Manchester reminds me of London rather more than anywhere else in England. Some of this is attributable to some of its rather warren like streets, but its more to do with the nest of cranes covering much of the skyline. Whereas coming into Birmingham on the train still passes an empty waste ground near the former Euston station, the train into Manchester passes through a series of construction sites. The only substantial skyscrapers outside of London are to be found here, although there’s nothing comparable to the Shard or the Gherkin; the Beetham tower deserves more comparison with the Heron Tower. Equally, there’s nothing really to match some of the public sector projects in other English cities, like Birmingham and Liverpool’s new libraries or the Sage in Gateshead. With that said, it’s impossible not to notice that beneath all the new towers the number of rough sleepers in Manchester seems a lot higher than in London.
Arriving at Piccadilly, I walk into the centre of town. Most of the city’s architecture is unsurprisingly Victorian, but the walk passes through a range of periods; the central Library built in the thirties by Vincent Harris with its beautiful stained glass panels based on Shakespearean characters, the gothic revival town hall built by Waterhouse with its corresponding statues of Cobden, Gladstone and Prince Albert, the church of St Ann with its enamelled stained glass built just before the Georgian period and the medieval Cathedral. Damaged during the blitz, the interior is in itself a conflation of styles with medieval choir stalls sitting near contemporary stained glass.
I spend sometime in Barry’s art gallery. I recall most of the pieces from a previous visit years ago; it’s nice to re-acquaint myself with paintings like Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, Mengin’s Sappho, Valette’s Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Prinsep’s At the Golden Gate and works by Sickert, Augustus John, Lowry and Gewn John. There’s also a rare Giacometti painting. Annoyingly a lot of the galleries are shut, but there is an exhibition on work by Wynford Dewhurst, an early English advocate of impressionism, whose work is heavily influenced by Monet. There’s also a small Dutch painting exhibition, including some landscapes by Ruisdael. Afterwards I visit the John Rylands Library. Built to a design by Basil Champneys, the interior is essentially based on a gothic revival church, with reading desks substituted for pews and statues of the founders substituted for the altar. Lacking Victorian high-church decoration, the gloom of the interior is only counterpointed by the lights. Lastly, I visit the Manchester Museum, through its collections of Egyptian sculpture and sarcophagi, coral, body casts from Pompeii, Palymran sculpture, Scrimshaws, Samurai armour, a stuffed Tigon, Benin ivories, a terrarium inhabited by rare frog species, an Elephant skeleton, gold Buddha statues, mounted Butterfly specimens, an Archaeopteryx fossil, Moche & Nazca sculptures, a Whale skeleton and a stuffed Dodo.
Liverpool is a more eclectic prospect. The area outside Lime Street Station is filled with Victorian building and monuments, from St George’s Hall to the Walker Gallery, but as you walk down towards the Mersey the area is filled with Edwardian designs that seem rather more reminiscent of New York than most English cities. The Portland stone recalls London more than Manchester or Birmingham. Liverpool’s most impressive buildings cluster around the waterfront here, facing outward to Ireland and the United States; combined with immigration from Ireland it’s little wonder that the city seems atypical for England. Unlike Manchester, the skyline is not dotted with cranes and the contemporary buildings resembling black shards house the public sector bodies like the Museum of Liverpool. The redbrick warehouses around Albert Dock revert to Victoriana, while the two twentieth century cathedrals sit alongside Georgian houses. Statues of Queen Victoria compete with the Beatles and Cilla Black.
I start by visiting the Walker Gallery with its large collection of casts and Victorian sculptures; a painted Venus by Gibson mirrors a plain version I’d seen at the Fitzwilliam a few months earlier. There’s also an arts and crafts section showing Victorian ceramics from local potteries alongside stained glass and tiles by Burne Jones, a Minton peacock and Fornasetti plates. Upstairs houses the huge painting collection, featuring works by Holbein, Cranach, Rembrandt, a fake Mona Lisa, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Hogarth, Wright, Freud, Doig, Minton and Knight. I’m especially struck by a set of Bosch like paintings by Albert Reynolds, a local artist who died in the First World War. As another local artist there’s also rather more of Stubbs than I would really have liked. The Victorian collection is quite large already but there’s an additional exhibition featuring works by Sandys, Rossetti, Millais, Maclise, Holman Hunt and Burne Jones. There’s also an unusual example of a Daguerre painting. Some of the artists are less familiar as they’d stayed with the Pre Raphaelite style well into the twentieth century, like John Struthwick or because of their gender, as with Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. A lot of the paintings like Dante’s Dream by Rossetti or Stanhope’s Expulsion from Eden are new to me in any case.
Down at the Pierhead, I visit both the Tate and the Maritime Museum. The former has a small Ellsworth Kelly exhibition as well as a smattering of works by Rothko and Lowry; particularly memorable works include an abstract painting by Gabriel Orozco, Perlin’s painting of Two Orthodox Boys and above all Grosz’s Suicide. The Maritime Museum includes a set of paintings showing how the Liverpool seafront changed over time but the main exhibitions dwell on the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Titanic.
Walking away from the waterfront I arrive at the Anglican cathedral. Despite the gothic detailing it’s hardly less imposing than his power station designs; the vast interior is incredibly dark with floodlights doing little to illuminate the cavernous interior. More than anything, it reminds me of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels (and to a lesser extent Sacre Coeur in Paris), which also towers over the city. As I leave on the train, the only thing visible from a distance is the cathedral tower rising up above the sea of terraced roofs. Close-up, walking around the building takes you down a cliff edge to a Victorian graveyard (including Huskisson’s tomb) and then leads back up a to quiet wood at the back of the building. Not too far is its Catholic counterpart; an unusual circular building designed by Gibberd which already seems to be falling apart if the bad state of the interior is enough to judge by. The main interest is the Lutyens crypt which extends well beyond the area of the building. Plans showing the full Lutyens design for a building which would have dwarfed everything else in the city do rather remind me (almost certainly unfairly) of Speer’s Germania plans.
The last place I visit in the North West is Chester. I walk in from the train station, noticing the redevelopment of the derelict shot tower and steam mills by the canal before heading into the centre with its half-timbered buildings. The main thing I’m interested in is the cathedral; a red sandstone affair like Lichfield whose exterior is covered in grotesques and gargoyles. The first thing you see are the cloisters, whose windows are filled with Victorian stained glass and whose interior garden pond seems popular with the local ducks. The cathedral proper has a wonderful set of medieval misericords, an Austrian cobweb painting, Minton tiling and some unusual Victorian wall mosaics. Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Roman walls, stopping at the amphitheatre and baths.