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August 10 2012

Manchester gets its own Lomo Wall

Thousands of snaps of Manchester contributed by more than 500 local people create the world's greatest city (equal with Leeds) in miniature. But quite a big miniature. Helen Nugent tells more

Enthusiasts have built them across the world. From London to Beijing, Cologne to New York, LomoWalls have inspired people from all walks of life. And now Manchester has one.

Part exhibition, part experience, a LomoWall is a colourful montage of thousands of analogue snapshots or, as experts would have it, Lomographs. In this instance, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Much like an impressionist painting, Manchester's newest mosaic takes on a different meaning depending on the distance from which you view it. Visitors to the 30m x 3m long artwork, mounted on a concrete wall, can stand up close or far away, each perspective is unique.

The Lomograph, erected on Tariff Street in the Piccadilly basin area of the city, reflects Manchester's industrial heritage. Containing 14,000 individual Lomographs, it is the world's first permanent LomoWall and the only LomoWall to be built in the open air this year.

The wall has been created by Lomography, a global organisation dedicated to using experimental and creative snapshot analogue photography. Two Lomography fans, Tom Ambrose, a University of Manchester student, and Monica Sagar, an Arden School of Theatre graduate and native Mancunian, have spent three weeks with the Lomography UK team carefully creating the masterpiece using over 1,000 different images of Manchester submitted by more than 500 people.
Linda Scott, marketing manager at Lomography UK, says:

Lomography celebrates its 20th birthday this year and this is a great way to mark it and the ideal location for our first permanent LomoWall. Once a textile district, now inhabited by the culturally curious, this is the 'hip' part of Manchester city centre. The area is full of design agencies, trendy music venues, bars, cafes, a craft centre and fashion boutiques and is perfectly suited to the dynamic visual delights of a local LomoWall from Lomography. The street art landscape that is developing in Manchester currently is totally inspiring to us at Lomography and the ethos behind this sits with both our ideas and those of our community. We are absolutely delighted to have this first permanent LomoWall exhibition hosted by CityCo and TCS in the Piccadilly Basin.

The project is part of the 2012 Canal Festival. Those responsible for the LomoWall initiative include the Piccadilly Partnership, CityCo, Manchester's city centre management company, and Town Centre Securities, owners of Piccadilly Basin and previous owners of the Rochdale canal.

Alexandra King, director of Piccadilly Partnership, says:

This is a new landmark on the Northern Quarter landscape, here in the heart of the Piccadilly Basin. The LomoWall adds to the street art scene in this part of the city centre and will become a visitor attraction in its own right. We are very proud to host it and to have the world's first permanent LomoWall is a real honour. It's a welcome addition to the urban landscape.

Richard Lewis, property director for Town Centre Securities who own the wall, adds:

We're really pleased to be part of this project. The LomoWall creates a fascinating piece of public art which not only enhances the area but helps put Piccadilly Basin on the map. The industrial heritage theme is very fitting and acknowledges the historical importance of this part of the city centre. In recent years TCS has worked hard to transform and regenerate the area, reopening the canal and tow paths, restoring historic mills and building bespoke, design-led new buildings. The LomoWall, along with Atelier [Zero], is creating a destination where people will come to visit and want to work, live and play.

For those wishing to visit the Lomo Wall, up to three hours free parking is available at the Urban Exchange retail development off Great Ancoats Street.

For more information on Lomography visit or visit the shop at 20 Oldham Street.

For more information on summer activities in Manchester City Centre visit

The 2012 Canal Festival will run between Saturday 18th and Sunday 26th August and will offer activities along the length of the Rochdale Canal between Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire and Manchester city centre. The annual canal celebration, supported by The Waterways Trust and Canal and River Trust, provides a range of free activities for families, young people and visitors including outdoor activities, arts workshops and parades, volunteering events, heritage and nature walks and talks, boat trips and horse boating demonstrations. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Manchester's Cornerhouse goes on a digital spree

Abandon Normal Devices and take part in the festival of new cinema, digital culture and art. That's what Anne Louise Kershaw is getting ready to do

The Cornerhouse is something of an icon in Manchester. For many years it has offered a continuously innovative programme of independent film and exhibition, including workshops and a rather nice café at which to enjoy a decent glass of wine.

It has built a reliable artistic reputation and is both an architectural and cultural landmark on the Manchester map and psyche. It is no surprise therefore, that when they launched Abandon Normal Devices (AND) festival back in 2009, it was a great success.

Working in collaboration with FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the regional AND festival began in Liverpool and has since alternated between Liverpool and Manchester. This summer the hub returns to Manchester with events and exhibitions spanning across more than twenty venues and locations with an extended regional programme across Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire.

Running from 29 August untill 2 September, nothing about these events is predictable or to be expected. They include exhibitions, film screenings, artists' talks and workshops as well as an outreach programme beyond Cornerhouse's doors

Exploring the theme of 'success', the AND festival wants visitors to experience, rather than simply observe, the complexities, gradations and anomalies encountered when we explore the notion as an ideal. With a very technological and scientific slant, AND is as much about the process, collaboration and evolution of work over time, as it is about the final product. At all stages audiences are encouraged to question their experience in a critical way.

Exhibitions such as 'Pigs Bladder Football' by John O'Shea give a small glimpse into the festival's epic and unusual scale. Through biological experimentation, rapid prototyping and an iterative design process, O'Shea will culture the world's first bio-engineered football, grown from living cells. This aims to encourage us to consider the colliding worlds of human enhancement, bio-technology and the capitalisation of sport, and what role each of these will play in our lives.

Of equal oddness but just as delightful is the 'Empire Drive-In' by Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler. A full-scale drive-in movie theatre made from wrecked cars, it is symbolic of the once thriving drive-in industry in the US. By day you be able to roam freely from car to car experiencing different sonic environments and art pieces. By night the scrapyard aesthetic will extend into a specially programed series of live soundtracks, a slide show of abandoned spaces and film screenings of films such as 'Mad Max II' and 'Robocop'.

From scientific and digital advancements to environmental and commercial failure, the experience of success is explored for both its fleeting and addictive qualities.The festival programme summarises:

Through unusual strategies, the artists and filmmakers working in this year's festival reveal alternative ways of being by offering rich counterpoints to perfection and undermining accepted logic.

The results are sharp and scientific as well as artistic and surreal. By combining these superficially polar opposites into one festival of digital culture and art, a new and forward looking way of thinking is encouraged; although exactly what this will entail, is anyone's guess.

The full programme is here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2012

Stone Roses reunion concerts to be boycotted by photographers

Dozens of photographers will boycott Stone Roses reunion gigs in Manchester in dispute over copyright, according to NUJ

Dozens of photographers will boycott the Stone Roses reunion concerts in Manchester this weekend in a dispute over copyright, according to the National Union of Journalists.

The NUJ and several other representative bodies said they backed a boycott of the three days of gigs, which start on Friday, because of "unacceptable restrictions" on photographers.

However, a spokesman for the Stone Roses denied there was a general protest and that about 30 photographers would be attending as planned.

