Visit to Rochdale Gallery

Visit to Rochdale Gallery by Stuart Ian Burns

Having booked my birthday on Wednesday this week as a holiday from work, I’ve decided to turn these three days into a mini-holiday and more specifically an art odyssey. So today, I decided to travel out to Rochdale Art Gallery to carry on my tour of the art museums listed in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Collections in North-West England. The gallery opened at the turn of the last century and was paid for after a penny was added to local tax (based on an amendment to a bill for the acquisition of a local tram service).

Designed by Jesse Horsfield, it was originally an extension to the local library, although that’s now housed in a local shopping centre and the gallery and a museum fill the whole building, which has recently been renamed Touchstones, three gallery spaces on the top floor and the local history collection on the ground. The collection has been gathered from a range of bequests and gifts, from the likes of local manufacturers (Rochdale was a mill town) and includes work by Edward Stott, J.W. Waterhouse, Augustus John, Arthur Hacker and Giovanni di Paolo.

All of which I read in Edward’s book and was suitably excited by the time I reached the gallery which is situated on The Esplanades, about a mile away from the railway station and nearly opposite the Town Hall (more on which later). After making myself more comfortable (if you see what I mean) I returned to the reception desk to check that the permanent collection was on display, fearing a repeat of what happened at Stalybridge. I’d checked the website beforehand and everything seemed hunky-dory.

There attendant suddenly looked very apologetic and began to explain. They usually have the permanent collection on display, but they’re undergoing building work at the moment which means they’ve had to close the room which usually displays the permanent collection, and it just happened to coincide with their annual people’s exhibition so that’s what’s on display instead. This was turning into a repeat of what happened in Stalybridge.

‘Oh’ I said. Actually what I said something like ‘Ooooooah!’ but that looks silly when you try and put it on screen. I also did a silly skip on the spot too.
‘Sorry.’ He said, genuinely apologetically.
‘Oh well.’ I continued.

Just because, I brought out Edward’s book which I carry with me on these trips and showed him the entry on the gallery which he was very excited about seeing. I told him I was visiting for the day from Liverpool and well, did what I usually do in these situations which is talk, feeling like I needed to do something having traveled all of the way to the gallery even if it was to talk about what I’d missed. Then a very unusual thing happened.

He suggested that perhaps I could visit the gallery’s store room and see the paintings down there instead and began to check a staff sheet to see if there was anyone down there who could let us in. He said that they’d often make arrangements by appointment for people to see individual works and that since I’d traveled so far it seemed a shame if I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Inevitably there wasn’t anyone in but that didn’t stop him.

A woman walked through who looked like she could be one of the gallery’s curators and he asked if it would be ok to take me down. She asked some questions, I told her the story, talked about the book again I think, and after she reminded me it was a working space, I noted that I’d worked at The Walker Art Gallery which seemed to reassure her. All the while, I’m saying that I didn’t want to put anyone out and if I couldn’t it was fine, really.

After an initial accidental tour around the staff rooms I eventually waited in the People’s Art 2007 whilst a key and supervision possibly was found and then it was down into the store. This is actually the third store I’ve visited. At Tate Liverpool it’s more of way-station, somewhere for the works to go after transit and before they appear in the white cube spaces. The Walker’s store (at least when I was there) was massive; and you could also see that the very best of the work was on the walls.

On this occasion I really felt like was being taken to somewhere special. I felt like I was in come kind of picture montage in a Stephen Poliakoff production, being taken on a journey through history. As I stepped carefully about the space, racks were pulled out for me to have a look at, a collage of images one on top of the other, really extraordinary and surprising paintings from artists I’d never heard of but each with their own brilliant quirks.

Three paintings of cardinals in various states of relaxation, one with his feet up smoking a cigar, his red cowl flowing about his shoulders. An Elizabethan woman, the colour of her face faded from history to match the lace of her shirt. An artist sitting defeated before a canvas, his painting materials thrown on a bed, a concerned friend standing in his doorway perhaps. A table filled with fruit and aluminium cups rendered vividly in pointillism.

I couldn’t help but talk some more. I enthused, a lot, each new work leading to another gasp from the place where I was standing. There most reputed work is ‘A Special Pleader’ by Charles Burton Barber which has appeared on biscuit tins and greetings cards and depicts a little girl hiding in a corner and what must be her pet collie, in other words children and animals the two things I don’t usually love in paintings but this is stunning, the fur on the dogs back and the little girl’s face, brimming with fear.

Suitably humbled I thanked everyone and thanked them again. Then I visited the tourist information and museum shop and was surprised again. I asked the clerk what the local attractions where and she described the lake and the local museum to the co-operative movement (sadly closed today) and the town hall. She said it was a shame that I hadn’t visited on a Friday because they had tours and then said that if I was visiting she’d phone ahead and see if I could be shown the great hall at least which is something they could do for people who’d traveled such a long way.

I was going to visit the Town Hall anyway to see the portrait of Gracie Fields which is in the entrance hall. Gracie was born over a fish & chip shop in the town and would go on to have career in music hall and films and entertain the troops during World War Two. She’s best known for singing ‘Sally’ in the film Sally in Our Alley and not to see something connected with her would be like a tourist visiting Liverpool and ignoring the contribution Gerry Marsden made to the city (amongst a few others).

The portrait has Fields sitting in a pose not unlike Whistler’s mother. She looks still, calm and reflective. It does however look just slightly out of place in the Hall’s interior which looks for all the world like a medieval church and in fact like The John Rylands library in Manchester. It was created WH Crossland, who also built the Royal Holloway College in London and it does have that kind of feel, all cloisters and carvings and academia.

After paying my respects to Gracie I went to the reception and mentioned the phone call. The receptionist found an attendant who took me up the main hall and once again I was gasping. This massive space looks like the inspiration for the great hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films that is also a comparison which cheapens what this is. Stone walls give way to wooden carvings as you look into the sky, the walls painted white with gold patterning, the ceiling guarded by giant wooden angels, their wings almost filling the space above.

If that wasn’t impressive enough on one wall is a pipe organ and on the other a giant mural depicting the signing of the Magna Carta at what looks like an altar increasing the church feeling. It looks like its been influenced by The Last Supper, which Leonardo painted to continue into two dimensions the space of the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The historical theme is continued in the stained glass, reputed to be the best in Europe which shows the succession of English monarchs and lord protectors from 1066 onwards – which would be a wonderful way of teaching kids about the history of their country.

So all in all it’s been a really surprising day and what I loved was that after being greeted with shrugs at so many other of these galleries when I’ve asked about the collections I was greeted in Rochdale by staff who just seemed so pleased that someone would take the trouble to travel to see what they had to offer, saw that I really cared and did their best to make it accessible. I’ve promised to return to the gallery when the building work is complete, hopefully on a Friday so that I can take the Town Hall’s tour. It seemed like the very least I could do.