A leisurely promenade down this two and a half mile main arterial route into Manchester also includes the exceptional Cornerhouse, before the road terminates past the theatre district, arriving at St Peters Square, second only to Rome, and the refurbished pantheon to books, Manchester Central Library.
This morning stroll is an excellent overview of one of Britain’s finest cities. From the fair fields of suburban, student bubble Fallowfield, to the encroaching Moss Side, struggling with a 49% child poverty rate and a truly global reputation, a cross section of the reality in Manchester is offered. It is a city of conflict and contradictions, but always one to fascinate and enthral. In this romantic mix is the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery. After a sixteen month closure for a £15 million redevelopment, it officially opened its doors on Valentine’s Day, complete with the brochure tag line, ‘Fall in Love Again’.
Originally founded in 1889, by a group of sixty eminent locals, featuring the Editor of the Manchester Guardian sat the time, the Whitworth’s purpose was the “perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester”, available to “people of all social classes”. Featuring the flagship permanent collection of the UK’s largest textile archive outside of London’s V&A Museum, traditionally, the Whitworth is defined by its older material.
On entry, what transpires to be a nod to the textile collection presents itself in the first gallery. Wandering through the open-plan space of the exhibition rooms, the walls offer tantalising glimpses of glamorous glories to the left, right, or straight ahead in the world-renowned Watercolours collection. Featuring works from the big name brands of the likes of Blake, Turner, and Constable, the lesser known, Thomas Girtin, a forgotten man of Romanticism and Turner’s early rival is a highlight.
Though the attraction of these British behemoths, not to mention the three van Gogh’s currently not on display, will, and always draw visitors to what has been affectionately nicknamed the “Tate of the North”; the interest and excitement comes from the gallery’s newer acquisitions. The Whitworth is truly universal in appeal. From the more mature peruser to the enthusiastic youngster, there is something for everyone. Walking through the well-configured, easily navigable floors, you will find the white-haired art buff enjoying the precocious placement of a portrait of Freud by Bacon, opposite a Freud portrait, beside a Bacon photo of Hamilton, while, his granddaughter, on a nearby bench sketches a shed.
It is a vibrant time for the museum and the 1960s Mezzanine level provides the explosion of panache and colour to reflect this mood. Headlined by the likes of Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, it is an all too brief, but excellent cross section of the decade that both tantalises and satisfies in its range. As a Black Sabbath fan glances over a technicolor piece of pop art, the diversity and attraction of the museum, showcases its ‘gratification of the people’ appeal. Sarah Lucas’ love it or leave it contribution, including wallpaper titled ‘Tits in Space’, alongside other novelties, provides the most surreal moment. Watch a six year old girl stroking the leg of a disembodied papier-mâché limb attached to an exposed vagina. Her mother states ‘be careful, do not touch’, while grandmother and sister, crouch down, gaze in wonderment.
The showpiece of the new exhibition space is dedicated to an enormous gunpowder canvas by Chinese exile Cai Guo-Quiang. It is a unique and great space that may prove difficult to fill in future because of its strange dimensions, but until the 21st of June, it is filled by this arctic apocalyptic scene, complete with indoor lake instillation that inspires absolute awe.
If the offerings of the gallery are sufficient for the culture vulture, or the kids are at a sugar low, there is always time to retire to the prim and proper café, or the small but nicely stocked shop. Otherwise, if the prospect of Manchester rain is inviting, head over next door to the University-affiliated Veggie Cafe that has relocated from the University Library to the Contact Theatre. For the ambitious, turn right for curry mile or left for the city centre. Those without an umbrella, just go back inside and lose yourself for another hour, the rain never lasts long.
By Rory McInnes-Gibbons