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Friends visit to Merseyside, June 2015

by Mavis Gregson


For Michael our group leader, brought up as he was on the Wirral, our four days in Liverpool in June were in part a trip through the streets of memory.  But for all of us, it was a chance also to explore the former, and still existing, municipal pride of Liverpool.

Day one, to break the long drive north, we paused at Chester.  There was time for lunch and a quick visit to the galleried, covered walkways of the Rows, almost a medieval shopping mall, much rebuilt through time and vicissitudes.   After that, the splendours of Chester Cathedral.  Built between 1092 and 1220, its evolution from a rich Benedictine abbey, dissolved by Henry VIII in 1541 and immediately made into a cathedral, gives the building a unique footprint.  Numerous treasures range through the stones of an early twelfth century arcade of columns in the North Transept, thought to date from Roman Chester, to the only remaining ancient church Consistory Court in the country, its format showing where from 1541 the Chancellor sat hearing cases and the Administrator sat recording them.  The shape of former monastic life emerges vividly in such things as the Chapter House, the cloisters, the stairs to the monks’ dormitory, the Refectory, with its superb 13th century wall-pulpit, the approaching staircase to which ascends gracefully across a whole wall.  To find these surviving in such substantial form feels relatively rare.

Once arrived at Liverpool, we were conveniently lodged in the Jurys Inn Hotel, close to the reclaimed Albert Dock area, from where it was easy for us to explore the Mersey waterfront on foot or via a round trip on the ferry, and imagine its former glory days, crammed with shipping.   The dignified redbrick frontages of the Dock’s Victorian warehouses somehow manage to look both stately and workmanlike - now home to shops and restaurants, and the new Tate Liverpool.

The backbone of the port’s eighteenth century prosperity, once its first wet dock opened in 1715, was of course the slave trade.  The last British slaver left Liverpool in 1807, but trade in cotton and other commodities grew unhindered, to its early twentieth century highpoint - a proud period that saw the Anglican Cathedral begun In 1904, and by 1916 the three Pier Head buildings completed, including the Liver Building. Walking past these latter now, their grand frontages seem impinged upon, in these days of relative decline, by aggressive recent building – one office block with uncompromising angles of black glass felt particularly out of sympathy.

The Anglican Cathedral was our morning visit on day two.  With Liverpool made a diocese in 1880, and the site for the Cathedral bought in 1902, it was not completed till 1978, years of war and depression intervening.  For the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), it was his life’s work – he of the red telephone box, of which there is a sample standing near the Cathedral’s Western Transept.  Twentieth century techniques enabled Scott to carry English ‘gothic style’ to new heights in his design, nowhere more so than in the expanded crossing under the tower, which the guide book calls, with justification, The Great Space.  The eye is lifted upwards to the ceiling vault and forward to the richly decorated high altar and reredos, via an interplay of soaring columns and arches.  But in case anyone might find this tinged all too much with grand but remote religiosity, we discovered the cathedral full of children on the day of our visit.  Some were practising in a choir, others drawing or writing.  A last group, startlingly, was being put through a miniature assault course in the generous space in front of the West Porch.  Their excited shrieks, as they wriggled under camouflage netting as fast as they could, made a surprising backdrop to our visit.   Equally challenging to convention was Tracey Emin’s installation under the west window in pink neon ‘handwriting’:  “I felt You And I Knew You Loved me”, one of several modern artists represented in the Cathedral.

Our afternoon destination was the Walker Art Gallery.  Opened in 1877, boasting a proud classical frontage onto William Brown Street, and gradually extended over time, the Gallery was originally funded by Andrew Barclay Walker, a Liverpool brewer and alderman, to commemorate his term as mayor, and perhaps, some speculate, to improve the image of brewing at the time.  The wide and well-balanced collection it houses, spanning a generous mix of works from medieval to contemporary periods, has been brought together from various sources, part via individual philanthropy, part through public policy commitments to advancing fine arts in the city.  Annual Exhibitions were held as far back as 1810 by the Liverpool Academy, modelled on London’s Royal Academy, and its early connections with the pre-Raphaelite movement, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais both being diploma winners, has led to the Walker’s strengths in this area.  From 1871 till 1939 and WW2, the Town Council organised an annual Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, which acted as the gallery's main showcase for new British art.  Then in 1957, the John Moore’s Painting Prize was instituted, and since 1980, the Walker has automatically added the first prize-winning work to its collection as part of the terms of the award, thus fortifying its contemporary coverage.

