Manchester’s Midland Hotel

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One of my Christmas presents last year was a tour of the Midland Hotel in Manchester. It’s something of an iconic building which I’ve passed many times being on Peter Street, opposite the Central library and near the Bridgewater Hall. It’s also close to the Free Trade Hall (now converted into another luxury hotel) but is where I first started going out to concerts in my mid teens a long, long time ago. The tour covered the history and the architecture of the hotel and was followed by a rather civilised afternoon tea.

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The hotel a large Edwardian Baroque style building constructed on an  “island” in a dominant position facing the former Central Station the northern terminus for the Midland Railway’s rail services to London St. Pancras, which it was built to serve as a railway hotel . The front entrance doesn’t face the station so passengers would have to walk round the building to enter via the grand front entrance. However, there was a covered walkway (long gone) to the rear entrance so porters could bring the wealthy passengers’ bags into the hotel ready for them.

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The façade of the hotel is covered with glazed terracotta tiles, which was a common finish on buildings from this period in the industrial north. My home town of Wigan, for example, has quite a number of buildings covered with red terracotta tiles in the town centre. This made the surfaces easy to clean at a time when the air was heavily polluted and light coloured stone would become black in no time at all. I remember many black stone buildings from when I was young which were cleaned up in the 1970’s dramatically changing their appearance. The Midland’s tiles were specially made by Burmantofts Pottery of Leeds, who specialised in architectural facing products.

When the hotel was built, a “Gentleman’s Theatre” occupied part of the site. This had to be demolished but a theatre was incorporated into the building. There are particularly fancy terracotta tiles with sculptures representing the Arts over the windows and doors where this new theatre, now long gone, was located.

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The symbol of the Midland Railway company was the Griffin, and this occurs as a decorative feature inside and outside the building.

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The hotel is renowned as the place where a certain Mr Rolls met a Mr Royce, founding the company that bears their names.

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Moving inside, today you enter the lobby with it’s Art Deco style reception desks

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but this area was originally a Winter Garden – the tree in the centre of the lobby no doubt being a reminder of this.

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The skylights in the roof are a reminder of this

The tour of the building took us into the public rooms used for meetings and the like, some of which had interesting features, as well as one of the bedrooms

There were decorations on the walls in the corridors which included displays of materials found in bedrooms which had been left behind by guests over the years. These included all sorts – newspapers, magazines, comics, letters, postcards, drawings, maps and all sorts of miscellaneous objects.

One of the features of the hotel is the Octagon Lounge which originally had a Moorish design with a large lantern hanging from the ceiling. A few years ago it was redesigned and now has an Art Deco look to it.

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It was an interesting tour and at the end we were able to indulge ourselves with afternoon tea with sandwiches (no crusts!) and scones with cream and jam.

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Very naughty!

Afterwards we headed over to Home – Manchester’s Contemporary Art, Theatre and Art Cinema complex to watch Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, which we enjoyed very much.

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All in all a good afternoon and evening out, despite the weather

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Mancunian Rain

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I was in Manchester on Friday for a meeting at the University. I had a little time to kill so went for a coffee at a café on Oxford Road towards the Infirmary. Across the road on the corner of Oxford Road and Gilchrist Street, I spotted this mural – a poem by Lem Sissay. It’s one of his “Landmark Poems

Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men

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I’ve finally got around to writing up my impressions of the exhibition of photographs by Salford born photographer, Shirley Baker at Manchester City Art Gallery. The Gallery website tells us:

Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career.

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“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.”

The exhibition which was originally shown The Photographer’s Gallery, London.

specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford.

with photographs mainly taken during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the years when I was growing up – not in Manchester or Salford, but in a Lancashire mill town less than 20 miles away. The urban landscape was similar to that of the big city – with terraced streets and post war development. Other than the first year of my life (which I can’t, of course, remember) we lived in modern housing, initially on a Council Estate and then, in my teens, on a new build estate. But my grandparents lived in a terraced house on a typical street.

Shirley Baker was very much a “street photographer”, and took photographs of ordinary people – the women, children and “loitering men” who lived in the poorer parts of the “twin cities” of Manchester and Salford, in and around the terraced streets, bomb sites and slum clearances.

These photographs really resonated with me – as well as most of the visitors to the exhibition who I overheard talking as I walked around the galleries. The streets, the clothing and the activities depicted in the photographs, all brought back memories.

The young boy in the cowboy hat could have been me – I had one too and would have dressed just like that when I was a similar age.

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and when I was a little older I could easily have been one of these boys fishing down the grid for “treasure” or one of the children playing on the makeshift swing made from a rope tied to the lamp-post in the picture at the top of this post.

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The clothing the children and adults in the photos are wearing are very much the same as I remember. So very different from today’s “designer” outfits that even relatively young children wear today.

And the lady in this photograph is wearing very typical clothing for the time with her overcoat and headscarf – she could have been walking down any of the streets in my home town when I was growing up.

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Here we can see an older woman cleaning the pavement, and possibly whitening the step with a “donkey stone” . People were poor but took pride in their homes. With her patterned housecoat covering her dress, her atire is typical of that worn by a working class woman of her age in the 60’s and 70’s in the north of England.

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Inner city Salford and Manchester were poorer areas than the town in which I lived. So I don’t recall things as being quite as grim as in many of the photographs when I was a child. Nevertheless the photographs are representative of the world in which I lived.

I’d not heard of Shirley Baker before. It was difficult for women to establish a career as a photographer in the 1960’s.

