Wednesday, November 14, 2007

“The Greatest Show on Earth” : Manchester 1857

Lindsay Duguid in the TLS recounts “The Greatest Show on Earth” in Manchester 1857:

Two suits of sixteenth-century armour, positioned between a television screen and an information panel at the entrance to this new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, are the guardians of a display that leads the visitor into a double past. Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on contains 160 works of art from an earlier, grander show, held in 1857 with the plain but ambitious title, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom. What we see today gives some idea of the serious nature of that assembly. Italian Old Masters, Dutch genre paintings, portraits by Reynolds and Lawrence, landscapes by Turner and Constable, Pre-Raphaelite narrative pictures, watercolours and art photography are austerely hung alongside cabinets full of a somewhat miscellaneous selection of medieval ivories, majolica, Venetian glass, Chinese and Sèvres porcelain. Objects such as Lucrezia Borgia’s mirror and the “Cellini Shield” give the impression of an eclectic, connoisseurial country-house collection.

This cannot have been the effect of the original show, which was on an industrial scale: over 16,000 works housed in a 700-foot-long specially designed iron and glass pavilion in the botanical gardens on the outskirts of the city. From May to October, the 1.3 million visitors who arrived at Old Trafford by train were catered for by several classes of dining room and entertained by a small orchestra conducted by Charles Hallé. The official opening was attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and there was a good deal of press coverage of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, ranging from pious editorials to facetious commentaries written in dialect (Tom Treddlehoyle’s “A Peep at t’Manchister Art Treasures Exhebishan”) and comical cartoons. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mrs Gaskell visited often; Ruskin lectured on art versus commerce; Disraeli compared Manchester to Renaissance Florence in The Times; and Engels wrote enthusiastically to Marx: “you and your wife ought to come up this summer and see the thing”. Conceived as a response to the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855, and put together in fourteen months, it was a feat of organization and a demonstration of civic pride – just as this well-curated, unpatronizing show is perhaps a nod in the direction of Liverpool, whose year as European City of Culture begins in January 2008.

It acts as a sort of time capsule, providing evidence of its phantom predecessor, which itself was a demonstration of a new attitude to great art. In today’s aesthetically spare galleries, the blown-up photographs from 1857 show canvases in heavy frames hung three or four deep up to the vaulted ceiling, aisles full of marble statues, and well-dressed gentlefolk in sociable groups. The works were originally uncaptioned, the catalogue merely listing title and artist’s name (though Prince Albert, the exhibition’s patron, had insisted on the innovative, chronological arrangement of the exhibits). The year 1857, just six years after Turner’s death, twenty after Constable’s, saw the start of Constable’s rise to pre-eminence and the height of veneration for such “Modern Masters” as William Etty (fourteen works on display then, one now), Edwin Landseer (twenty-three reduced to one) and Holman Hunt (five reduced to one). Henry Wallis’s “Death of Chatterton”, painted the previous year, was voted the most popular modern painting. Space was found for “An Episode in the Happier Days of King Charles I”, 1853, by Frederick Goodall, still a stirring sight, and William Mulready’s “The Wolf and the Lamb”, 1821, still a puzzle.

Among the visitors, Tennyson might have admired Arthur Hughes’s new work, “April Love”, the inspiration for which had been his 1832 poem “The Miller’s Daughter”, and the subject of Thomas Lawrence’s “Portrait of Georgina Maria Leicester, as Hope”, 1811, was able as an elderly matron to admire the image of her younger self, just as that artist began the long decline in his posthumous reputation. Some attributions have not stuck; what was thought to be a Giotto is now firmly assigned to Spinello Aretino; the Duccio is really a Sano di Pietro; the Duke of Newcastle’s Correggio is now labelled as by Francesco Furini. The original lenders – nearly a thousand of them who sent their works, uninsured, out of a spirit of patriotism and philanthropy – were in many cases private individuals, whose treasures are now in museums and art galleries (the Royal collections, Christ Church, Oxford, and the Royal Academy have been able to hold on to theirs). A map in the final room shows how, in later years, many of the original exhibits were sold on across the world: a Titian to Boston, a Rembrandt to New York, Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” to San Marino, California, a Rubens to Cologne. Not long after the exhibition closed with its profit of £304, and the pavilion was taken down, the great dispersal from British private collections began.