I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Published August 24th 2020
The art of social distance
As you enter the reopened Manchester Art Gallery and 'check-in' at the foyer-desk, it is not just the staff who are wearing masks but also Rodin's sculpture (based on a Belgian soldier) The Age of Bronze (1877). It's a reminder that art - or at least viewing it - is not immune from global pandemics.
On arrival at the gallery, I usually take the lift to the top floor and see the new exhibition before walking back downstairs through the permanent exhibits.
The Age Of Bronze, 1877, Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917)
The top floor, along with some other galleries, is not currently open and the happily haphazard way of making your own way around the gallery has gone. Instead, in the manner so familiar in a COVID-19 world, visitors follow arrows and avoid any daydreaming-collisions with strangers.
A beneficial side-effect of the lack of a new exhibition is that it made me linger longer over artworks which I usually neglect to pay proper attention to.
Here is a completely subjective selection of three paintings from the permanent collection.
The Good Shepherd by Frederic James Shields (1833 - 1911)
Frederic Shields lived his life in both London and Manchester. He was a close associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, as well as Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905), architect of Manchester Town Hall, who now has a nearby Wetherspoon's pub named in his honour.
The Good Shepherd, which is in the Pre-Raphaelite section, is an unashamedly idealised image. Christ is blessed with flowing red locks, on which a crown of thorns rests. The depiction verges on being, unintentionally, homoerotic.
A flock of sheep crowd around him like besotted disciples and a halo of sun bursts through a background of oak trees.
The gallery-label to the side of the painting asks: Is its Victorian sentiment too cloying for our modern taste?
I think this is true but it also doesn't make Shield's painting insincere. He was a deeply devout man who reproached himself in his letters for any hint of ungodly behaviour and sent his younger wife suggestions of bible readings.
His works, like The Good Shepherd, lack authenticity, compared with more modern depictions, such as Pasolini's cinematic Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964. However, the oil on canvas' painting is a reminder of the power which religious imagery held for so many believers like Shields, and how they tried to live up to that holy ideal in their daily lives.
Autumn Leaves by Sir John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) - transferred from en.wiki, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34910657
This can be seen in the Highland Romance room, put together from Manchester Art Gallery's enviable collection of Scottish-subject paintings - which were donated by 'a large number of industrialist patrons.'
There is an irresistible poignancy to Millais' painting. The girls convey neither joy or resentment as they mound gathered leaves, beneath a red-streaked sky, before they are enveloped by darkness. The viewer is left to wonder how their lives will develop as the leaves turn again in subsequent years.
The scene is based on Millais' own Perthshire back garden view. Celebrated critic John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) described Autumn Leaves as "a perfectly painted twilight." It is dated 1856 - two years after Ruskin's wife, Effie Gray filed for an annulment of their marriage, after she had fallen in love with Millais. Effie and Millais married in 1855.
India House by Adolphe Valette (1876 - 1942)
By Pierre Adolphe Valette - ArtExperts Public Domain commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54654101
Valette was born in Saint-Étienne in eastern central France, but luckily for Manchester, he documented the city in highly evocative Impressionist oil paintings. He also found time to tutor a young L.S. Lowry.
Valette's 1912 image is both familiar and distant. India House was built in 1906 for Lloyd's Packing Warehouses Ltd. It is part of industrial Manchester, which now re-purposed or derelict, intermingles with the steel and glass of Manctopia.
The painting is in the 'Re-imagining the Galleries' room, of selections by staff and volunteers. On the gallery-label, Lesley, a volunteer, notes that Valette's image reminds her of her bus route to school, on winter days along Oxford Road.
Two barges go about their business on the River Medlock and lights reflect in the water. It is as hazy as a scene witnessed through perspex.
Valette brilliantly conveys the everyday, dank beauty of a city absorbed in its daily grind. Something Lowry also captured in a different style in paintings like Coming Home from the Mill (1928).
For a slice of Manchester's party life, see David Chadwick's photo - Girls In Club 1983.
Your name and contact details will be required as part of the online booking. If you come to the gallery without a timed ticket booking, you will be asked to provide your name and a contact telephone number.
Do I need to wear a face mask?
If you can, we are asking you to wear a face-covering during your visit. This is in line with government guidelines for busy public spaces. There's more information about face masks and exemptions here.
Will Gallery staff be wearing protective equipment?
We have introduced PPE for our staff, some will wear face coverings or visors. Acrylic screens have been installed at points where there is face to face interaction between staff and visitors.
Are you checking temperatures?
We will not check your temperature upon entering the Gallery, although if you suspect that you may have a temperature we ask that you delay your visit until it is safe to do so. If this happens during your visit, we ask you to alert a member of staff.
How will I be able to social distance?
We have reduced the numbers of visitors in the gallery at any time and introduced a one-way route to allow for social distancing. There are signs throughout the Gallery to remind you about these new measures.
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A sanitiser station is located at the entrance to the gallery on Mosley Street and all our toilets have handwash facilities.
What to expect – our facilities
What about access?
Lifts are available for those who need them most. Lift occupancy is limited to 2 people per lift or for one household group.
Can I get a drink in the Café?
The Gallery Café will not be open. We hope to open it soon.
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Toilet facilities are available but with reduced capacity. Some toilet cubicles, urinals and sinks have been taken out of use to allow for social distancing.
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Our lockers are not available at the moment. We advise you to travel light and bring only what you need with you as you will have to carry it.
Is the shop open?
Yes, and we have lots of new products including a brand new gallery guide.
For health and safety reasons, all transactions must be by card only until further notice.
Can we visit as a group?
Groups of up to 6 people who you live with, (or are in a support bubble with) can visit in line with Local Government guidelines.