The following passage comes from the author's A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain, which is reviewed on this site. — George P. Landow

Illuminated initial I

n its financial, popular and organizational success, the Great Exhibition heralded a new attitude to the public consumption of art in Britain. Its immediate outcome was the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded in 1852 and built out of its profits. It also heralded another great temporary exhibition in Britain, the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures exhibition held at Old Trafford, south-west of the city centre, near to where the Manchester United football stadium now stands. The Manchester art palace, temporary glass and steel like its larger Hyde Park predecessor, was connected to its city and beyond by a railway line that ran along its southern edge, and with a station that was effectively part of the palace structure. With the Bridgewater Canal to the north and a good road system around it, all possi- ble transport infrastructures were in place before building began, and were part of the consideration for choosing Old Trafford as the exhibition's site.

The Manchester exhibition displayed, for the twenty-two weeks of its existence, more than 16,000 works of art lent from private collections all over Britain — none From abroad — and attracted over one-and-a-quarter million visitors. Not only was it a glittering showcase for the paying visitor (ticket prices from one shilling), it was also a stamp of approval for the art market, and a voluptuous parade for future art collectors in search of a sharp and shining point for their capitalist ventures. Among the mas- terpieces of world importance shown in Manchester, which were later whisked off to America after money had changed hands, were Giovanni Bellini's St Francis in the Desert, Titian's Rape of Europa, Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Lawrence's Elizabeth Farren. Nevertheless, many paintings found their way to British public collections, including another Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of a Young Man, Hogarth's David Garrick as Richard III and Gainsborough's Mrs Siddons.

The Manchester exhibition had a profound effect on the development of the history, public understanding and accessibility of art. That it was held in Manchester, not in London, is an indication of the rapid economic growth of British provincial cities, and die dependence or the national economy by mid-century on manufacture and trade, and in particular the cotton industry. The exhibition heralded the growth from the second half of the century of civic art galleries including Manchester City Art Gallery (1882) and Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery (188$); and an galleries and museums, opening decade by decade, that bear their founders' names — Atkinson in Southport (1875), Barbel in Birmingham (1932), Burrell in Glasgow (1944); running all the way through the alphabet, via Glynn Vivian, Higgins, Laing, Mappin, Tate, Towner and Usher, to Walker in Liverpool (1873), Whitworth in Manchester (1889) and Williamson in Birkenhead (1928). The names and dates of the foundations of these museums reflect the changing pattern of patronage, and thus the changing sources of disposable wealth. [325-26]


Hamilton, James. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. [ Review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 15 October 2014