Once upon a Victorian time, Manchester was a city of cotton mills. Viewed from the lush surrounding countryside, it must have looked like a kingdom of smoke, an infinite belch of chimneys, unsightly, uncivilised and unapologetically leering at the fields springing forth their wildflowers. It was a city that had seemingly turned its back on nature in the pursuit of profit.
Between the mills and their jerry-built housing, the working poor of Manchester had little time for leisure, and neither the energy nor the opportunity to acquire an education. They could not advance in society or make a name for themselves. There was every chance that the city would hem them in for a lifetime, that things like fields and flowers would never be known.
Enter Thomas Coglan Horsfall.
Thomas Horsfall was one of those extraordinarily dutiful Victorians you read about who spent their lives trying to improve the lot of others. The son of a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer, he was excused from playing an active role in his father’s business due to poor health. He would have known that view of Manchester, set like a piece of coal in the wider emerald landscape – he owed his fortune to it – but he was a man of feeling, and amid the city’s grime and smoke he was determined to plant a wildflower of his own.
Inspired by the teachings of his contemporary John Ruskin, the famous art-philanthropist, he used his wealth and the gift of time to set up an art museum for the poor, the Manchester Art Museum, in 1884. This new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester, is a tribute to Horsfall and his legacy.
Horsfall viewed art not merely as something beautiful but as a civilising force. In 1883, he wrote a book called The Study of Beauty. It is the work of a man who believed that the quality of what we see is as important as the air we breathe, that beautiful art may transmit itself to the core of our being and imprint itself on our subsequent thoughts and feelings. In establishing the Manchester Art Museum, Horsfall hoped that by encountering beautiful objects the poor might find some respite from their bleak lives, that beauty might kindle an aspiration for self-improvement and educate them about life beyond the mills.
Horsfall knew that this high ideal of enlightening the poor through art should be supplemented with communal activities, and the museum regularly hosted musical and theatrical performances, gave readings and lectures and provided classes in woodcarving, painting and drawing. From the beginning, Manchester Art Museum went beyond the remit of mere guardians of a static collection. It was a place of education and engagement; a refuge from vice, a sanctuary from despair.
The exhibits on display in this lovely exhibition are a ‘best of’ the Manchester Art Museum’s collection (the museum closed in 1953 and its collection transferred to Manchester Art Gallery). There is also a slideshow (best viewed first) that provides a jolting visual reference for the philanthropic reasoning behind Horsfall’s venture, comprising startling images of the people and landscapes of Ancoats (to where the museum moved in 1886), Harpurhey and central Manchester, taken at the time of the museum (these images and many more are available on the Manchester Local Image Collection website).
Appropriately, the exhibition strongly reflects Horsfall’s love of nature and includes works in various mediums by artists celebrated and unknown. Alongside etchings of Turner landscapes, a lovely preparatory drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a copy of Holman Hunt’s The Triumph of the Innocents (donated by Ruskin) are some beautiful wildflower watercolours by Elizabeth Redgrave (a governess); a charming guide to marine life printed on a cotton handkerchief (designer unknown); an unfinished oak woodcut of a peony (artist unknown) and many other fine examples of natural history-inspired art. The hand-carved oak frame of The Triumph of the Innocents in particular symbolises Horsfall’s ideal of humble artisanship, crafted as it was in London’s poor East End by the kind of men Horsfall hoped to inspire in Manchester.
Horsfall firmly believed that art education for children was the surest means of securing permanent social change among the poor. With this in mind, he obtained an amendment to the Education Code permitting parties of schoolchildren to visit museums during school hours. In honour of this achievement, and his concern for the young generally, Manchester Art Gallery have ‘done a Horsfall’ and excelled themselves by reaching out to the community and enlisting the year 5 children of St. Augustine’s CE Primary School in Harpurhey as exhibition co-curators. Many of the artworks on display were chosen by the children, and their imaginative interpretations make for fascinating commentary alongside the gallery’s comparatively more formal descriptions.
It’s difficult for us to imagine the impact Manchester Art Museum must have had on minds so unaccustomed to colour and beautiful forms. Horsfall’s great achievement was to make the luxury that is art available to Manchester’s poor – and especially children – in the hope of fostering an interest in the world around them. With this exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery and the children of St. Augustine’s CE Primary School have gone a long way in capturing the essence of Thomas Horsfall’s philanthropic ideals.
Review by Matthew Graham
What: Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester
Where: Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester city centre
When: until June 8, 2014