There are two Spencers in the Walker collections.  In store is his “Villas at Cookham” (oil on canvas, c 1932), with reassuringly Berkshire terra cotta urns under the villa windows, and a glimpse of the Crown pub in the background to confirm the location.  We were delighted that our guide brought this out for us to examine in detail.  And on the gallery walls, we went individually to look at “Saturday Afternoon” (oil sketch, c 1927), a happy family group of Spencers, clustered round the windows of the Cookham home.  In addition to these, our guide provided an illuminating tour and commentary on a number of gallery highlights such as William Frederick Yeames’s famous narrative piece, “And When Did You Last See Your Father?”, 1878, and “Isabella”, 1849, Sir John Everett Millais’s dramatic realisation of Keats’s poem, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”.

Day three morning saw us setting out by coach for the (Catholic) Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, approached through what survives of Liverpool’s once dignified and prosperous Georgian Quarter, and then along Hope Street, which joins the two Cathedrals.  There is a joint memorial here to Bishop David Sheppard (Anglican Bishop of Liverpool 1975-1997), and Archbishop Derek Worlock (Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool 1976-1996), who together with Free Church leaders, worked to overcome sectarian division, and political instability in the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots, the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster. But here also Michael relived some boyhood anxieties, as he passed the address of his one-time dentist!

There were four attempts before a design for a Catholic Cathedral was finally accepted and implemented. The first, in 1850, led to a plan by Edward Welby Pugin, and the building of the Lady Chapel for a Cathedral, in the grounds of St Edward’s College in Everton.  But the scheme was not completed.  In 1922 efforts were revived, and the present nine acre site purchased, with Sir Edward Lutyens as architect.  His scheme was massive - its central feature a great dome, 520 feet tall at its highest, well over-topping the Anglican Cathedral’s tower at 330 feet.  Work began in 1933, but was brought to a halt in 1941.  After the war, with costs rising prohibitively, only the crypt was completed.  Some of us visited it, beneath the present Cathedral, overwhelmed by its scale.  The total Lutyens edifice would have been gargantuan!  A 1953 attempt by Adrian Gilbert Scott, brother of the architect of the Anglican Cathedral, to create a reduced scheme did not find approval.  Finally, in 1960, the whole process was overhauled, and an open competition launched, which was won by Sir Frederick Gibberd’s visionary design.  This, finished in 1967, is the inspiring building we now have, with its distinctive central lantern tower, the spiritual and architectural focus of the whole.  John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens designed beautiful stained glass for this.  The play of light and colour creates an atmosphere of meditative peace for those sitting below, while the circular design brings the congregation closer to the celebrant at the altar, as the formulations of the Second Vatican Council desired.  Chapels lead off the central area - the tints of their glass, and the wall spaces hung between with striking tapestry, harmonise beautifully.

En route for home on day four, our morning took us on our final visit – to Port Sunlight, the garden village created in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever (later Viscount Leverhulme) for workers at his new Lever Brothers Soap Works, and to the Lady Lever Art Gallery he built to share the treasures of his art collection.  Over thirty architects designed homes in varied styles, along wide tree-lined streets.  Everything needed for well-being was included – houses with internal bathrooms (a novelty for those used to Liverpool’s slums), a school and community hall for education and leisure. 

Lever’s wealth came from his shrewd recognition that soap could be sold more profitably in the form of small wrapped bars of “Sunlight Soap” or “Lifebuoy”.  He cleverly promoted his soap bars with messages about their healthiness and convenience for the housewife.  He was famously unscrupulous about buying art he saw he could exploit in his advertising, often to the dismay of the artist in question.  An amusing anecdote suggests he was a somewhat vain man, too.  He disliked the portrait of him commissioned from Augustus John so much (it made him look old and vulnerable, he thought) that he sliced out the head and hid the thing away.   However, a diligent maid found the pieces, and seeing a “Return to Sender” address on the packing, dutifully posted everything back to Augustus John, with predictable consequences!   Lever’s son later managed to reunite the severed portions, and the portrait is now on display in the gallery – it looks quite inoffensive really.     

The handsome Lady Lever Gallery (opened 1922) has a wealth of treasures: sculpture, painting, tapestries, Chinese and Wedgewood porcelain, and so on.  Lever gathered furniture from the late 16th century to the beginning of the 19th, the finest period of English cabinet-making, specifically to demonstrate the merits of British art and craftsmanship.  There is a stunning series of commodes (low cabinets), for instance, which sparkle with intricate marquetry in a myriad of woods:  harewood, tulipwood, sycamore, fruitwoods, holly, walnut, mahogany, box, ebony. 

One famous Lever acquisition, purchased in 1905 for the substantial sum of £648.18s.6d, and used immediately in an advertising campaign was, of course, Edward John Gregory’s “Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon”, 1882-97.  We were able to admire a large reproduction of it, on the screening erected to hide an area where galleries are being restored – a comfortably local note on which to end our rich and varied exploration of Liverpool!  Thank you Michael, and all who helped in its organisation.