The NUJ said the Stone Roses management wanted to restrict editorial use of photographs taken at the event after their initial publication. The British Photographic Council, the Royal Photographic Society, Master Photographers Association and the British Institution of Professional Photography have all backed the action, according to the NUJ.

John Toner, a freelance organiser at the NUJ, said: "Too many musical artists now wish to grab rights from photographers. Having said that, people are surprised that the Stone Roses have chosen to go down this route.

"We fully understand why a band would wish to retain merchandising rights, and the photographers would be happy to concede this. Equally, a photographer must have the right to license editorial use of images without obtaining the band's permission for each use. The band's intransigence on this point has led to the organisation of a boycott."

The NUJ said it had attempted to settle the dispute with the Stone Roses, but so far the band had not changed their position.

However, Murray Chalmers, spokesman for the Stone Roses, told MediaGuardian it was "not true" that there was a general boycott and that there was a "full list" of photographers attending the Heaton Park concerts.

"There is no row with photographers," he said. "This is not a general problem and we have a full quota of photographers [planning to attend]."

He added that about 30 photographers were due to attend: "There's no issue. If someone is personally boycotting then that's up to them."

Ian Tilton, a rock photographer who helped organise the boycott, said the initial contract offered by the Stone Roses meant that pictures could only be used in the publication they were commissioned by. He said that the band, for a flat £1 fee, would then own all the rights to use the pictures on their own merchandise in future.

• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly "for publication".

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June 11 2012

Coronation Street fails to win listed status

English Heritage says redbrick terrace of long-running TV soap fails to meet historic and architectural criteria

The most famous street in the north of England has failed to win listed status as an historic building because of its constant reinvention to suit the changing demands of TV drama.

The redbrick terrace of Coronation Street, which is threatened by redevelopment as the city's media move from central Manchester to Salford Quays, lost out after a detailed analysis by English Heritage.

For all its lore and grip on the national imagination – "Corrie" is comfortably the world's longest-running, and typically the UK's most-watched TV soap – the actual bricks and mortar are comparative newcomers. Although increasingly "real", with the fibreglass chimneys being replaced by brick to meet the demands of high-definition TV, they only date back to 1982 and have had many additions since.

English Heritage said it failed the listing system's "extremely strict" criteria on age, albeit only by months, but other problems with supposed historic and architectural value were rife.

The ruling says: "Most of the houses do not have interiors and therefore exist as facades, and most of those have been altered. The set as it stands today is an active reminder of the long-running television programme, rather than a survival of an earlier era of television productions."

The full-size street was opened by the Queen, an indication of the show's status rather than the quality of the set. Its two predecessors were built smaller than life-size to fit into Granada TV's production space, obliging actors to walk more slowly than normal. The first set was indoors; the second outside and unpopular with staff because it was built at an angle which caught the wind.

The set has attracted some support from conservationists and Mancunian loyalists who believe the fictional city of Weatherfield, first introduced to viewers in 1960, is Manchester and not its neighbour and rival, Salford, the home of Media City where ITV Granada is building a new set. A number of housing and tourism groups are thought to have approached the company, which is expected to move out next year.

ITV Granada said in a statement: "We continue to consider the future of the Coronation Street set ahead of our planned move to Media City".

Nick Bridgland, of English Heritage, said: "There is no question that Coronation Street is a television institution and holds a huge place in many people's hearts. While listing is not appropriate for the set, a better solution could be for a local group or organisation with an interest to care for it and allow fans from all over the world to visit and enjoy it." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 26 2012

The big picture: Salford, Manchester, June 1977

Next week will see thousands of royal jubilee street parties up and down the country. This is how they did it 35 years ago in Stowell Street…

For most of us, after a lifetime of being reigned over, monarchy means matriarchy. The Queen is supposed to be the mother of us all, although, not having done well with her personal brood, she has never seemed eager to clasp the rest of us to her bosom. Instead of a hug we have made do with the distant wave of a gloved hand and a grimly stoical smile. Here, on the day of an earlier jubilee in 1977, she has deputies who do the job more enthusiastically and demonstrate the truth of the metaphor on which the Queen's sovereignty depends. Yes, the nation truly is a family, presided over by a supply of mums as endless as the tapering perspective of that table in the street.

Aprons on, trays in hand, they perform their primal task, which is to serve up cakes and stand guard while they are eaten. Dads are not much in evidence: apart from a few stragglers they have no doubt taken cover in the pub on the corner. Seated at the table are the heirs apparent, mostly princesses, wearing temporary tiaras and crowns of paper. Freud spoke of "His Majesty the Child", a brat whose every screeching whim is catered to by sycophantic parents; here the scene is less neurotic, and the young absolutists, with grown-ups stationed behind their chairs like courtiers, gaze at the banquet without gobbling it up.

Perhaps it's the fixity of the photograph, which has stopped time and deferred the grubby business of eating, but it looks as solemnly ritualistic as any state occasion. The point is not the food; what matters is the long sacramental table with its pristine white cloth, connecting past, present and future as it stretches the length of the street. The contentment captured here is as dated as the clothes – bell-bottoms, over-decorated sweaters – and the floppy haircuts.

A street party will be happening outside my front door in London next weekend. The neighbours have laid on DJs and promise dance lessons; the invitation dismissively advises you to bring your own food. The idea seems to be to go clubbing in the daylight, so it will be noisy but not convivial. Those who live here are unneighbourly, unrooted strangers, not stable families, and any cakes consumed here are bought not home-made.

Instead, I'll probably go for an imaginary walk down this street in Salford, towards a vanishing point lost in the blitz of flapping flags. That is why photographs exist – to remind us that once upon a time we were happy. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 22 2012

On the white bus to Wythenshawe – council housing by design | Owen Hatherley

A tour of the UK's second-largest estate, in Manchester, offers up some architectural gems and a few lessons on garden cities

In 1966, Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney and Cheltenham director Lindsay Anderson worked together on the film The White Bus. The titular vehicle, a white-painted Leyland bus with "SEE YOUR CITY" written across it, transports a strange retinue – local dignitaries, foreign diplomats, wistful office workers – around the lesser-known sights of Manchester, from newbuild estates and cleared slums to the industrial ensembles of Trafford Park.

Last week, I found myself in an inadvertent re-enactment of that film. A group of local residents, school and FE students, journalists and local councillors were taken on a coach trip around the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, led by writer and broadcaster Phil Griffin (who lives there), taking in everything from modernist churches to recycling plants. Uncannily, even the bus was white but, unlike in the film, you could see the reactions of passersby, who often stopped on the street corner, baffled.

As well they might be, as Wythenshawe's reputation precedes it. The second-largest council estate in the country, after Becontree in East London, it's best known of late for three media appearances – Sarah Ferguson's The Duchess on the Estate; Shameless, for which it provided many of the sets; and a photograph of David Cameron on the stump, with a hooded youth making gun signs behind him.

