Art is social: ‘the visible meaning of a good picture’
The Society’s AGM was followed, in the usual fashion, by a lecture given by a distinguished member of the Society, this year by Janet Wolff, Professor Emerita of Cultural Sociology at the University of Manchester and author of many books on the sociology of art. The talk was this year organised jointly by Council and the Arts Section.
Wolff took as her starting point the debates generated by John Berger’s interpretation of Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Mr And Mrs Andrews. Berger had asked why the painting had been commissioned, and suggested motives other than aesthetic ones: ‘They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions’. This provocative statement, in Berger’s landmark 1972 BBC series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, turned out to be a formative and influential intervention in art history and art criticism. In an erudite and superbly illustrated account, Wolff explored how the history of modern western art has conventionally been seen as a sequence of styles and movements: Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Abstract Art; likewise as a chronology of great artists, each of them achieving a kind of revolution in art. She showed how, in recent years, this linear account of ‘great movements’ and ‘great artists’ has been supplemented – and questioned – by sociologists and social historians of art, who have argued that it is not possible to understand aesthetic developments without paying attention to social factors: contracts and commissions, museums and galleries, dealers and critics, and so on. This led her to consider the difference a social history of art has made to the story of art in the modern period, and what the implications might be for perennial questions of beauty, value and aesthetic taste. The thought-provoking nature of the talk was amply underlined by the range of questions it generated from an attentive audience.
Dickens and Magic
A magical evening was next on the Arts Section agenda. Few people know that Charles Dickens was also a talented amateur conjurer, fascinated by spiritualism and ghosts. But hey presto! lecturer Ian Keable lifted the lid on the author’s magical talent, using his own sleight-of-hand to reveal and re-create Dickens’s favourite tricks. Ian, who graduated from Oxford in PPE, qualified as a Chartered Accountant, then went on to become a professional magician. He is a member of the Inner Magic Circle with a Gold Star. He has also received the Magic Circle Comedy Magic Award.
Dickens’s had a love of uncovering the tricks and tools of conjurers, spiritualists and Victorian“psychics”. Ian opened up the secret world of Charles Dickens for us – mesmerising the audience with his own magical skills, as he recounted Dickens’ years performing his own highly amusing and entertaining shows. In this humorous and mystifying event, even those members of the audience on the front row, just feet away from Ian, remained baffled. It was a magical evening of entertainment in every sense of the word.
A talk about cemeteries might seem to verge on the ghoulish but Mike Higginbottom’s enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of his subject of Victorian Cemeteries made his lecture far removed from the macabre. Within the space of 45 minutes, he explored the growth of the cemeteries and exposed how the social pecking order continued even after death. Extravagant monuments jostle for space with the quirky and the plain. The graves of the famous, and the infamous become part of the tourist trail. Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is a case in point. No doubt the occupant of the Egyptian style tomb designed by Jacob Epstein would approve that it is now covered with lipstick kisses. It was a talk that could have gone on for much longer and perhaps there may be a chance in the future to hear about another Victorian obsession in Mike’s talk Temples of Sanitation.
Why the Anglo-Saxons Matter: King Alfred and the Making of England
Film-maker and historian Michael Wood hardly needed introducing to our audience. A familiar face on the BBC, and born and brought up in Manchester, he is passionate about the Anglo-Saxons and their role in shaping British history to the present day. Michael, who is currently Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester focused on what he believes is one of the most exciting and formative periods in British history – the Viking Age – when three generations of the family of Alfred the Great created the early English state. Before attending Manchester Grammar School, Michael was a pupil at Benchill Primary School and had an out of the blue surprise when he was reunited with one of his teachers from that school, who had come to see his lecture. It was many years since he had seen her, and he was clearly delighted and moved to see her again. This lecture attracted a very large and appreciative audience, many of whom enjoyed the chance to engage with Michael in the Question and Answer session.
Image reproduced courtesy of Preston Historical Society
Lit & Phil Museums: the role of Learned Societies in the creation of Museums in Britain, especially the North West
We tend to take our local museums for granted, but how and why they were formed, and against what odds, makes for a fascinating history. The role that learned institutions – such as the ‘Lit and Phil’ societies – played in that history is little known, and that was the topic addressed by Anthony Burton. Eminently qualified to lead his audience on this journey, Burton, who spent most of his working life as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and was himself its historian, described and contextualised the creation of Lit-and-Phil museums with both authority and lightness of touch. Manchester Lit and Phil, though one of the earliest in the world, did not start a museum, though other learned institutions in Manchester did. Focussing especially on Lit-and-Phil museums in Liverpool, Preston, Kendal, Derby and Chester, Burton described their foundation and how they manage to survive in the present, mostly under local government auspices. Characteristically, alongside some often-noteworthy libraries, their collections of exhibits would normally include natural history, geology, archaeology, and ethnography – subjects categorised as ‘philosophy’ (meaning science) – and sometimes art as well. This range of material did expose them to some mockery, as ‘heterogeneous and absurd jumbles’, but the intellectual ambition that inspired them was admirable, as Burton convincingly showed in what was a supremely well-researched and well-illustrated lecture.