Walking around Liverpool city centre, you get a real sense of how art and its patronage is so much a part of the city’s history. Neo-classical architecture still imposes its grandeur and the re-purposed warehouses, their trading history.
Liverpool’s architecture and art collections are rooted in its development into a major port, its commerce and, less nobly, the slave trade.
Benefactors who made their money in soap, tobacco and beer not only indulged their wealth to elevate their social standing but Liverpool patrons, in particular, cultivated personal relationships with the artists.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement flourished in Liverpool and it was the only city outside London to have its own school of artists based at the Liverpool Academy, later to become the Walker Gallery. Had it not been for the city’s wealthy merchants, the movement may never had gained its popularity. Instead of buying Old Masters, they collected something new and exciting with a confidence in modernity. The city’s interest in contemporary art still thrives today. Read more about our visit to Tate Liverpool in a later blog.
We loved our visit to the Walker Gallery, one of the finest in Europe, a beautiful building housing a stunning collection; Rembrandt and Holbein to Lowry and Freud… they are all there.
However, the main purpose this time was to catch the Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition: “Making the Glasgow Style”; a great assembly of architectural drawings, furniture, ceramics, textiles and prints. Mackintosh took the Arts and Crafts style and developed it into a very personal point of view. Although he was active for a relatively short time, his work was very much part of the Art Nouveau movement which swept across Europe at the end of the 19th Century.
The textile industry had grown up to the noise of the power loom. The artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement rejected this invention, in favour of traditional methods such as embroidery, hand weaving and printing, all of which are being revived by today’s designers but with the benefits of digital tools.
In the context of a growing focus on the hand-made, this exhibition was a great reminder of how a dedicated group with strong design conviction, created some uncompromising interiors.
Today, the Arts and Crafts ethos is in revival. Craftsmanship is very much back on the agenda. Artisan skills, as well as “biomimicry”, add value and attention to detail is appreciated.
Another port of call during our visit was St George’s Hall. Opened in 1854, it’s a grand building in the Neo-Classical style, with concert halls and law courts.
It also houses the Minton Floor and, happily for our visit, the 30,000 beautifully handcrafted tiles were uncovered for the only time this year. The immaculately preserved floor which depicts the city’s coat of arms, sea nymphs, dolphins and tritons, in what was the largest Minton floor when first constructed. The floor is a stunning piece of decoration, the sheer size, detail, colour and most of all the story-telling, is quite a sight and will inspire some great carpet design.
Liverpool has always had a unique point of view, looking Westwards to Dublin and New York, rather than Manchester or London. The Pre-Raphaelites were the punk rockers of their day; subversive and rule-breaking. Mackintosh had a vision and remained true to his design ethos. St George’s Hall houses one of the finest Minton tile floors and was the world’s first air conditioned building. So many great things in one city.
Liverpool remains a confident city, full of beauty and a hint of rebellion…well worth a visit!