In appearance, though, Wythenshawe doesn't correspond much to stereotype. There's little in the way of concrete, and few flats – most of it is family houses with front and back gardens, and large green verges planted with trees create one of the few places where the phrase "garden city" doesn't feel entirely absurd. It was largely planned in the 1930s by Barry Parker, who had designed the first garden city at Letchworth. Due to the lobbying of Welwyn Garden City MP and housing minister Grant Shapps, garden cities have been held up as an alternative to "the big estates of the 60s", but they mostly catered for the affluent or at least the active. Wythenshawe, though, was real public housing – getting people out of inhuman conditions in the centre of Manchester and into a smokeless, verdant new landscape.

The difficulties in this were obvious in the tour's starting point – Wythenshawe Hall, a Cheshire stately home annexed to the new Manchester garden city. A public park was built around it, the lushness of which spills out into the area around. Our host informs us that Manchester city council fought a grinding battle with landed interests in Cheshire to get Wythenshawe built, and it's even harder now to imagine few in the shires countenancing a giant estate built around a manor house and its grounds. From there, the bus trundles round some of the original 30s houses – simple but exceedingly folksy, in red brick and tile, built around courts and greens – to the first of several modernist churches. Wythenshawe was heavily criticised for lack of amenities, but the spiritual needs of the population were hardly neglected.

St Michael and All Angels Church was designed by the architect Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day in the mid-30s, and is a piece of German expressionism come to Cottonopolis, with raw red brickwork wrapped around a plan forming an eight-pointed star. Inside, it's a strange and beautiful place, decorative and modernist, austere and lush. Later, we stop outside a derelict church by Coventry cathedral architect Basil Spence, and the group steps through the weeds to crowd round the locked door, peering inside at the wall paintings.

But the most remarkable of them is saved till last, the William Temple Memorial Church, designed by GG Pace in 1965. A collective intake of breath is audible on entering. Its small size hides the surprise of an incredible, wholly original interior, somewhere between the high-tech of early Richard Rogers and redbrick industrial gothic. It's not used for services, and our guide points out "this place has amazing architecture and no folk; the Forum has mediocre architecture but is always full of folk".

The Forum is just opposite, the town centre that was lacking for 30 years of the place's existence. A long concrete car park to the main road, but a dense, pedestrianised series of public spaces when entered, its central "Leningrad Square" (St Petersburg is twinned with Manchester) is busy and bustling. Outside the Forum library, people are queuing for something called "job gym". The level of unemployment is the only aspect of the place that really conforms to stereotype. The white bus takes us around one place of (often former) employment, though – Sharston, one of several light industrial estates which were meant to provide local work for Wythenshawe's tenants. Along here runs a railway line, to which Wythenshawe was never connected; only now, after 75 years, is it being properly connected to the city centre, via a Metrolink tram extension. Wythenshawe looks like it was built for the car, but even now it only has 40% car ownership.

The houses in Wythenshawe are mostly traditionalist, with no experiments – with the exception of the "Tin Town" in Newall Green, a mini-estate of impeccably kept, neat steel-framed prefabs, designed in 1946 by Frederick Gibberd, another cathedral designer (Liverpool, this time). We got a tour around one, home to former Durutti Column drummer Bruce Mitchell. The space standards and architectural quality are, as Griffin points out, way above those of contemporary central Manchester luxury loft living. "Seriously, sod Urban Splash."

Then, after a tour of an art deco cinema (now owned by Jehovah's Witnesses, who have restored it impeccably) and another Cheshire stately home (owned for years by Manchester city council and then English Heritage, who let it rot), the bus discharges its passengers and everyone goes home, some with longer journeys back than others.

What did we learn on the white bus? Griffin tells the passengers near the end that "I think I've shown you everything except Wythenshawe", well aware that a tour of its architectural monuments isn't enough to explain a place. Anyone who began with the assumption that "the state" or "the public sector" can only create inhumane environments would hardly be able to maintain it by the end. The bus went through a place with some astonishing public buildings, most of them derelict or seldom used, and looped between the iconic sites through pretty greens, disused wastelands and retail parks. "It works, and it doesn't work," our guide says, which sounds about right; a place with deep poverty, but where poverty might have been made more bearable through light, air and decent housing. It shouldn't need a bus and a guide to point out the seriousness and care with which places like Wythenshawe were built, but it's a start, to begin a long effort of reassessing and – hopefully – building them anew.

• More photographs of Owen Hatherley's trip around Wythenshawe are available on his Flickr page © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 09 2012

Stormy Waters

A Liverpudlian response to Rowan Moore's criticisms of the Liverpool Waters plan

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fanastastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer's London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you're at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool's early leaders built the world's first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly-sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool's pioneering of the world's first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool. But it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous 'Three Graces' on the city's Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.

Today's aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool's past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city's need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a blow. But the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge. It remains a prosperous tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK's retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn't like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool's town centre for the better.

I'm not Peel's PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern dock. So do we go for it? or do we duck the risk, let Liverpool's economy struggle along and allow an historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Waters, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper or easel, to show us they think could go in its place.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and journalist based in Liverpool. You can follow him here and here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 08 2012

Sea Odyssey's vast puppets bring more to Liverpool than the Grand National

Merseyside's recent spectacular show illustrates how street theatre and public art can attract vast crowds. The north west's industrial heritage is doing the same. Alan Sykes reports

Two new reports highlight the value of cultural tourism to the economy of the north west of England. Last month's 'Sea Odyssey' street theatre jamboree in Liverpool is reckoned to have brought in £12m in extra spending by the vast crowds which thronged the city streets. Meanwhile, an estimated £11m was spent in the last year by people visiting industrial heritage attractions throughout the region.

For 'Sea Odyssey', the city's Business Improvement District managers estimate that their core area of the city centre alone saw a footfall just shy of 1,000,000 people over that weekend – 53% more than for the Grand National a week earlier. As well as those watching the event itself, visitors poured into shops, restaurants and other attractions which saw significant rises in custom – the Walker Art Gallery was 145% up on the previous year, the Maritime Museum was up 130% and Merseytravel, who laid on an extra ferry for people wanting to watch the giants sail down the Mersey, handled an extra 143% of passengers.

Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism at Liverpool City Council, says:

"We always knew this would be a huge weekend for the city, but 'Sea Odyssey' exceeded our expectations in terms of the crowd numbers and their reaction to the show. An independent report on the impact of Sea Odyssey is now being put together with final figures available within the next couple of months."

The city council certainly believes it got value for money for the £1.5m it cost to commission the French street theatre outfit Royale de Luxe to put on the event.

Meanwhile, a similar contribution to the region's economy, albeit in a more widespread and low key way, is claimed for the industrial heritage attractions spread throughout the area.

For the last year, Visit Manchester, working with the other tourist boards in the North West, has been managing a project called Modern History, an ERDF-funded project aimed at promoting around 100 of the North West's industrial heritage attractions, including Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry, Cumbria's Honister Slate Mine and the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire. The research shows that mines, mills and transport systems that have been converted into visitor attractions are increasing the tourism revenue of the region. Honister, for example, which continues to produce the Westmorland green slate that was probably mined there in Roman times, now offers a via ferrata climbing path – giddily strung from a cliff-face and shortlisted for this year's Enjoy England awards - to go with the mine tours and slate sales.

