The gift that keeps on giving: Art for All at Manchester Art Gallery

Kate Feld

Philanthropist Thomas Horsfall’s collection of prints, etchings and drawings brought learning – and trees – to inner-city Manchester.

Before mass transport, before television and mobile phones, even before photographs were widely seen, children grew up in places like Ancoats utterly disconnected from nature in a way that is now difficult to fathom. For me, the most powerful images in Manchester Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester are by James Hey Davies. His pair of simple and beautiful paintings hang side by side and show the same ash tree in winter and in summer. Thomas Horsfall wanted the children visiting his Manchester Art Museum to learn how the leaves fell from the trees in the autumn, then returned every spring – because they didn’t see trees regularly enough to understand this.

Here are some other things they didn’t see very often: Red squirrels. Rooks. Harebells. The sea. Mountains, forests, pastures full of sheep. Conkers. The Ruskinian philanthropist Horsfall filled his collection with paintings and prints, etchings and drawings of these things, even leaves and specimens under glass, so that the people of one of the most downtrodden, smog-ridden neighbourhoods of inner-city Manchester could learn about them. He wanted “to turn the names of nearly all the animals, which they read of in their school books, from empty sounds into words which call up vivid pleasant pictures before the inward eye.”

Art for All is the second changing installation in Manchester Art Gallery (formerly home to a rather dated exhibition about the city’s cultural identity). Its predecessor in the space, the unquestionably contemporary Dreams Without Frontiers, led some detractors to howl that the museum was forgetting its history. This exhibition should shut ‘em up, as history is pretty much the whole point. Manchester history. But thankfully it doesn’t have even a hint of an “eat your vegetables” feeling about it; the art has been thoughtfully chosen and presented with just the right amount of backstory.

People of Manchester’s smog-ridden neighbourhoods could learn about forests, mountains and the sea

Horsfall, a sad-eyed man with a white moustache and a determined set to his shoulders, was that rare being – someone so moved by the plight of his fellow human beings that he made doing something about it his life’s work. And it couldn’t have been easy work. Even his hero Ruskin considered working-class Mancunians beyond help, surrounded as they were by miles of brick and smoke. But with the help of his family’s cotton money, Horsfall opened a museum in Harpurhey in 1884 and moved it to Ancoats in 1886, where it remained until its closure in 1953, when its collection moved to MAG. The museum and his writings about it were both radical and hugely influential. Horsfall included art alongside displays that showed how it was made and created new, more accessible ways of labelling and arranging artworks. He lent art to schools and successfully campaigned for a new law that allowed museum visits to become part of school curriculum.

Appropriately enough, this exhibition was curated with the help of year 5 students from St. Augustine’s CE primary school in Harpurhey, whose intelligent and perceptive responses to the artworks do them credit.  The eclecticism of the works here is refreshing, spanning a multitude of styles and artforms, including some really fantastic paintings, etchings and woodcuts, alongside one or two relevant contemporary examples from the museum’s collection. A slideshow of photographs, projected in a black box space, show us the Ancoats of the time: a landscape of straight lines and squalor, terraces backing onto tips and toddlers playing on empty streets. Look at them for a while, and then go stand in front of that ash tree again.

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