Six hours in Manchester (& notes on curation)

Manchester is a ways from where I’m staying, so the train takes awhile. But six hours was enough to know I like the city. It is so exciting, so youthful, so interesting.

Manchester City Art Gallery had several pre-Raphaelite paintings I wanted to see, the most important of which was this one:

Ford Maddox Brown, Work (1852-65)

I studied this work last year as part of a class I was auditing, and really took to it. So much so that when I was in Hampstead, I went to find the street:

There were other very interesting items, including several works by Millais (the one Ruskin’s wife ran off with). But there were artists of the era that I had never heard of. This one caught my eye because of its subject matter as well as its execution:

Eyre Crow, The Dinner House, Wigan (1874)

The curator card indicated that it is indeed unusual. [I find it’s a good idea to always take a picture of the card right after photographing the work itself.]

This helped explain why the scene reminded me of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with the cigar factory women coming out into the square.

The pre-Raphaelites enjoyed the symbolism of medieval Christian art. According to the curation card, this hired shepherd is neglecting his duties, so the sheep are “blown”. I can see they look ill, they’re lying about, but I didn’t really understand what was meant: overfed? poisoned somehow?

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (1851)

So, Google: “blown sheep eating corn” (because it said they’d gotten in to the corn). I got results on modern sheep raising. How about “blown sheep eating corn pre-Raphaelite”? Aha! A book called William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism, by George P. Landow (2013). Page 39 says that Hunt’s subject is “Hogarthian” and that he explained to a J.E. Pythian (not much result there from Google – he seems to have written books on art) that it was based on a Shakespeare’s King Lear about sheep, which in this case are “doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call ‘blown’.” He also mentions that the girl is feeding the sheep sour apples.

I noticed the apples first, because to me it is also a painting about temptation and sex. They’re not just flirting — she has no shoes on. The moth is just a way for the lad to get closer to her, and the apples all over the place have something to do with Eve, tempting him from his work. This is mentioned briefly in Landow, to do with a Biblical interpretation by John Duncan Macmillan, but is dismissed.

Maybe I just interpret things differently. How about this one:

William Powell Frith, Claude Duval 1859-60

“Oh my!” (to quote books in various shades of grey).

The card says the painter was trying to show the lady as beautiful but terrified. I’d say he failed utterly. The lady looks, shall we say, erotically enchanted. She seems fascinated by the highwayman, even while her companion has swooned, criminals are running about with guns, and the older people are in states of heroic scorn or supplication. She’s ignored them all and is totally engaged, her eyes wide open. That’s why the man leaning on the chest is laughing. He’s seen this before.

Does this mean the curation is wrong? No, but it is curation. I could see both the Frith painting and the Hunt in an exhibition about lust (and not just because I’m reading the book by Simon Blackburn).

One painting actually fooled me. At the Manchester City Art Gallery, there is one anachronistic piece in each room. So, for example, there is a room full of 18th century Romneys and Reynolds, but there’s also a pot by artist and provocateur Greyson Perry. When I encountered this work by Leighton, I thought it was an anachronistic photograph with costumed actors at a fair or something — that’s how accurately it’s painted. Hard to see backlit online, but still.

Edmund Blair Leighton, Waiting for the Coach (1895)

Oh, and here’s a group of cows that looks more like a family than many families I’ve seen:

William Watson, Morning – Loch Goil (1893)

The art gallery wasn’t all we saw, of course.

Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral is fantastic, and also needs some curation because it’s been done and redone in so many different ways (partly because of the 1940 Blitz). One of the misimpressions I had about Manchester was that it really didn’t exist until industrialization brought droves of people. But it is actually quite old, and the cathedral’s base is 14th century.

The energy of Manchester is evident just walking the streets. It is a modern city, with an exciting vibe. See…

More photos…