The report shows that an extra 24,000 day visits and over 5000 overnight stays throughout the North West were generated by the campaign. Lisa Houghton, marketing manager for Modern History, is quoted in the Manchester Evening News saying:

The north west was instrumental in moving the world into the industrial age and the rich stories that surround this period are still relevant today – as the high visitor levels reflect. The research proves what a hard-working campaign Modern History has been and we are confident that even though the project has come to an end, it leaves a strong legacy that will continue to drive footfall to our wonderful attractions and museums for years to come. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 11 2012

Manchester's stylish new home for music

Chetham's school and library's latest building combines mediaeval and modern, with plenty for the wider community and rooms whose oak and felt walls can be tuned. Helen Nugent pays a visit

Not many buildings can lay claim to have been a 15th century ecclesiastical centre, a gunpowder factory, a Civil War prison, a school for poor boys and a meeting place for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But the buildings which form the core of Manchester's medieval quarter are no ordinary structures.

Affectionately known as 'Chets', the Chetham's School of Music sits cheek by jowl with Chetham's Library, the oldest lending library in the Western world. The school is the largest specialist music institution in Britain and boasts a glittering list of musical alumni.

Now, hundreds of years after a local man, Humphrey Chetham, bought the property to house his school and library, this city centre landmark is entering a new phase. A £47 million project, which includes a state-of-the-art development spanning seven floors, will, it is hoped, transform music education and performance in the north of England.

"The buildings we had weren't fit for purpose," says Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's. "We had a team but nowhere to play. Now it's like coming out of a sardine tin and on to a decent sized plate."

Among the facilities at the new site, which is linked to the 15th century complex by a steel footbridge, are two new performance spaces (a recital hall and a cavernous concert hall), academic and music departments, an outreach centre for the local community and a light-filled atrium spanning seven floors.

More than 500,000 handmade bricks have been employed in the construction of the centre, all crafted in Yorkshire and designed to complement the sandstone of the original buildings.

Supporters of the project are particularly proud of the structure's acoustic accomplishments. A combination of thick, felt curtains and oak surrounds come together to produce rooms that can tune themselves. Put simply, the materials can be adjusted to absorb sound and therefore the quality of the music.

Threlfall says:

We've got 100 odd pianos which, in our current building, constantly need retuning because of the faulty heating. Students have been practising and rehearsing in little cells for a long, long time. Some of the rooms have got plaster coming off and there is no sound installation.

In the new building, rooms have been built within rooms in order to provide near perfect sound-proofing, a necessary feature given that Chetham's is next to a major train station and a key bus route.

Michael Oglesby is project leader of the redevelopment. He says:

We didn't want to create a pastiche. We wanted to create a building that works with what is already here but is a building of its time. And that's what we have done. There are no compromises in the new building. The existing building is full of compromises.

The medieval buildings are wonderful but the music school is something special and unique in Manchester. When planning this we seriously considered building a new school elsewhere, it would have been cheaper and easier. But the weight of feeling, not just from the school but also from the city, meant we were keen to keep the school at the heart of the city.

By the time Chetham's new home opens as a tourist attraction in 2014, the project will have been going for 12 years, from conception to completion. However, the development will be fully functioning for the new school year this September. Work on the 400-seat concert hall will be finished when the final tranche of funding has been found.

In the meantime, students will be able to make full use of 50 music teaching rooms, 62 music practice rooms, a music technology centre and four ensemble rooms – all with acoustic and humidity control to protect the instruments.

Roger Stephenson Architects, the firm behind the new design, are known in Manchester for combining old with new. They were in charge of transforming the old Free Trade Hall – where Bob Dylan went electric 46 years ago – into a major new hotel. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 26 2012

Grow a sunflower to solve unfinished Alan Turing experiment

Manchester Science Festival sows the seeds of a very bright idea to honour the computer genius in his centenary year

If ever there was a man for bright ideas, it was Alan Turing, and he would have loved this.

The whole of Manchester is being invited to plant sunflowers as part of the current centenary celebrations of his birth; and not just as a sentimental gesture.

Fittingly in the tradition of the great computer scientist, whose vital role in World War II's Enigma code-cracking was over-shadowed by his public disgrace for having gay sex, the event is practical and scientific. The Museum of Science and Industry and partners, including Manchester University where Turing made extraordinary strides in computer development after the war, are trying to conclude an experiment which he left unfinished.

Fascinated by numerical sequences and geometric patterns, Turing speculated that both the petals and densely-packed seedheads of sunflowers include striking examples of the Fibonacci number series – a mathematical phenomenon which is explained much more clearly than I could ever manage on this link here. When he was prosecuted in 1952, humiliated and put on a primitive course of hormone treatment, or chemical castration, this project joined many others in gathering dust.

Here's the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…. Can you work out the next number?

Although he had been awarded an OBE, the significance of Turing's wartime work was unknown to his colleagues at Manchester university or the public at large. His death in 1954 from cyanide poisoning has been widely assumed to have been suicide although this was never officially confirmed.

His interest in Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers, and other plants, stemmed in part from his own observations and partly from his knowledge of the history of science. The excellent Turing Centenary website has a lovely drawing of him by his mother, opting out of a hockey match at school and in the words of her pencilled caption: 'watching the daisies grow.' Most daisies have 34, 55 or 89 petals – the 9th, 10th, and 11th numbers in the Fibonacci series.

Turing knew about Leonardo da Vinci's interest in the subject and acknowledged the work of a Dutch scientist, J C Schoute, who studied the patterns on 319 sunflower heads just before the Second World War. That was cited in a paper Turing wrote in 1951 about patterns and sequences in biology which he also enjoyed testing on his fledgling computers.

Then it all ended. So the Turing Sunflower Project is taking it up, with a database which will be thousands strong. Professor Jonathan Swinton, visiting professor in computational systems at Oxford University, says that the numerology could be important to understanding how plants grow. He says:

Other scientists believe that Turing's explanation of why this happens in sunflowers is along the right lines but we need to test this out on a big dataset, so the more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment.

The project's manager Erinma Ochu says:

We hope to provide the missing evidence to test Turing's little-known theories about Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers. It would be a fitting celebration of the work of Alan Turing.

The results of the experiment will be a highlight of Manchester Science Festival in October. Details on how to register for seeds are here. Tweets on progress are here, and a blog on the festival, sunflowers included, is here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2011

Artcast: Curated from the votes of Northerner readers

In the last in this current series exploring the collections of the Whitworth art Gallery through the lens of this week's weather forecasts, assistant curator Helen Stalker responds to readers' requests to feature the East Yorkshire coast and County Durham

Monday 21 and Tuesday November: Mostly cloudy with a couple of showers. Intervals of clouds and sunshine

George Fennel Robson first studied painting in his native town of Durham. He went on to have a prolific and successful career, contributing, on average, twenty drawings to the Oil and Watercolour Society's exhibition each year between 1813 and 1820. This beautiful scene of the artist's native town is an example of Fennel Robson's mastery of watercolour. This view of the city's famous cathedral, castle and bridge is executed with a soft palette, giving the image a gentle, almost ethereal quality. This adds to the impression of a bright, cool, hazy day. The ochre glow of the foliage in the foreground suggests a change of season, from summer to autumn.

Wednesday 23 November: Periods of clouds and sunshine

A close acquaintance of JMW Turner, Thomas Girtin is often credited as the creator of Romantic watercolour painting. This image of Durham was created during one of the artist's several painting tours to the North of England. Girtin's limited palette of warm tones creates atmosphere and light. Sharp shadows and falling light evoke a bright, clear day. Girtin met an untimely end, dying at the age of twenty seven. Highly acclaimed by his fellow artists, Turner was to remark, "Had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved".

Thursday 24 November: Overcast and windy; a late-night shower in places

Copley Fielding had a long a prolific career as a painter of land and seascapes. He studied art as a pupil of his father and the acclaimed painter John Varley. This image of a turbulent sea is imbued with drama and peril which is enhanced by the artist's use of colour and brushwork. A sweeping grey sky contrasts sharply with the brilliant white of the sea-spray as the waves batter the harbour and pummel the fishing boats.

Friday 25 November: A couple of morning showers; otherwise, after a cloudy start, sunshine returns

This work is typical of Rich's use of quick, loose brush strokes. He was inspired by the Impressionists and approached painting with a natural style; attempting to capture the essence of a scene rather than creating a highly polished reproduction of it. In this image, Rich has given up most of the picture plane to the sky, sweeping a broad wash of purple-grey across the top to suggest the threat of rain.

* The artcast series has been running throughout November - you can revisit the earlier posts here. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2011

Manchester's Alice in Wonderland exhibition

The Portico Library's charming exhibition which celebrates the most enduringly popular children's novel is worth a visit

A charming exhibition celebrating the enduringly popular children's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is taking place at a Manchester library beneath its elegant stained glass dome.

The Portico Library's exhibition – A Journey Through Wonderland; Alice in Multimedia - may not be as headline grabbing as the one taking place at the other end of the M62 at Tate Liverpool, but it explores whether the book was really a children's book and looks at how Alice was represented in illustrations.

Manchester's exhibition is quite different as it concentrates on the multimedia aspect of Lewis Carroll's work and looks at the different formats surrounding the book, librarian Emma Marigliano explains. "The two exhibitions are completely different and there can be no comparisons between the two. People may expect multimedia to mean on screen, but it is also about the different formats."

It seeks to capture some of the magic of the story, first published 146 years ago, with a range of books, comics, pop-ups, artwork, film and other media. There is a glass bottle of green liquid with 'drink me,' artwork depicting Alice as an older child. The 'real' Alice Liddell was only seven, contrary to the impression given in some illustrations.

There's a case containing alternative Alices such as Alice in Blunderland and Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, the latter exploring the connections between Carroll, Alice Liddell and Wearside.

The book has been translated into at least 36 different languages, including Latin and Swahili (Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu) – both these editions are on display.

Marigliano says some of the items loaned by Mark Richards, chairman of The Lewis Carroll Society, are particularly good and are not usually on public display.

The Portico's collection of early illustrated editions of Carroll's children's books have been much in demand over the years and were popular with the library's readers, as records of lending were marked in the books.

Co-curator Lynne Allan, vice-chair of the library, notes that Carroll, who was also known as Charles Dodgson, was a friend of many pre-Raphaelites – he knew the Rossettis and William Morris. "Dodgson had an eye for beauty, a mastery of reason and logic as well as a gift for fancy," she said. "He was a true polymath."

"Alice in Wonderland takes the reader into a world which can be frightening but then delivers us back safely to reality in time for tea, knowing that we – like Alice – have had a wonderful dream. Whether or not the Alice books are suitable for children is still a debatable point, but the items in our exhibition demonstrate how versatile the original book has been and continues to be."

A one-day interdisciplinary conference takes place at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on December 1 organised by Dr Hannah Priest.

The exhibition was opened last month by Vanessa St Clair, great granddaughter of Alice Liddell.

In her introduction to the exhibition, Allan says as far back as 1942, in a radio symposium, Bertrand Russell says the book should not be read by anyone under 16 and Anne Porter, an American novelist, described it as a horror story.

Perhaps the Tim Burton film from 2010 has renewed a 21st century interest in the story. But it is good to see two exhibitions celebrating the book taking place in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Portico's exhibition continues until November 30. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

You too can be a Lowry stick-person

Go shopping or sight-seeing in Manchester, and Salford University can make you part of art history

Greater Manchester's profiteering from its dysfunctional but talented son L S Lowry continues apace. This weekend, you could end up being turned into a stick person while shopping or sight-seeing in Piccadilly Gardens.

Salford University, which is an extremely hi-tech centre pioneering lots of clever digital things, is staging the exercise to mark the opening of its new building at MediaCityUK on Salford Quays.

Two Manchester artists, Alastair Eilbeck and James Bailey, have been commissioned to marry Lowry's painting of the gardens in 1954 to cameras equipped with stuff called 'motion capture technology'. The effect is to turn someone such as myself, bumbling along in a comfortable way with my shopping bags, into an authentic stick person.

This will then be screened at on a large projection at MediaCityUK for everyone to laugh at, sorry admire, in a 're-imagining of Lowry's artwork with moving characters walking through the painted version of Piccadilly Gardens.' This sounds terrific and Alexandra King, Piccadilly Partnership Director at CityCo, Manchester's city centre management company, thinks everyone will agree. She says:

It's great to be involved with this innovative project which brings a much-loved painting of a familiar public space to life. We hope visitors will take part and have the image of themselves in the modern day gardens beamed over to the Salford screen. Working with the University of Salford and Metrolink, we'll be able to demonstrate just how close Piccadilly is to MediaCityUK.

Nervous BBC relocaters, take note. There are shops etc up here. Actually, there's an entire mall on the quays plus the Lowry and a bridge to Imperial War Museum North.

Nobody has to take part in the exercise if they are shy or with someone that they shouldn't be with, but it sounds intriguingly clever. The artists explain that:

Motion sensor cameras set up in front of canvases in Piccadilly Gardens and at MediaCityUK will film members of the public moving and, in real time, will reproduce their movements in a digital Lowry figure. In Piccadilly Gardens, the Gardens themselves will be the backdrop to the moving figures while over at MediaCityUK, characters from Piccadilly Gardens and MediaCityUK will be combined and integrated into a digital projection of Lowry's Piccadilly Gardens painting on a screen at the University's new facility.

Each of the animated figures will be based on actual people from some of Lowry's most famous paintings, including The Lying Man, The Cripples and A Day Out at the Prom, all produced by Lowry around the similar period to Piccadilly Gardens. Wirral illustrator Maria Pearson has painted each of the characters from four different views so they can be shown from differing angles on screen when reacting to the movements of visitors.

