"How can men brought up in foul air and grime, ignorant of nature and interesting human work, out of reach of park and playground, know that ample open space, clean air, plant life, and the other necessaries of health can be had in a town?"
-Thomas Horsfall, Government of Manchester, 1895.
When Thomas Horsfall opened the Ancoats Museum, he had a plan, inspired by the works of John Ruskin, to bring beauty and art to the working poor in industrial Manchester. The most common works of art displayed in his gallery were depictions of nature, and this was done for a specific purpose. With the rampant industrialization and urbanization of the Industrial Revolution, Horsfall believed that the common man had lost his touch with nature, which was seen as the source of all beauty.
Both Ruskin and Horsfall believed that good morals and true life improvement could come from witnessing beauty in nature. Beauty was moral, and the greatest source of beauty was nature. Nature was seen as the a source of morality becuase it was the purest reflection of God's creation. Horsfall explains that by appreciating the beauty of nature, "the heart at least must find it almost impossible to doubt that this world unfathombly fair, has a maker and controlloer not less loving than powerful,"(Study of Beauty, and Art in Large Towns). Landscape paintings could tell stories, present ideas, and were meant to inspire and elicit certain emotions, ranging from awe, to pride, to whimsy. All of all the works below were apart of Horsfall's collection at his museum and were used for just this. These paintings also sought to educate. Education is the revelation of truth; the truth being presented in his museum was that of God’s creation and its inherently moral condition.
"Beauty, in the main, is the appearance of rightness... in other words, that there is a close connection between love of beauty and morality”
- Thomas Horsfall, A Study of Beauty and Art in Large Towns, 1883
But why did Horsfall choose paintings at all, or the institution of a museum to provide an educative public service? Horsfall's mission to educate the populace in the form of painting relies on their visual truth. John Ruskin and Horsfall believed that "all truth could be apprehended visually. Naturally, then, the artist occupied a priveleged place in this view of the world". This "truth-to-nature" that was being presented was the magnificence of God's creation. "Truth to nature" meant more than just accurate depictions of reality, rather, it was accuracy to the deeper feelings and meaning of the subject as the artists saw it. Through art, and most importantly color, an artist could reveal the inner truth of a scene. Horsfall, influenced by the works of Ruskin, believed this truth to be a practical means of self-improvement for a working class population cooped up in industrial, materialistic surroundings.
"The love of truth is too hasty, and seizes on a surface truth instead of an inner one. For in representing the Hades fire, it is not the mere form of the flame which needs most to be told, but its unquenchableness, its Divine ordainment and limitation, and its inner fierceness, not physical and material, but in being the expression of the wrath of God."
- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
As seen above in A Spate in the Highlands by Peter Graham and River Landscape with Ruined Castle by Alexander Nasmyth, accurate yet idealized portrayls of nature could serve an educative purpose. Hanging on the wall of a museum, the visual medium acts as a window to the outside world the working class did not have the means to see in person.
"It is written on the arched sky; it looks out from every star. It is the poetry of Nature; it is that which uplifts the spirit within us."
- John Ruskin on the power of "truth to nature"
“Let us have pictures painted of the most beautiful places round Manchester, to which work people go on holidays. Let the pictures be so accurately painted that we may see what kinds of trees are there; if rocks are shown, what sort of rocks they are.”
- Thomas Horsfall, Art Gallery for Manchester
Sweet Peas, by Helen Allingham, White Harebells, Rest Harrow, and Pink Wild Roses by Emily Gertrude Thomson are all depictions of nature whose primary functions were to educate. As industrialization became the norm, cities like Manchester were increasingly devoid of greenery like flowers and trees. Working class children would have grown up without knowledge of what a wild rose, white harebells, or even a honey bee looked like. These watercolors, with a scientific accuracy that highlights Ruskin’s ideal of "truth to nature", provided the working poor with a way to discover bio-diversity and learn about plants, most often flowers, that they would not have been able to see otherwise.
Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest, by Andrew MacCallum best embodies the ethos behind Horsfall’s Manchester Art Museum. This stunning depiction of the ancient woods of England has layers of meaning that could be accessed by all. First and foremost, it is a representation of the beauty of nature. In Horsfall's view, for the working poor, who did not have the means to travel to the countryside and were often confined to factories and slums and could not experience the wonders of nature for themselves, this proved to be the next best thing. Horsfall stated his purpose as hoping to "give the inhabitants of the poorer parts of the town knowledge of the beauty and wonderfulness of the world,"(The Study of Beauty, and Art in Large Towns). Paintings like these allowed the working classes a chance to witness the splendor of nature.
On a deeper level, Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest also served as an inspirational medium. Sherwood Forest was home to the mythical Robin Hood, a popular figure in turn of the century England. When this hung in the Manchester Art Museum, working class students would have been brought in front of it and told the story of Robin Hood. This created a more personal and idealized vision of nature, thus encouraging a greater appreciation and understanding of its beauties.
Written by Julian Alsarhan and Dean Messinger