North West: Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful

By Anna Colin

Whitechapel Gallery
17 September 2013 – 1 December 2013

TOUR: Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool
7 March – 31 May 2014

This display draws works from public collections in the North West of England and focuses on the relationship between industrialisation, art and social reform between 1880 and 1940.

It brings together three organsations, Manchester Art Museum (1886–1953), Leeds Arts Club (1903–1923) and Mass Observation (1937–1949). Each were nourished by the thinking of leading intellectuals, philanthropists and practitioners of the time including John Ruskin and George Bernard Shaw.

Victorian philanthropist Thomas Horsfall established Manchester Art Museum in Ancoats, a deprived area of inner city Manchester, with the intention to improve the lives of the working classes through access to and appreciation of art and beauty. Founded by writers Alfred Orage and Holbrook Jackson, Leeds Arts Club rapidly became a forum for modernist thinking and artistic experimentation by its members including Emily Ford, Eric Gill and Jacob Kramer. During its existence it fused art with philosophy, radical politics, suffragism and spiritualism to encourage reform in everyday life.

Social research organisation Mass Observation was started by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. While it eventually grew to be a nationwide sociological experiment, it was initially based in Bolton where it recorded the everyday lives of inhabitants, particularly the voices of the under-represented, and invited artists like Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Humphrey Spender to contribute to the project.

The display also includes a smaller case-study that uses cotton, its manufacture and social history as a metaphor for other forms of industrial production during the period in the North West.

Contemporary Art Society Displays at Whitechapel Gallery; North West with Anna Colin from Contemporary Art Society on Vimeo.


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