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Manchester Art Gallery looks after nearly 50,000 items of fine art, design and costume. It was founded in 1882, with a handful of oil paintings and sculpture gifted from the Royal Manchester Institution. Now the gallery cares for a varied collection on behalf of the people of Manchester. Displays draw from fine holdings of 19th-and 20th-century British paintings, 17th-century Dutch paintings, silver, furniture, ceramics, clothing, and more.


Art Unlocked is an online talk series by Art UK in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This Curation is based on a talk by Hannah Williamson, Curator, Fine Art, on 19th October 2022. You can find a recording at https://youtu.be/CKToK_upKIA

6 artworks
  • Ira Aldridge, renowned Shakespearian actor, is in character. His eyes express the mistrust of Othello with their jealous glance to the side.


    This was the first picture acquired by the Royal Manchester Institution (RMI). They purchased it from their first exhibition in 1827, noting it simply as the ‘best executed’ work in the show.


    In later years mythical reasons for the purchase developed. Manchester enjoyed feeling that it had always supported enslaved people. New-York born Aldridge was known for his anti-slavery campaigning on stage, so it is possible that the RMI had this political stance in mind. If so, they did not make this explicit.

    Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice 1826
    James Northcote (1746–1831)
    Oil on canvas
    H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice
    Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • The artist spent time in residence in a factory that makes steel enclosures: metal boxes to house street-side electricals, meter box covers, etc. The firm, Ritherdon & Co. Ltd, spray coat their products with powder pigment. Any powder remaining in the booth at the end of the day is ‘dead powder’.


    Ritherdon’s exemplary factory system became important to the artist. The title ‘Yellow’ comes from the colour of the button that resets the pump in the paint shop.


    This is one of the most recent paintings acquired by Manchester Art Gallery. It was a gift from the Manchester Contemporary Art Fund, a group of contemporary philanthropists. Philanthropy is the key to a public collection – both in Ira Aldridge’s and Nicola Ellis’s times.

    Dead Powder Series: Yellow 2019
    Nicola Ellis (b.1987)
    Dead powder & mild steel
    H 70 x W 91 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    Dead Powder Series: Yellow
    © the artist. Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • I imagine Gluck would have felt uncomfortable with this free-for-all way of viewing her work. She wanted total control of her paintings, even inventing a special system to make her canvases seem to float framelessly. This was achieved by painting stepped-profile frames the same colour as the walls.
    The lilac and guelder rose are arranged in the spectacular style of Constance Spry, florist to the rich and famous. She and Gluck were close friends, and lovers. The cool harmonies of these flowers bely the intensity of feeling which Gluck put into the painting of them.


    Our enjoyment of this serene and shining painting today is thanks to Gluck’s mother. Estranged from her daughter, she purchased and donated the work anonymously.

    Lilac and Guelder Rose
    Gluck (1895–1978)
    Oil on canvas
    H 109.2 x W 109.3 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    Lilac and Guelder Rose
    © the artist's estate. Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • The Hireling Shepherd

    Hunt wished to show the fleshy reality of his shepherd and shepherdess. He gave them robust sinews and rosy cheeks as a direct challenge to art-historical convention. No pale elegance here!


    Sometimes it is easy to forget that paintings we now think of as ‘old favourites’ were difficult to stomach when new. Certainly the Pre-Raphaelites did not come easy to Manchester. In 1851 Hunt was advised by Art-Treasures exhibition organiser Thomas Fairbairn not to use the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ when up North. It was just too ridiculous.


    I still find this painting a stomach-challenger. It’s not the raunchy pose that upsets me, but the garish shade of green, and the intensity of focus on every blade of grass.

    The Hireling Shepherd 1851
    William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)
    Oil on canvas
    H 76.4 x W 109.5 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    The Hireling Shepherd
    Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • We are looking into the window of the ‘Puss in Boots’ shoe shop window in Dieppe, northern France. Or, at least, that is the window, but there are no shoes. And are we even looking in? Perhaps the jug on the table is in front of the writing on the window? And why is there a disembodied head on the left? Is it Barbara Hepworth standing beside us? What’s going on with the different planes of vision here?


    Well, I can’t answer those questions, although I enjoy the focussing and refocussing of my eyes in trying to work through them. That’s what we are increasingly about at Manchester Art Gallery: not telling answers, but enjoying the questioning and interacting that art can bring.

    1932 (Au Chat Botté) 1932
    Ben Nicholson (1894–1982)
    Oil & pencil on canvas
    H 92.3 x W 122 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    1932 (Au Chat Botté)
    © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • What connects my curation is that all six works chosen are part of a display entitled ‘What is Manchester Art Gallery?’ For many people in Manchester, Adolphe Valette’s works are a big part of the answer to this question. The Gallery has the best of his oil paintings: the series of cityscapes made between 1908 and 1912.


    Valette painted a busy, dirty city. The River Medlock in 1912 was a heap of mud, rats and litter (still is, in parts). India House was a packing warehouse (it’s apartments now) and this view is of the unornamented back of it.


    But what we see is what the artist wants us to see: a melancholy Impressionist dreamscape. That’s the power of art, people: with it, we can see the world differently.

    India House, Manchester 1912
    Adolphe Valette (1876–1942)
    Oil on jute
    H 142.4 x W 86.1 cm
    Manchester Art Gallery
    India House, Manchester
    Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery