By Stuart Ian Burns (feeling listless)
A couple of weeks ago on a wet Tuesday, I visited Warrington Museum and Art Gallery. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been through the doors. It’s one of the few places in Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England guide I’ve been reluctant to travel to because I’ve been through its doors before and I’ve been trying to enjoy the shock of the new as much as possible. I dropped in many times during the late nineties when I was working for Edward researching local public art (for the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association) in the adjoining library. It was a good place to get some cheap machine coffee if I needed to take a break from looking through the records.
The coffee hasn’t changed much and neither has the museum. Founded in 1848 and opened five years later by the local Town Council, it’s as much a piece of history as the objects in its care. Wood paneling and old style cabinets dominate, with hand written information cards next to the artifacts. In an age when museums are being refit left and centre attempting to get away from the culture of simply showing a myriad ethnographic examples, it’s quite surprising to find a place standing still, maintaining its traditional style, a perfect way for curatorial students to see what the museums of yesteryear were like. Please don’t see that as a criticism; one of the best rooms at the British Museum is the antiquated Enlightenment which offers the chance for the visitor to discover the marvelous without them being highlighted to readily. Warrington offers that journey across an entire collection.
The art gallery extension was built in 1875 to ’77 essentially, according to Edward, to house a single sculpture – John Warrington Wood’s milk white marble St Michael Overcoming Satan, which can be seen just inside the front door. Wood was a Warrington boy, and though he spent his formative working years in Rome it’s just right that his labour should be represented. There’s no entrance hall as such or at all in fact. A stairwell essentially, with a lift at the centre. But the thing you really notice is how acoustically distracting the building is. I could hear the staff chatting loudly two floors up and a visiting school group trudging about, which isn’t exactly conducive to looking at art. Deep breath. Sigh.
There are three particular display sections. This section of the building has been refit slight since I last visited, the temporary exhibition space slightly more ‘modern’ than before and the mezzanine floor above more prominent to the eye. Warrington’s School of Art was one of the best in the country and its most successful period was in the 1860s under brilliantly named headmaster J. Christmas Thompson. It’s this work which is collected up there and you can see why the students achieved more scholarships than most other art schools of the time.
Henry Woods’s First Communion Vale is a Technicolor feast capturing a Mediterranean view of two girls chatting whilst one sews the titular garment. It’s a pleasingly odd composition – the faces aren’t entire realistic and the background is positively impressionistic. Also worth spending time with is a sculpture, Guinevere’s Redeeming by William Reynolds Stephens lustrously developed in bronze, ivory and enamel. It wonders if Arthur’s queen did indeed bring down Camelot and she’s seen trying to make amends for her deeds by returning Excalibur to its rightful owner.
The most interesting pictures on the floor are from Thomas Birtles, some photographs of old Warrington. There’s the Manchester Ship Canal under construction and more atmospherically Eagle and Child Yard, Formerly Patten’s Lane, Looking East to Bridge Street. This isn’t mere reportage. It’s a view from a dusty yard into the world beyond, teasing the viewer with a slight image of women in the fashions of the time and the world of the past beyond. If anything it reminds me of Nicholas Middleton’s John Moores entry from 2006, Scene From a Contemporary Novel which showed a similarly ugly part of the city invigorated by the some striking lighting.
There’s no delicate way of saying the following so I’ll just blurt it out. The rest of the fine art collection is maddeningly displayed in the stairwell and particularly the one you’re greeted by at the entrance. A recent re-hang also meant that none of them were labeled and so my ability to offer a commentary is pretty foggy. There’s a nicely turned out painting of a girl popping some peas in a pink top but I couldn’t tell you who it’s by. I also liked the Daughter of the Lagoons by Luke Filder enough to write the title down, but I think by this stage in the visit, the background noise from everywhere had become so intense there wasn’t much I could do. Once everything’s sorted out in a couple of weeks I’m sure this will be fine.
Luckily though, and to end on a positive note, I think I’d already seen the best paintings before stepping onto the mezzanine. Walter Langley’s Between the Tides shows a woman leaning over a rail to talk to a rather stereotypical looking fisherman at some docks which is ironic because you also have to lean over a rail to see it. Above the stairs is Fair Quiet and Sweet Rest by Sir Luke Fildes, an idyllic scene of what looks like two couples rowing slowly across a river, singing and taking in the swans and lilly pads – that I can describe the speed they travelling in shows how perfectly the artist captures their movement. It’s Jean Renoir’s short film Partie de Campagne rendered in oil. Remarkable.