over Britain to see, in many cases for the first time in their lives, major works of art on public display. In one day alone, more than 30,000 people attended the exhibition.

The current exhibition is divided into three main areas. The first is a look back at what Manchester was like in 1857 and what the emergence of the city represented historically. By 1853, Manchester had been granted city status and over the previous decades had become the premier industrial city in the world. This growth was bound up with the development of the cotton industry in the town and the surrounding areas in south Lancashire.

More than any other city, it was associated with the emergence of the industrial working class, brought into being by the introduction of the new factory system.

Manchester had been a small market town since the Middle Ages, but began to grow exponentially from the late 1700s. The first steam-powered mill was built in the town in 1781 by the inventor and industrialist Richard Arkwright. The population of Manchester and adjacent Salford increased from 95,000 in 1800 to 310,000 in 1841. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the name “Cottonopolis” was coined to describe Manchester. …

Commenting on his visit to Manchester in 1835, the French politician, historian and social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) described it as follows: “A sort of black smoke covers the city…. Under this half-daylight 500,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work…. From this foul drain, the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the world.”

A section of this part of the exhibition cites the work of the co-founder of scientific socialism, Frederick Engels, who was also among those attending the original Art Treasures exhibition.

Engels first arrived in the city in 1842 from what was then Prussia in order to work in the office of the cotton firm Erman and Engels, in which his father was a partner. The Engels family was one of many merchant families who came to the city from throughout Europe and settled.

In 1844, Engels published his groundbreaking study, The Conditions of the Working Class in England. This book was largely based on his observations of the extremely harsh and often brutalised conditions facing factory workers and the unemployed in the town.

In his article on the life of Engels, written in the autumn of 1895, Vladimir Lenin wrote of the historic significance of this work: “Even before Engels, many people had described the sufferings of the proletariat and had pointed to the necessity of helping it. Engels was the first to say that the proletariat is not only a suffering class; that it is, in fact, the disgraceful economic condition of the proletariat that drives it irresistibly forward and compels it to fight for its ultimate emancipation. And the fighting proletariat will help itself. The political movement of the working class will inevitably lead the workers to realise that their only salvation lies in socialism”.

Also on display in this part of the exhibition are photographs of the terrible housing conditions where thousands of people were crammed into the tiniest of cellar hovels. Many of the poorest lived in dwellings in an area known as Little Ireland off Oxford Road to the south of the city centre. Up to 4,000 Irish immigrants lived in just 200 cottages in this slum.

Engels wrote, “The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten doorposts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

Many of these slums were beside the River Irwell that runs through the city. A panel within the exhibition shows a photograph of the river along with the comments of a Scottish observer who noted in 1845, “The River Irwell is considerable less a river than a flood of liquid manure, in which all life dies….”

Due to the widespread pollution emanating from factory chimneys, the presence of the fatal waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, the inhumane conditions of overcrowdedness and the poorest of diets, the life expectancy in the city in 1841 was just 26.6 years of age.

The second part of the review is here.

Ceremony: The journey of a statue of Friedrich Engels from Ukraine to Manchester: here.

Trains and art: here.

Horror of the Victorian ‘Baby Farms’: here.

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