Of all the wonderful works of man, which reveal the great truth that our nature is created to admire all that is great and beautiful in the Universe, and to reflect much of the beauty in our thought and work, and of all the more full and interesting forms of human life, the majority of the inhabitants are as ignorant as they are of beautiful objects of Nature.

- Thomas Horsfall, “The Government of Manchester,”

13 November 1895


Thomas Horsfall once described late 19th century Manchester as being “so heavy with soot, so bitter with sulphuric and sulphurous acid, that trees and flowers will not grow in it” (The Government of Manchester).  It is not surprising, then, that Horsfall worried about Manchester’s working classes not having access to experiences of beauty, be they “the wonderful works of man,” like paintings and sculpture, or “beautiful objects of nature,” like the trees and flowers that could not survive. Horsfall’s statement that the working classes were “ignorant” of beauty reveals something about Horsfall, too. Workers could, of course, make and appreciate beauty in their own lives -- through song, through pub life, through their families. That Horsfall neglected or ignored this reveals his own middle class notions of the nature of beauty and art; when he speaks of Manchester’s lack of beauty, therefore, he refers to a specific kind of beauty, and one that reflects his own socioeconomic status and values. At the same time, however, it is important not to romanticize the often very brutal realities of working-class life. What the working-class created was a beauty of survival and communities of support, advocacy, and the fight for better conditions. Horsfall offered a different kind of beauty, produced by craft, study, training, and based on the careful observation of nature – opportunities that the inhabitants of Ancoats could not easily enjoy.


George Vicat Cole, A Surrey Cornfield, 1860.

To his credit, however, Horsfall did try to remedy the problem of workers’ lack of access to his notion of art and beauty, and his primary method of doing so was the Manchester Art Museum. Horsfall thought that through the Museum, art could “be made a teacher,” educating and instructing the workers into an appreciation for his understanding of beauty, since, according to Horsfall, “if we believe that our people can be taught in any way, we must surely believe that they can be taught by pictures,” because those who couldn’t read could still enjoy them. Pictures and paintings, in other words, were accessible forms of art (An Art Gallery for Manchester).

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Josiah Wedgwood and John de Vaere, Orestes and Pylades, 1793.

Horsfall recognized, however, that sometimes the pictures or even the physical things themselves might not be enough for adequate instruction.  As such Horsfall embraced the use of labels for his exhibits, which functioned as “explanations of subjects, statements of price, brief criticism, and in the case of pictures of incidents taken from history or any kind of literature, references to books giving a description of the scenes represented” (Beauty and Art in Large Towns). “Orestes and Pylades,” an 18th century plaque by Josiah Wedgwood and John de Vaere exhibited in the Manchester Art Museum, illustrates this nicely, since many viewers might not have understood the literary context, and consequently the full meaning, of the plaque upon glance. A label would have offered such a context: that the scenes are from Euripides’ play Orestes, that they depict some of the fallout from the Trojan War, that it marks a British reengagement with classical Greek forms of beauty and art.  The labels, paired with the images, provided both the visual and verbal content that Horsfall thought would facilitate his museum’s educative mission. Horsfall wanted to bridge the gap between the educated and the uneducated; for him, only culture, beauty, nature, and meaningful work gave life purpose and pleasure.

Horsfall was not the only one concerned with these moral and existential concerns; other pages on this site discuss H.G. Wells, William Morris, The Pre-Raphaelites, and their critiques of Victorian England. These influential figures were all exposed to industrialization, class division, and a loss of the past that generated oppositional responses. Their work varied to some extent in terms of genre, political slant, and vision. Wells looked to the future, Morris looked to the past, and the Pre-Raphaelites looked to the present in order to construct arguments about the impacts of industry and art on society. They participate, each in their own way, in Horsfall’s reformist efforts, recognizing the potential of art to build a better world, to identify problems with the status quo, and to demand change. Like Horsfall, however, the ideas in their literary and artistic expressions imply problems with the status quo and demand change.

 Written by Kate Perl, Patrick Scheuring, and Emmett Schlenz