Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council’s first fine art collections date from the earliest years of Vernon Park Museum, when one of its two founding MPs, John Benjamin Smith, placed on loan his private collection of approximately 47 paintings which he purchased during his grand tour of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Museum, situated in Vernon Park, opened in 1860 with a museum gallery on the lower floor and a picture gallery on the upper floor, but without any pictures to hang on the walls. Smith had acquired a collection of oils in Rome some 20 years earlier, and they had remained in their crates ever since. He agreed that they be placed on loan to the Museum and, with remarkable insight for the period, ‘that proper blinds be fitted to shield them from the sun’. When Smith died in 1879, the loan was converted to a bequest and the ‘Smith Collection’ became the core of Stockport’s fine art collection.
The Stockport Heritage Service's collection grew significantly in 1925, when the War Memorial and Art Gallery were built to remember the dead from the First World War. The Art Gallery called for donations of paintings for the permanent displays and the response was very favourable, with a number of notable paintings being donated. For some years the ‘Museum’ collection (mostly the Smith Collection) and the ‘Art Gallery’ collection were regarded as separate, but in recent years they have been fully integrated.
Bramall Hall has a number of paintings by the Victorian genre painter Herbert Gustave Schmalz, including Where Is the Lord, My King? and Rabboni. There are also some good early-naïve paintings of the Hall and surrounding parkland, which provide important insights into the history and evolution of the house.
On loan to Abney Hall, former home of the Watts family, are two large canvases which remain in situ now that the house is no longer a public building. One very large picture on the main staircase is by Frederick Newenham and depicts Cromwell dictating a letter to his secretary, Milton. On the first floor landing another large canvas depicts The Birth of Cain, painted in 1831 by Théophile Auguste Vauchelet.
The Stockport Story Museum in the town centre provides the ideal location for the display of local topographical views in a variety of media, and has an important early view of Stockport Market Place, Cheshire by the local artist William Shuttleworth, as well as a depiction of St Mary’s Parish Church of about the same period. Local mills are also depicted in early industrial landscape views of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including two small oils by Shuttleworth of Hope Hill Mill, Stockport, Cheshire and the mill owner’s house, which were recently conserved with the assistance of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s Museum Development Fund, along with an amusing naïve oil on canvas picture, by an unknown artist, depicting an early nineteenth-century race meeting.
Also of great local interest is the conservation of seven oil portraits (all by unknown artists) from Marple Hall. The portraits are possibly of members of the Bradshaw family who lived at the Hall. One seventeenth-century portrait is reputed to be the infamous Judge John Bradshaw, who was elected president of the court which condemned Charles I to death and consequently signed the King’s death warrant. This was an important conservation project which, as well as conserving seven oil on canvas portraits by unknown artists, also led to the discovery of three original and rare silver gilt frames. All seven portraits are now on display in Staircase House in the Market Place in Stockport.
The fine art collection now numbers in the region of approximately 900 paintings, prints and other media, and is housed across Stockport’s heritage sites. The Collection mainly consists of pictures which have a local significance, either in subject matter, artist or association, and though modest in size, the Collection is well-suited to the variety of display locations across the borough, including temporary exhibitions in gallery spaces and period room settings within Stockport’s historic houses.
Katie Cavanagh, Collections Officer
Text source: PCF / Stockport Heritage Services
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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