Alastair says:

The effect of the moving figures in the painting will be similar to split tin puppets, which I think will capture the spirit of Lowry and I hope it's an interpretation of his work of which he would have approved.

I'm sure he would.

The day's celebrations, which feature other joys, run from 10.30am-5.30pm tomorrow, Saturday 12 November, with free tram travel from Piccadilly Gardens and Eccles to the event, plus a free Salford QuaysLink bus service from Salford Crescent railway station and Salford Shopping City.

You can also watch the uni's promotional film above. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 31 2011

Launching a new series for this blog - artcast

Never-before-seen art work revealed for readers of this blog to help us all keep a check on that wintry weather

The dramatically changing weather across the north of England has long been an obsession of artists working in the region - from the dark skies of Lowryʼs satanic mills to the exquisite light over the Lakes depicted by Turner.

Paintings, drawings and textiles helped people understand their locality and provided a sense of place at that time but are still relevant to us in our everyday lives.

Here at The Northerner we wanted to bring that idea into the digital age so weʼve joined forces with the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to pilot this weekly series called artcast.

In the first digital project of its type, the Whitworth curators will research the collection to bring you weekly images which directly links to the dayʼs weather somewhere in the north - maybe where you are.

"98% of the material will have never been seen before," explains assistant curator of fine art Helen Stalker.

The challenge is to have everything photographed and digitised. A digital object has the possibility of being seen by millions of people so itʼs an integral part of a drive to open up the collection.

We're hoping this will inspire people to consider their own region in relation to these timeless and unifying images – and will hopefully create some online dialogue. A great way to explore the collection on a daily basis.

Click here to access the first artcast.

The full data set from this project will also be made available to the Culture Hack North in Leeds on November 12/13 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 14 2011

Exhibition for 'Monet of Manchester' who inspired Lowry

Adolphe Valette, little known French impressionist who painted striking landscapes on grimly industrial Manchester

He could easily be nicknamed "the Manchester Impressionist" or, at a squeeze, ''the Monet of Manchester" but the truth is that most people have not heard of him, let alone seen his striking landscapes of a grimly damp but dynamic and beautiful industrial city.

The Lowry arts centre in Salford hopes to help change that by staging the most comprehensive overview of Adolphe Valette's work to date.

Quite why the Saint-Etienne born Frenchman ended up living in and painting early 20th century Manchester is something of a mystery. But as a result, he not only produced truly fine work but helped invigorate and hone the skills of young artists, including LS Lowry.

"He really deserves wider recognition," said the show's curator Cécilia Lyon. "In his paintings of Manchester he really caught the dynamism, the atmosphere, the pollution, the industry – there is everything in these paintings."

The show was formally opened by Bernard Emié, the French ambassador, at a private view on Thursday. His presence was significant, said Lyon. "It is a very important sign of recognition for one of their painters which they have overlooked for a very long time," she said. "Valette is better known in the UK than France."

One reason for his comparative obscurity is that he did not work in London or Paris. Nor was he very good at or interested in self-promotion.

"Even now, an artist is only celebrated when the critics in a capital have given their verdict," said Lyon. "Also Valette was an extremely modest man, he never searched for recognition."

Valette brought the excitement of impressionism to Manchester and taught it to students at the Municipal School of Art, All Saints – now part of Manchester Metropolitan University.

His most significant pupil was Lowry who called him "a real teacher … a dedicated teacher". Lowry added: "I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris."

The show has work by both artists and suggests that it was surely Lowry following Valette in bringing to life so magnificently the industry of Manchester and the north-west.

Claire Stewart, curator of the Lowry collection, said: "He brought all this direct knowledge of what artists in France had been doing to Manchester and it invigorated his students. They loved him as a teacher."

The show, with around 100 works, covers all periods of Valette's life so there are his best known Manchester-scapes from the Manchester City Art Gallery as well as loans from Chatsworth house and light-filled paintings from his time back in France living in rural Beaujolais.

Most of his works are privately owned and earlier this year the Lowry Centre appealed for people to come forward if they had a Valette on their walls. They got around 50 positive responses and nine newly uncovered works are included in the show.

There are also preparatory sketches for works still lost such as Manchester Street in Fog.

Adolphe Valette: A pioneer of impressionism in Manchester runs at The Lowry, 15 October-29 January © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

MediaCityUK wins a building prize

Manchester's MediaCityUK may be unpopular with certain BBC staff required to travel "up north", but the city takes great pride in the place.

Last night the Salford Quays complex was awarded building-of-the-year prize by Greater Manchester chamber of commerce.

That will be more welcome than the trophy it picked up last month, the Carbuncle Cup, which was awarded by the magazine Building Design.

Phil Cusack, chairman of the chamber's property and construction committee, said the development was "of national economic significance."

He added: "MediaCity will contribute to the economic well-being of Salford, Manchester and the region for generations to come. This award recognises its importance in terms of the immense contribution it is already making."

Source: TheBusinessDesk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 06 2011

Latest Beetham tower block administration leaves '£50 million debt'

What next for the cityscapes of northern England as the super-skyscraper era comes to an end?

There's an instructive piece in North West Business Insider about the mountain of borrowing which underlay those modern landmarks of the North, the Beetham property company's various towers. Rising proudly above Liverpool and Manchester they prove to have been built on the sort of credit which has slid away in the crunch, like sand.

Insider's correspondent David Casey has been reading a report from Baker Tilly who were appointed administrators when a winding-up petition was filed at the High Court in July for Regional Landmark Hotels, formerly called the Beetham Organisation.

This puts the amount owed at more than £50 million and follows previous administrations of other parts of the firm, which saw KPMG sell the iconic Beetham hotels in Manchester and Liverpool in March to Cypriot businessman Loucas Louca for an estimated £65-70 million. The full piece is here.

A similar fate befell Leeds' highest profile developer Kevin Linfoot, whose KW Linfoot firm had the vaulting ambition to design a 54-story glass-clad skyscraper with a 32-story twin called Lumiere. The launch scenes were extraordinary, even for the giddiest moments of the city's property boom, with the French designer Philippe Starck holding court amid stiltwalkers, chocolate-coated women and fireeaters.

Linfoot went into administration 19 months later, in February 2009, and the Lumiere handling company sought liquidation the following years. The site remains an undeveloped plot with plans for a temporary minipark being mulled.The skyscraper neededover £1 million just to pay for planning costs.

The elan of the schemes, built or not, was remarkable but many felt queasy at the scale of lending which inevitably had to underly such vaulting notions. It is hard now to recall an era which saw Leeds planners talking about an avenue of skyscrapers marching up the hill towards the university with 23 applications for towers averaging 35 storeys in the planning system in 2007.

What now? Modest development has survived or is restarting in all the major northern cities, but it will surely be a long time before we see ambition again on the scale of this century's first seven years. Where next for architects and property developers; what advice would you give? Can small be beautiful again? © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 02 2011

Photographer Kevin Cummins's best shot

'It almost doesn't need the band. It would still be a Joy Division photograph without them'

Joy Division were relatively unknown when I did this NME shoot. It was 1979 and I was just starting out, too, so in a way we were experimenting with each other. It's one of the first band shoots I did – and probably my best-known photograph.