(She studied) Pure Photography at Manchester College of Technology, being one of very few women in post-war Britain to receive formal photographic training. Upon graduating, she took up a position at Courtaulds the fabric manufacturers, as an in-house factory photographer. Working in industry did not meet her photographic ambitions in wanting to emulate a ‘slice of life’ style similar to that of Cartier-Bresson. She soon left to take up freelance work in the North West. Further study in medical photography over one year in a London hospital did little to settle her ambition to work as a press photographer. Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian. Though she took up teaching positions in the 1960s, ultimately it was in pursuing her own projects where she came to feel most fulfilled. (Source)

More of her work can be seen on the Shirley Baker website.

When this exhibition was shown in London, many of the visitors (probably mainly middle class southerners) must have thought they were staring at a different world. But for me, and other visitors to the Manchester gallery, it brought back memories of our childhood and youth. (I’ve nothing against middle class southerners, by the way. I may have grown up in a working class family, but have to admit to being a middle class northerner these days)

In summary, this is an excellent exhibition which I will, no doubt, revisit, probably more than once, when I’m in Manchester over the next few months.

Addendum. I was in Manchester today to meet up with an Australian friend (like me a middle class professional, who grew up in a working class mining community) who was in the city for a short while. I introduced her to Lowry (she’d never heard of him) by showing her some of the pictures in the Gallery’s collection – and then took her to the exhibition to show her the world I grew up in.

Manchester Cathedral Stained Glass

It was a beautiful sunny day in Manchester last Saturday, so I decided to call into the Cathedral to have a look a the stained glass. With the sun pouring through the windows, they’d be shown off at their best’

All the Victorian stained glass was destroyed during the Manchester Blitz in 1940 so new glass has been installed starting in the 1960’s. The most recent is the Hope Window in the east wall and at the end of the north quire aisle, which was only installed at the end of last year (2016). The glass is contemporary in style, but with some traditional influences

This is my favourite, Fire Window by Margaret Traherne (1966) which is at the end of the chapel dedicated to the Manchester Regiment

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It was designed by the artist to commemorate the cathedral’s rebuilding after the blitz and represents the flames of the fires caused by the bombing. It’s a simple design but very effective, especially on a sunny day with the sunlight illuminating it – you could easily convince yourself that the street outside was ablaze. The window was destroyed by the IRA bomb that was exploded a few streets away in 1996, and it had to be reconstructed by the artist.

This is the Healing Window, (2004) by Linda Walton, which was installed to commemorate the restoration of the cathedral following the bombing.

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There are four large windows by Tony Hollaway

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The St. Denys Window (1976) by Tony Hollaway,

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The St Mary Window by Tony Hollaway (1980)

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The Creation Window (1991) by Tony Hollaway

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The Revelation Window (1995)  by Tony Hollaway

This is the most recent window – The Hope Window by Aaln Davis – that was installed in October last year and dedicated in December.

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The abstract design of the new window revolves around the themes of hope, innovation, growth and new life.

The window design includes the form of a tree (The Tree of Life) and seedpods, symbolising life and growth, and textile patterns relating to the city’s cotton industry. There is also a bee, the symbol of Manchester and an allusion to the beehives on the Cathedral roof. (Cathedral website)

The statue in front of the window is of Humphrey Chetham, founder of Chetham’s school and library.

Strange and Familiar in Manchester

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While I was in Manchester last Saturday I called into the City Art Gallery to take a look at Strange and Familiar, an exhibition curated by Martin Parr featuring photographs of British society and culture by leading international photographers from the 1930’s onwards. It had previously been shown at the Barbican in London. It’s a large scale exhibition with over 250 photographs by 23 photographers and shown in a chronological order. There was a lot to take in and it is difficult to do justice to it in a relatively short post.

Publicity for the exhibition quotes Martin Parr as saying

“The exhibition will reveal a very different take on British life than that produced by British photographers. It is both familiar and strange at the same time.”

Having visited the exhibition a couple of times (I’d been previously not long after it first opened) I’m not certain I fully agree with him. The picture of Britain shown in the photographs from the 30’s up to the “swinging sixties” were familiar rather than strange, although taken from the perspective of International photographers from a number of countries, the photographs probably represented a realistic view of British culture and society.

The exhibition starts in the 1930’s with works by  Edith Tudor-Hart. A lifelong Socialist, her work reflected her political commitment and the exhibition includes photographs by her of ordinary people in London’s East End and living in the slum housing areas of Tyneside.

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Child Staring into Bakery Window, London ca. 1935 by Edith Tudor Hart

Other highlights for me included

  • the Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys photographs of Cambridge, London and Oxford – commuters queuing at bus stops, bowler-hatted city workers and London markets.
  • The Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s photographs of a Welsh mining community
  • The Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain’s expressive, Modernist photographs of London shot from unusual angles, with ground-level viewpoints, double exposures, blurring and innovative focusing.
  • Photographs of London during the “Swinging Sixties” by American photographers Evelyn Hofer and Garry Winogrand, the German Frank Habicht  and the Italian Gian Butturini
  • The photographs of Bruce Davidson from the 60’s, especially his wonderful Girl Holding Kitten and his photographs from the Welsh mining community
  • German photographer Candida Höfer’s photogrpahs of people and places in Liverpool in the late 60’s , many of them reminiscent of when I lived in Liverpool in the mid 70’s.
  • The massive, closely cropped, stark colour portraits of ordinary people, (not exactly pretty) from Essex and West Brom

So much to see. So many excellent photographs. Much to learn from them.