So, where were we? Ah, yes, that’s right, Carboniferous Sandstone. What, not read Part One? You can find it right here. Go on, we’ll wait.
All done? Right. Off we go. Back in time again to the Georgian Era; Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Napoleonic Wars, Corn Laws, Peterloo and, if you’re really good, you might get a little more geology, too.
Manchester Art Gallery, as we know it, had its origins with three Manchester artists, William Brigham, Frank Stone and David Parry. In 1823 the pals popped over to Leeds to see (~deep breath~) the Art Exhibition of the Northern Society for the Encouragement of Finer Arts. It was an important regional centre in Georgian England for the exhibiting and marketing of modern art (well, it was modern then) and the trio were right put out that Leeds had summat that Manchester didn’t.
Back in Manchester, on the 6th August 1823, they arranged a meeting of nineteen local artists and formed the Associated Artists of Manchester with the intention of setting up an art gallery where they could put on their own annual art Exhibition. But the one thing they didn’t have was money. They’d have to go cap in hand to the upper classes, the wealthy merchants, mill owners and manufacturers of the city.
At the time, Education and who should benefit from it, was a subject of heated debate in the papers; liberal reformers argued that free lectures should be given to the working classes, while conservatives declared that it was uneconomical to educate workers and would give them ideas above their station. After all, it was only a few years earlier that the Establishment had given the working class a damn good thrashing at Peterloo.
Education for the upper classes (well for the men at least) took the form of gentlemen’s clubs or societies. Whatever your scientific, literary or musical bent, Manchester had you covered; there was the Natural History Society, the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Geological Society, the Phrenological Society, the Manchester Statistical Society and the Gentlemen’s Concert Hall (which stood where the Midland Hotel stands today) to name but a few, all of which provided lectures by well-known experts and boasted extensive libraries - so long as you used the right cutlery and could afford the annual subscriptions.
Brigham, a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society, approached prominent members, such as George William Wood (remember him, he’ll crop up again), who soon engaged in a crowdfunding effort. It was basically a Georgian Kickstarter campaign as they sought gentlemen and businessmen to pledge money in return for rewards at different funding levels.
At a public meeting, held in the Exchange Room on 1st October 1823, the voices of liberal reformers, like G. W. Wood, lost out to conservative influences who hijacked the idea, quickly abandoning the modest aspirations of the artists. The new committee wanted something imposing and more expensive, a bolder tribute to the ‘‘public spirit’ of the donors themselves, that reflected the wealth and importance of Manchester. And so was born the ‘Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science, and the Arts’ (which was a bit of a mouthful, it has to be said).
In 1824, after raising thirty thousand pounds, they announced a competition for the building design. Architects from around the country entered it, including John Clark of Edinburgh, John Foster jr. of Liverpool and John Papworth of London.
An appeal from the committee secretary resulted in King George IV granting royal patronage, allowing it to be called the Royal Manchester Institution (which sounded a whole lot grander and was far easier – and shorter - to say). He also gifted the Institution with casts of the Elgin Marbles, the originals of which, taken from the Parthenon in Greece, are on display in the British Museum.
Barry’s vision from conception to completion, took 11 years to realise. Building work began in 1827. (And here comes the geology...) the sandstone for the building came from Catlow Quarry, near Nelson in Lancashire, as well as Saltersford and Leeds.
While the elegant public face of the building speaks of the Georgian elite, at the rear of the gallery, on what was once Back George Street and is now the Atrium, things were a little less polished. Here, you can still see the chisel marks of the labourers who actually built the Institution, but who would not be allowed entry when completed.
They toiled for eight years and the Royal Manchester Institution was finally finished and officially opened in 1835.