Manchester Art Gallery began life in 1823 as a proposal for a Manchester Institution for the promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts. It opened in 1835 and it was designed by ....
iManchester Art Gallery ©Manchester Art Gallery
The story doesn’t start there. Let’s do this right.
Where does it start? Come with me, back, back in time…
300 MILLION YEARS AGO…
Imagine, if you will, the Carboniferous Period. No, no, no. Stop that. Get those dinosaurs out of your head. This was the Age of Insects (if you don’t believe me, get on over to the Manchester Museum, they’ll tell you…). Before continental drift created the world we know today, most of the continents were clumped together as one land mass, the super continent of Pangea. It occupied a third of the Earth and was surrounded by an ocean called Panthalassa (you’ll thank me for that little gem at the next pub quiz).
Map of Pangea, circa 300 million years ago ©Wikimedia Commons Wikipedia
360 million years ago, the little bit that would eventually become Britain sat in the equatorial region. It was covered by warm, shallow waters and it was then that sediments were laid down that, millions of years later, would become the limestone of Yorkshire and millstone grit of the Pennines.
Over the next sixty million years (give or take) it became swampy and covered by vast tracts of tropical rainforest. What, can’t imagine that? Here, have a picture, it’ll help, but remember;
Carboniferous Landscape ©Science Photo Library BBC
The domination of the tropical forests continued until the great Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, during which the vast forests gradually died off. Over millions of years ‘Britain’ then became a hot and semi-arid desert, rather like those found in Northern Mexico today; windswept and subject to frequent flash flooding.
So, back to the future; the 18th and 19th centuries, where coal deposits created from the tropical forests of our Carboniferous past now helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. The millstone grit of the Pennines filtered mineral impurities from the water, giving the North West the soft water we know and love (no furred kettles here). It proved ideal for washing and processing cotton.
Thanks to this geology, Manchester thrived as an industrial city.
Manchester circa 1865 ©BBC Schools BBC
However, a number of merchants and philanthropists wanted to prove that Manchester wasn’t just a manufacturing giant. They wanted to show that Manchester was intellectual and cultural, too. So a group of them got together with the intention of financing the Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts. That Institution eventually became Manchester Art Gallery and it was built from Carboniferous sandstone deposited during that period of Britain’s geological past.
And you can see evidence of this when you visit. At the top of the entrance steps on Mosley Street, just outside the doors and on either side of the entrance, you can see planed-off ripple marks on the flagstones. These are the remnants of fossil sand ripples.
So next time you visit, take a moment of mindfulness as you cross the threshold. You’re walking across a prehistoric landscape…
Manchester Art Gallery flagstone, photographed by me.