Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Accidental Day-Trip Part 2: History & Art in Manchester (For Free!)

Initially, I feared I might end up wandering around the city aimlessly, which now seems completely unfounded and a little silly. Last minute requests for recommendations on what to do and where to drink left me with a list so long that I can now plan a week-long excursion to the city and still have things left over. With less than a day to get around, and a rainy few hours at that, I had to prioritize. 

Manchester Town Hall

Hitting every single bar and pub I'd been suggested would have led to nothing but my own untimely demise, so I decided to spend most of my day post-lunch taking in some art and culture instead. After all, there'd be time for drinks after. Eventually, I decided to visit two of the better-loved indoor locations within the city centre, which came with the added bonus of having free entry. The first was the John Rylands Library, which took a decade to build and was opened to the public on the 1st of January 1900. It's a rather magnificent Gothic structure that had been commissioned by his widow Enriqueta, who also oversaw every single interior detail and the amassing of the library's early collection. 

John Rylands Library Exterior

The Library merged with that of the University of Manchester in the 1970s, but it remains open to visitors at its Deansgate location. I borrowed one of the free audio-guides from the reception desk at the entrance of the Library, which was fairly informative. There are a number of exhibitions held in the various rooms showcasing the highlights of the collection, and the current special exhibition commemorates the centenary of the First World War. What I really enjoyed were the interactive displays I saw, with material regarding medieval bookmaking and a fully digitized copy of an illustrated Book of Job. There are also bits of art scattered all over the premises, including these stained glass stickers that had been coloured in by local schoolchildren to promote the Library's latest colouring book. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

John Rylands had been a cotton magnate and the city's richest man, and with the bequest he left her, Enriqueta invested in building something lasting and beautiful that would benefit the city. As the stories go, Enriqueta Rylands clashed with the architect she'd hired, Basil Champneys, over artistic aspects of the building, commissioning statues and stained glass against his wishes. What she ordered was eventually used though, and looking at it today you can't help but marvel at her impeccable attention to detail. Along this corridor for instance, each stained glass flower comes in a different colour. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

Champneys' own skills as an artist are nothing to be sniffed at either. The Library's original entrance is full of beautiful, sweeping high ceilings. (Be careful not to walk into other visitors when you're gazing upwards though.) It's easy to see the neo-Gothic grandiosity of the building and immediately think "Former Church!", but from the very beginning it's been a library. Given that its collection is largely about religion though, the rather evocative ecclesiastical design isn't very out of place. One of the Library's most famous exhibits is a papyrus fragment of St. John's Gospel, the earliest known surviving piece of the New Testament.

The John Rylands Library Manchester

One of the statues ordered by Enriqueta Rylands was John Cassidy's Theology Directing the Labours of Science and the Arts. The original sketch was rather boringly of each figure standing in their own niche, and she asked for it to be changed, resulting in this far more dynamic group piece. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

The John Rylands Library was a terribly modern building for its time, being the first in Manchester to be entirely powered by electricity, and even having an air-filtration system to keep out the industrial pollution of the rest of the city. The original Victorian loos are also still in working order, and can be visited, even used! Because they're functional toilets though, ladies and gents have to go to their respective ones. If you're curious about how the other half live, the audio guide provides pretty in-depth commentary. Back at the turn of the 20th century, they didn't expect there would be many women visiting the Library, so the toilet has a pretty limited number of cubicles. (Especially compared to the men's, which, according to the audio guide, is vast.) Lots of clothing hooks though. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

The Library's instituted a new system of visitor tagging for a limited time, and at various points inside you can pick up a paper tag and scribble down your thoughts on any object or view that particularly catches your eye. You then have to leave the tag at the place you've found most interesting. Eventually all these tags will be gathered up by the Library staff, but it's also quite fun for the rest of the visitors to go around to see what others have enjoyed. The most-tagged location was on the stairwell, with multiple slips of paper just saying "Look up!" 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

It was like gazing up at the sun. Or at least, like a very grand, far more stunning and much more intricate version of the suns I drew as a child. The dome above the stairway has a further series of arches stretching out below it that resemble sunbeams. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

Around the doorway to the Historic Reading Room are a number of stone reliefs, including this Green Man. Different Green Men have been carved into churches and cathedrals all over Europe, a left-over from the previous religions. This one looked a little like a lion, and his fangs and overall demeanour were supposed to ward off evil spirits. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

The rest of the Library is fairly quiet, but there's a special hush over the Reading Room, which is lined with statues of famous early printers who made the Bible more accessible to a wider group of people, Protestant theologians and important figures from the arts, literature and science. Marble statues of John and Enriqueta Rylands look over the Reading Room, facing each other. The stained glass windows on the North side include figures of Christian characters from the Bible to early modern theologians, while the South side features secular thinkers, artists and writers including Aristotle. You can study in the Reading Room, with its plush seats and wide working tables. It made me a little sad, how much less soul-sucking it felt compared to the LSE Library. 

The John Rylands Library Manchester

In the run-up to Easter, the Library is part of the Passion Art trail, which visually explores the Easter Passion story and artists' interpretations of its narrative of persecution and forgiveness, death, grief and new life. This piece was done by Lesley Sutton and Rachel James, and the thousand paper butterflies cut from old hymn and prayer books rising from an open Bible symbolize resurrection and hope.  

The John Rylands Library Manchester

My next stop was the Manchester Art Gallery as Mike the bartender from the Manchester House Lounge had suggested (Thanks Mike!), which was a short walk away on Mosley Street. One of their current exhibitions focuses on Thomas Horsfall's collection for the 19th Century Manchester Art Museum, which was set up to enable even the poorer parts of society to experience beauty on a regular basis. Bits of his philosophy on Beauty and Life ("If we have a strong love of beauty, the most beautiful things we see become part of ourselves") can be found on the walls. Although they sound like the sort of over-wrought things you can so easily find on Instagrammed sunsets online, Horsfall really lived what he believed in, and shared his joy in beauty with the people around him. I can respect that. Interestingly, because he had limited resources, he purchased quite a number of works by female artists (They commanded far less per piece because professional painting was not the done thing for women), and some of their exquisite watercolours are now on display.  

Manchester Art Gallery

The Gallery is hosting an exhibition by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, and as part of the show her works can be found all over the building. This is Britannia 2014, which covers all three floors of the Central Atrium. While a lot of her work is influenced by Portuguese culture (The tassels are Portuguese for instance), given Manchester's historical connection with the textile industry, the constructions of cotton, lace, wool and other fabrics feels particularly resonant here. 

Manchester Art Gallery

Her pieces are riotously colourful, and draped around this gallery, the result was a very happy looking space. More sombre pieces can be found in other rooms, but like the horse head covered in black lace, they still add a touch of whimsy. The art gallery's permanent collection includes a number of pieces by the Pre-Raphaelites, and I spent a good long while looking at Millais' Autumn Leaves

Manchester Art Gallery

For those wanting a more hands on experience, the Clore Art Studio inside the Gallery is the place to go. The place is perfect for families and very child-friendly, and the ongoing theme is sculpting small statues out of various materials. There's a small desk off to the side for people to do their preliminary sketches, but a lot of people had other uses for the colouring pencils in mind. One rather hardcore young fan left behind a little piece of graffiti on a clipboard for instance. It might become part of an exhibit one day. 

Manchester Art Gallery

I wandered till the announcements came that the gallery would be closing in less than fifteen minutes, and after a last burst around their collection of applied arts, I left to grab a drink at Under New Management. It was exactly 5 pm after all.

Manchester Art Gallery


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