Manchester City Art Gallery

Panels by John Henning Jr on exterior of the City Art Gallery.

The Art Gallery of the city of Manchester has one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Britain, as well as many drawings and studies, other Victorian paintings and sculpture of great merit. The gallery itself is a very beautiful Classical building dating from 1825. It was originally called the Royal Institution, and was an early work of Charles Barry, in his pre-Gothic days. On the outside are six sculptural panels, by John Henning Jr, showing allegorical groups depicting Arts, Sciences etc, in a solid style - Greeks in Roman drapery, one might say. In 1883, the owners philanthropically donated it to the Corporation of Manchester for use as a picture gallery, and on the clever condition that the Corporation spent 2000 pounds on buying works of art every year for the next 20 years. As well as the works purchased in this way, the gallery has been fortunate in attracting other donors. Early ones included Joseph Whitworth (he gave four paintings by William Etty), William Agnew of the famous auctioneers (whose donations included Holman Hunt's Shadow of Death) and James Braddock, a Manchester man, who gave a dozen old masters.

We note here just the principal Pre-Raphaelite works in the collection. These include the most extensive collection of paintings by Ford Madox Brown, including one of the two versions of Work (the other is in Birmingham), the remarkable Manfred on the Jungfrau - a very illustrative work, The Prisoner of Chillon, under which title Madox Brown also made a book illustration that is one of the most outstanding of the 1860s, The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror, William Shakespeare, Stages of Cruelty, which shows a vile suitor pawing at the hand of an evil-expressioned girl, with a child beating a hapless dog completing the group, Cordelia's Potion, which contains all of Madox Brown's favorite model types, and The English Boy, which I think is a portrait of Oliver Madox Brown, the author's son, who himself has a couple of pictures in the collection.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti is represented by Astarte Syriaca, perhaps the greatest of his later large portraits, with Jane Morris as the model, a chalk drawing of La Donna della Fiamma (another Mrs Morris), La Joli Coeur, one of Rossetti's most coy portraits, and The Bower Meadow, a slightly cynical composition, where Rossetti had the unfinished picture with a double portrait in the front, and an empty landscape behind, and finally reversed the dress of the two foreground figures and plonked copies of them in the background dancing. This pleasing but not very meaningful composition sold immediately.

There are several important pictures by John Everett Millais, showing both his early and his later style. Autumn Leaves is an important painting from the 1850s and Only a Lock of Hair is a portrait from the same period. Later work includes the excellent biblical picture Victory O Lord and A Flood, both of around 1870 and both unashamedly pandering to popular taste. There are also a couple of good portraits - Millais was an excellent portrait painter.

There are several studies by Edward Coley Burne-Jones, including for King Cophetua, and a big oil, Sibylla Delphica. Vivien by Frederick Sandys is a particularly striking portrait against peacock feathers, which shows the customary 'Sandys sneer'. J. W. Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs is one of his best-known pictures, and Arthur Hughes has a very eerie Ophelia. There are also works by John Brett, a portrait by Robert Braithwaite Martineau of his wife, and there are two of Val Prinsep's best works - At the Golden Gate and the very illustrative The Queen was in the Parlour, Eating Bread and Honey. William Windus's The Outlaw is another example where the artist is represented by his major work in the Pre-Raphaelite style. Simeon Solomon has a couple of good figure studies, and Thomas Woolner has two portrait sculptures - Alfred Waterhouse and Ethel Waterhouse. (Other sculpture by Woolner may be seen in Manchester).

The late Pre-Raphaelite J. R. Spencer Stanhope has Eve tempted, with one of the best and most malevolent snakes ever painted, and The Waters of Lethe, a large picture very reminiscent of Burne-Jones. Similarly, John Melhuish Strudwick's When Apples were Golden is very Burne-Jonesy and is a good example of his slightly sweet but very decorative style.

After a rather extended closure, the gallery reopened, bigger than previously, in 2001. Rather intelligently, the extension, into the neighbouring building, houses modern exhibition space, while leaving the bulk of the older works in the original building. A shame that the pictures around the first floor stairwell have been removed, though one might explain this for security reasons.

In easy walking distance southwards along Oxford Road is the Whitworth collection, and to the north and west along Chapel Street is the gallery at Salford. A collection of mostly busts and a few full statues may be seen in Manchester Town Hall.

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Victorian art in Britain

Manchester pages // Note on artists associated with Manchester

W to Town Hall // N to Piccadilly Gardens