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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > History > History features > The greatest art show ever?

Prince Albert opens proceedings in 1857

Prince Albert opens proceedings in 1857

The greatest art show ever?

Modern Manchester’s smorgasbord of arts festivals and events that inspire the city’s population and embolden its international profile are nothing new. It turns out the city’s been holding such events for 150 years!

Art Treasures of Great Britain in numbers

- it was 14 months from conception to execution
- 42 policemen maintained order at the exhibition
- the pavilion was 56 ft high and 600 ft long
- 752 houses in Manchester offered accommodation to visitors
- 3,000 packing cases were needed to transport the exhibits
- 30,000 visitors attended on the busiest day (13 October)

Art treasures in Old Trafford

In 1857, four years after it had been awarded its city status, Manchester played host to Art Treasures Of The United Kingdom, the largest art show that had ever been seen in Britain.

It really was large. With over 16,000 exhibits, the city leaders had to sanction the building of a huge temporary glass pavilion in the Manchester Botanical Gardens, near where Old Trafford’s White City Retail Park is now, to house it. The pavilion cost £25,000 - that’s a massive £41m in modern money (based on GDP).

Despite that, the exhibition did manage to turn a profit of £304, partially because of the sheer number of people who attended. During the five months of the exhibition, 1.3m visitors saw the treasures, which is impressive enough, even without taking into account that the population of the city at the time was a quarter of that (and only 55,000 of them were literate).

Detail of Michelangelo's Manchester Madonna

Detail of Michelangelo's Manchester Madonna

High art, mass culture

So what brought so many people to Manchester? Unsurprisingly, it was the same things that draw us to events nowadays; the chance to be entertained.

Amongst the thousands of exhibits, there were 39 works by Rubens, 33 by Raphael, 30 by Titian and 28 by Rembrandt, though topping them all was Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child with Saint John and the Angels, which had only recently been attributed to the master painter and became known as the Manchester Madonna – a name that has stuck to this day.

That said, it wasn’t just the exhibits that people turned out for. Art Treasures was opened by no less than Prince Albert and the top names of the time followed the Prince Consort.

1.3m people attended the exhibition

1.3m people attended the exhibition

Queen Victoria visited, as did Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale and the French emperor Louis Napoleon. Had Victorian England had paparazzi, you wouldn’t have been able to see for the flashbulbs going off.

More than just the mills

While it may have been packed with treasures and wonders from across the UK, the purpose of the exhibition wasn’t really to enrich the minds of the populace. It was to show the world that Manchester was more than just an industrial city, and in many ways, it can be seen as the start of the city’s rich vein of artistic creativity.

That idea is probably best summed up by one simple fact. When the exhibition was ready, a local composer was asked to put together a small orchestra to play for Prince Albert at the opening ceremony.

Charles Hallé duly obliged and decided he liked the idea so much that he kept his band of musicians together, forming the Hallé Orchestra, which is now Britain’s oldest professional orchestra.

Inside the pavilion

Inside the pavilion

The legacy

Art Treasures Of Great Britain was one of the greatest exhibitions of its age. While its sheer size was superseded five years later by the Great London Exposition, what it showed was that art in the UK was about more than just London-based exhibitions.

It laid the foundations for provincial cities to flex their artistic muscles and show that they were just as important as the capital to the cultural life of the UK.

But more importantly for Manchester, it started a stream of creativity that would lead to, amongst many other things, the Manchester International Festival, an event devoted to inspiring the city’s population and emboldening its international profile. 150 years on, it seems Manchester is still the place to be.

last updated: 19/03/2008 at 16:05
created: 28/09/2007

You are in: Manchester > History > History features > The greatest art show ever?

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