Many of us will be familiar with Manchester’s industrial heritage but did you know that Manchester once staged the greatest temporary art exhibition the country, and possibly even the world, has ever seen?
The Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 showcased over 16,000 items of art including paintings, sculpture, photographs, illuminated manuscripts, china, glass, tapestry, armour and furniture.
All the items were loaned from private collections from all over Great Britain, so many had never before been seen by the general public, even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loaned works of art and enthusiastically endorsed the exhibition.
So just how did Manchester, the leading city of the Industrial Revolution, become a destination for art and culture that would influence both the display of art in the future and its accessibility to the public?
Firstly, Manchester received its status as a city in 1853 and some of the leading businessmen were interested in art and keen to create a cultured reputation for their new city.
A book had been published in 1854 by art historian, Dr Gustav Waagen, that detailed all the treasures of art within Great Britain and highlighted the fact that they were hidden from public view. After reading the book, John Connellan Deane, a member of the Society of Arts, had the idea of approaching the owners of the art works (all listed by Waagen) to ask them to loan their items for a grand exhibition in Manchester.
Deane proposed his idea in a letter to Thomas Fairbairn, a well connected Manchester industrialist, who was also an art enthusiast. Fairbairn spread the word and soon there was much interest and excitement around the city.
Some of the wealthier Mancunians had visited grand exhibitions of culture and industry in other major cities, including The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London (1851) and similar exhibitions in Paris and Dublin, and so they thought, why not Manchester too?
Although there was no public money available to fund the venture, very soon around a hundred enthusiastic and wealthy Mancunians had collectively pledged £74,000 to enable the project to get underway.
A general committee and executive committee was formed in May 1856 and together they planned and organised the exhibition which would open twelve months later. A location away from the polluted air of the city centre was chosen, next to the Botanic Gardens, Old Trafford (on the road to Stretford) , which was also convenient for the railway. A construction company was contracted to build a temporary iron-and-glass structure similar to the Crystal Palace and the railway company began the construction of a new station (approximately where Trafford Bar is today) that would be used by the thousands of visitors from the city and from further afield on organised excursions.
The exhibition was open for 142 days and attracted more than 1.3 million visitors (including royalty and celebrities) which was about four times the population of Manchester at that time. Amongst the 16,000 works were paintings by modern British artists and old European masters including: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and Hogarth.
The display of paintings was carefully considered and became the model for the display of art in public galleries which remains to this day. They were arranged in chronological order and divided into geographical categories with Italian art on one wall and other nations opposite. This enabled the viewer to learn about the development of art practice over time as well as being able to compare across regions.
Music was also a highlight at the Art Treasures Palace. Charles Hallé was invited to assemble and lead an orchestra to perform a daily concert and organ recital. His orchestra was a huge success with the Manchester Guardian declaring the farewell concert to be ‘the best instrumental concert ever given in Manchester’.
Following the closure of the exhibition, Hallé convinced his orchestra members to stay on in Manchester and within a few months he launched a series of concerts in his own name and the world famous Hallé Orchestra was born.
There were many published responses to the Art Treasures Exhibition from catalogues, to poetry to humorous tales. Tennyson Longfellow Smith produced a book with poetry and sketches inspired by several of the paintings:
‘Tom Treddlehoyle’s Peep at T’Manchister Art Treasures Exhebishan’ tells the story of Tom’s visit to Manchester and was one of several dialect guides produced at the time. The original text has recently been digitised and can be borrowed for free as an e-book from Manchester Libraries.
The Art Treasures Exhibition was a huge success for Manchester and you can now find out more about it at Central Library in the Radical Manchester section of the Archives+ exhibition. Many of the records from the Art Treasures Exhibition are stored in the Manchester Archives (ref: GB127.M6/2) and there are several publications in the special collections connected to the event, as well as books about the exhibition in the library’s local studies section. To see more of the exhibition’s archives online visit the Art Treasures flickr album.