I didn't really like a lot of rock'n'roll imagery: I thought it was confrontational. What I was trying to do here was capture their sound. I felt that the space in the photograph was like the space in their music. I told Bernard Sumner this last year and he said: "We didn't have any sparseness in our sound, we filled all the gaps." But then they always did have a very different idea about how they sounded. Left to their own devices, they could have been Bon Jovi.

We nearly cancelled the shoot because of the weather. We ended up doing some pictures in the snow, but took more indoors. The original idea was to shoot the band from the road looking up at the bridge, so they would face south, as if they were looking out of Manchester and almost saying: "When we're successful, we'll be out of here." But when I saw them on the brow of the bridge I thought it made a great architectural shot. It almost didn't need the band in the picture, because it would have still been a Joy Division photograph.

I only had two rolls of film, as that was all I could afford, so I had to make every frame count. There were three takes of this setup: one upright and two horizontal. Every few minutes they were complaining about the cold.

It was a totally different city back then. It looks like eastern Europe. I've noticed that when students move to Manchester they have their picture taken on the bridge. It's an honour that people feel the photograph defines the city and the band.


Born: Manchester, 1953.

Studied: Salford college.

Influences: Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt, Jane Bown, August Sander.

Top tip: "It doesn't matter what camera you use. The connection with your subject is what's important."

High point: "Spending a season with Manchester City for my book We're Not Really Here, about their final season at Maine Road.."

Low point: "None, professionally. Setbacks make you more determined." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 22 2011

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite radical

First exhibition in 50 years sheds new light on the man whose work was described by the establishment as 'grotesque'

Manchester Art Gallery will on Saturday open the first major Ford Madox Brown exhibition in nearly half a century, bringing together 140 works which cast the artist in a fresh light.

Brown may not be the best known of pre-Raphaelite artists, but those staging the exhibition will argue that he deserves to be seen as one of the most important – a true pioneer and radical who was decades ahead of his time.

The conservative Victorian art establishment was genuinely shocked by Brown, said the show's curator, Julian Treuherz. "People found his work grotesque, offensive, disturbing," he explained. "The sort of things that people want contemporary art to be now, but in those days it was thought to be entirely unsuitable."

Now, for the first time in more than 25 years, Brown's two best-known works will be displayed together. They are Work, an epic painting of real life which took up 12 years of his life, and Last of England, which shows a grim-faced husband and wife emigrating.

The show also includes a painting thought lost until only two years ago. The Seraph's Watch has not been seen in public since 1896 and is a significant work, not least because it is a painting Brown got a young Rossetti – something of a fan – to copy when he was giving him art lessons. Treuherz recalled getting the call that the painting might have turned up in a private collection in Worcestershire. "It was a wonderful surprise. When you do an exhibition like this you want things that no one has ever seen and this is one of them."

Similarly, a portrait of London silk manufacturer James Bamford, which marked a change in direction by Brown, has not been seen in public since 1865 and appears in the show having been specially cleaned.

Another picture is interesting because it has probably the first and possibly the only tricycle in a portrait – and it is thanks to the Guardian. The subject is Madeleine Scott, daughter of the great CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian and cycling nut, who rode every day from his home in Fallowfield to the office. It was painted in 1883 at the height of a tricycling craze.

Treuherz said Brown was a man ahead of his time who became a mentor figure for younger pre-Raphaelites. He did everything the Victorians said should not be done. He painted subjects with an unsentimental realism – children were what they looked like – and showed the poor and working class without condescension.

He also designed furniture before the arts and crafts movement said that this was what all true artists should be doing and used techniques often attributed to later movements. In one of his most controversial works – it was called "an insult on the public intelligence" by one writer – Brown shows the colours visible in shadows, an innovation usually credited to the French impressionists. It was also painted entirely in the open air, something no other artist was doing.

The work is The Pretty Baa Lambs (left), which shows a woman and baby in a field of gambolling lambs, and to modern eyes it seems remarkable that it shocked. It seems pretty almost, but Treuherz said: "It is very stark, there's no grace about it. If you think of Victorian ideals of beauty you think of a regular face, very pale and here she's got flushed cheeks and she's looking down."

People who came to see it thought it must mean something – what on earth was Brown trying to do or say? Was it a Madonna and child? Brown said it was just a lady and baby looking at lambs, which infuriated people all the more.

Two companion pieces will be shown together for the first time since 1964: The English Boy, which is in the Manchester collection, and The Irish Girl, on loan from Yale Centre for British art in New Haven.

Brown was born in Calais and lived in London but he will for ever be associated with Manchester because of his remarkable murals in the town hall. Maria Balshaw, director of both Manchester city galleries and the Whitworth, called him "perhaps the greatest 19th-century adopted Mancunian. He is a very important part of the cultural history of this city."

The murals were the crowning achievement, the culmination of Brown's career, taking him more than 12 years and will be open to a public who do not necessarily know they are there on Sundays throughout the exhibition.

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer is at Manchester art gallery from 24 September to 29 January. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 16 2011

Ford Madox Brown: working class hero?

Although he shares some stylistic traits with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the artist preferred the mess of everyday life to the lofty mythological subjects of Rossetti and Burne-Jones

Hear the words "Ford Madox Brown" and "Manchester" in the same sentence, and you think automatically of the Town Hall murals, that 12-part picture book of the city's history which Brown was commissioned to paint on the interior walls of Alfred Waterhouse's neo-gothic civic palace in 1878. Here, in bold outlines and strong colours, looped around the magnificent Great Hall, you can trace the moment the Danes were expelled from the city in 920, or the day in 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened his eponymous canal, allowing coal from his mines to be delivered straight to the heart of "Cottonopolis".

Look closely at the murals, though, and you'll see they have none of the grand swagger usually associated with Victorian public art. The Danes are keystone cops, tripping over each other as they quit the city, while the duke – a confirmed teetotaller – looks suspiciously excited and flushed. Surprisingly perhaps, these sly subversions are not the work of a young man. Brown was 72 when the paintings were finally finished in 1893 and they represent the summation of a five-decade career. Moreover, as this Autumn's Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer at Manchester Art Gallery reveals, such inspired mischievousness had been wound into Brown's work from the beginning. Starting with his first apprentice pieces in the late 1830s, he had been testing and tweaking the rules of established art practice in a way that frequently piqued his critics and still gives his admirers much to ponder today.

Brown's work has none of the hyper-loveliness of the pre-Raphaelites with whom his name is so often bracketed, even though he was never a formal member of the Brotherhood, that group of seven excitable young men who made a pact in 1848 to revolutionise English art by returning it to the purity of the 14th century. While Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt rendered their historical, literary and mythological subjects with a metaphorical high varnish, Brown welcomed in the mess of every day. In his paintings hard noon light casts unflattering shadows on his sitters, who grimace and squint in protest. Colours clash, as they are apt to do in real life, while the children Brown loved to paint have the look of pudgy potatoes. Even his women are less than perfect. While technically Emma Hill, Brown's second wife and favourite model, was a working-class "stunner" chased from his studio into his bed, she departs from the bruised sensuality of Lizzie Siddal or Jane Morris in important ways. Instead of the rivers of hair and beestung lips there is a neat coif and an oddly shortened upper lip, which makes Mrs Brown look less like a medieval temptress and more like an amiable rodent.

