It’s easy to forget but often the remarkable can be right under your nose, overlooked beneath the day-to-day dazzle that clamours to distract your attention.
These days, its once-magnificent docks have been somewhat subsumed into the waterfront flash of Salford Quays, but the Manchester Ship Canal remains a tremendous a feat of civil engineering. Opened in 1894, it extends a back-breaking 36 miles of hard labour from the docks at Salford to its beginnings at Eastham Locks.
Curated by Martin Dodge, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Manchester, the Central Library’s latest ground floor exhibition, celebrating the canal’s striking promotional material drafted largely in the period between the two world wars, is the result of a sequence of fortuitous happenstance, decades apart. The contents of the ship canal’s King Street offices were salvaged thanks to a last-gasp telephone call to Central Library on its last day of operations in 1983, only to be rediscovered, still boxed up and uncatalogued, in the library’s archives two years ago.
Mainly produced on the watch of Manchester Ship Canal Company’s publicity chief, the Belfast-born Kenneth Russell Brady, the exhibition brings together the work of nine commercial artists. Brady, who joined the then Manchester Guardian in 1909, had a keen instinct for branding, devising a series of boldly stylised logos based on the distinctive silhouette of Salford Docks, as well as an eye for fostering talent, drawing upon a pool of younger designers, many of them Manchester-based.
Among the most gifted of these was Fallowfield’s Paxton Chadwick, a graduate of the Manchester School of Art, whose ship’s prow in anarchist black and red cuts a strikingly modernist swathe through its factory landscape. Cecil King also makes use of the potency of shipping as an image of progress’s impetus, having an ice-breaker plough the rival port of Liverpool aside in his image for The Overland Sea Route To The Heart Of Industrial Britain. Meanwhile, Bert Wilson, a pupil of Adolphe Valette, who also painted his portrait, is represented here by his wonderfully composed covers, making use of blocks of colour or greyscale, for the Textile Mercury and a special supplement of the Manchester Guardian.
The fascination of the art speaks for itself, but equally reanimates the personalities of the artists who fashioned it, some of whom lived out biographies just as colourful as their work. Brady, for instance, survived being gassed during World War One while Chadwick, an interpreter in the Soviet-occupied sector of Germany at the end of World War Two, became a Communist. A world away from the Port of Manchester, the latter also cultivated a successful career as an illustrator of books on natural history.
Norman Shacklock, represented here by his watercolour cover illustration for the En Route To Manchester publicity booklet, went on to trace the kind of path through life that cries out for a filmed biography. Leading a second life in London as the bohemian David Wilde, he tried his hand at metaphysical poetry and a more singular industrial art somewhat after the Vorticist school, while his surrealist erotica was, at one time, exhibited alongside Picasso and Dali. Even his death is shrouded in mysterious circumstances, succumbing to a sudden illness while purportedly working to expose alleged ‘secret societies’.
Like his eight contemporaries, he was there all along, waiting to be brought back into the light. Who’s to say what other stories could be discovered if you just follow your nose?
Main image: A pictorial map of the Manchester Ship Canal drawn by commercial artist Richard Lloyd Jones. The map was produced as publicity for the Civic Week festival held in Manchester in October 1926.
Marketing The Manchester Ship Canal is at Manchester’s Central Library until January 15, 2024. For more information, click here.