All this strangeness comes together in Brown's painting of 1851-9, Pretty Baa-Lambs. Ostensibly a picture of a woman in 18th-century dress holding a baby and petting some sheep, it is impossible to know quite what to make of it. The antique costume might suggest rococo pastoralism, something after Gainsborough perhaps. But Brown has added a sharp dose of the here and now. The painting was made entirely en plein air, all the better to capture the effects of a fierce midsummer sun. The woman's face is bright red, an English rose flaring unflatteringly in the heat, while the baby's sheeny arms look like over-stuffed sausages. Contemporaries were scarcely impressed – "a facetious experiment upon public intelligence" suggested one – and even now it is hard to decide whether it is, or is not, absolutely horrid.

The main reason that Brown never joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was that he was already embarked on a similar project. He was born in 1821, which made him a good seven years older than Rossetti, Hunt and Millais (Rossetti, indeed, had first made contact by asking whether Brown might take him on as a pupil). Brown's training had been different too. While the others had mostly come through the Royal Academy Schools, Calais-born Brown had attended the academies of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, where he had absorbed the realism and fine detail of the early Flemish and Dutch painters. His admiration for the sincerity and truthfulness of art made before the high Renaissance was further boosted by a trip to Italy in 1845, where he was able to see the great altarpieces and fresco cycles of Giotto and Fra Angelico at first hand.

The subjects that Brown chose to paint were particular to him too. While the other pre-Raphaelites often lost themselves in a dreamscape of the distant or mythologised past, Brown's work was just as likely to crackle with the dilemmas of the present. In 1852 he started on his masterpiece, Work, a sprawling multi-figured composition which went someway to meeting Baudelaire's urgent demand that artists should take as their subject "the heroism of modern life". The scene is Heath Street in Hampstead, where navvies are digging up the road. Around and beyond them cluster sightseers and passers-by drawn from every level of society: a do-gooding lady with pamphlets, a man selling chickweed, some itinerant farm labourers, a scraggy little girl in charge of her younger siblings and, standing to the side, two middle-class men whom a contemporary viewer would easily spot as Thomas Carlyle and the Christian Socialist reformer, the Rev FD Maurice. The detail is inexhaustible and the purpose multiple. On one level the painting serves as a reminder that this newly urbanised society depends on a variety of labour that would have been unthinkable even 50 years earlier. But in its careful delineation of individual characters, the painting also suggests that every man and woman, of whatever social class, needs work as a kind of soul medicine. Or, to quote Carlyle, one of the "brainworkers" in the picture, "In Idleness alone is there perpetual despair."

It wasn't just the subject of Work that was new. The painting dispenses with visual hierarchies, so that on first viewing it is not clear which are the most important figures. Incidents spread over the picture without ever quite coming into focus, which makes the eye skitter frantically over the picture plane. Each subsequent viewing reveals new clusters of characters, all absorbed in their own mini-dramas. Brown, wedded to the pleasures of narrative, wrote detailed backstories for each of his people: the pot boy, he explained, may well be wishing that leafleting do-gooder would listen to his opinion for a change, while the girl turned thuggish childminder is coping with an alcoholic father who will soon be up before the bench. In contrast to one of those big crowd scenes painted by William Powell Frith, the figures here push beyond their symbolic envelopes to become fully imagined men and women.

The painting was remarkable too in the degree to which it was painted out of doors: Brown rigged up a trolley and wheeled the canvas every day into position. In this commitment to catching the exact play of summer light on a leafy street he anticipated the Impressionists by several decades. Meanwhile, the figures, modelled by friends, acquaintances and amenable members of the working class, were done in the studio where Brown agonised for weeks over such details as the potboy's fancy waistcoat. Even his pre-Raphaelite associates, known for taking pains, worried that Brown's "excessive elaboration" meant that Work would never be done.

Painting en plein air, though, was not always possible. Brown's other great masterpiece, The Last of England, was conjured from his imagination or, as he put it, painted "as it would appear". The work concerns a young, shabby, middle-class couple setting out for a new life in Australia. The name of the boat – Eldorado – suggests that they are part of the southern hemisphere's short-lived gold rush of the 1850s. Their faces are blank and baffled by the scale of the step they are taking while their bodies radiate the pinched exhaustion of people who have no choice. The woman is based on Emma. The man is Brown himself, known in his youth as handsome, but here modelling the kind of sullen impotence you might see on a clever young man who has come down in the world. As ever, Brown lightens the whole effect with sly touches of humour: where you might expect to see lifebelts he has hung a row of scurvy-beating cabbages.

Underpinning these two great paintings lay Brown's abiding interest in the underdog. Unlike his friend William Morris, he was never a systematic socialist, opting instead to make a series of pragmatic and personal interventions in the lives of the poor. He taught art at the Working's Mens' College and, later, set up the Labour Bureau in Manchester. In the same way, his art is one of engaged observation rather than noisy propaganda. Perhaps this was because, unlike the independently wealthy Morris, Brown understood poverty to be a complex, nuanced business. While never actually starving, he spent at least two decades of his working life harried by a lack of cash. The Last of England sold for less than it should, and Brown's hyper-sensitivity also meant that he tended to crash up against the institutions and people who would have done him most good. On one occasion, when John Ruskin, that great champion of the pre-Raphaelites, asked him why his recent An English Autumn Afternoon featured such an "ugly" view of Hampstead's rooftops, Brown flashed back sulkily "because it lay out of a back window".

A difficult family life – his first wife died young, his second wife was an alcoholic, and he also lost his two beloved sons – hardly helped Brown to live in the strong sunshine that he so often chose to paint. That did not mean, though, that he plunged into sourness. Some of his most successful drawings and paintings are of children, whom he managed to capture without resorting to Millais's later kitsch (it is impossible to think of Brown making a painting like Bubbles). In his sketches of his own babies he shows them not as cherubs, but as snuffling young animals. Later, while living in Manchester and working on the Town Hall murals, he painted Madeline Scott, daughter of CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, sitting proudly astride her tricycle – the first time that such a contraption had ever been wheeled into a portrait painting.

As this suggests, Brown found Britain's premier industrial city to be a conducive place to spend the last decade or his working life. Although he had no prior relationship with Manchester, its brisk, nonconformist atmosphere suited him particularly well. While reviewing the city's history to find subjects for his murals, he found an abundance of moments that chimed with his own subtle understanding of the human condition. The Trial of Wycliffe, AD 1377, for instance, suggests a profound sympathy with proto-Protestant Wycliffe's project of democratising ancient mysteries. Meanwhile in John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle, AD 1753, Brown shows us Kay fleeing from furious machine breakers, a wry reminder that what one man deems to be "progress" can also mean a downward tumble for countless others. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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