Class & the Accessibility of Art

“The central principle of the museum will be that the knowledge of those who have it, shall be used for the good of those who have it not.”

- Thomas Horsfall, Art Gallery for Manchester


Curating a public works museum for a large portion of the populace raises one key question: what kind of art can transcend barriers of education and class to offer an artistic service to everyone who enters the institution? In other words, how could exhibitions be as accessible as possible for the working class in industrial Manchester? Thomas Horsfall asked himself these questions when he founded the Manchester Art Museum. In an era marked by extreme socioeconomic stratification, exhibitions needed to achieve this purpose of accessibility in order for Horsfall's mission to be realized. Horsfall’s emphasis on educating the working class coming into the museum implies that he would need to operate in a shared atmosphere of his taste and theirs. In doing so, he hoped to improve the lives of the working class of Manchester by showing them something beautiful: nature. He believed it was a luxury that should not be exclusive to the upper class because all of humanity intrinsically enjoys God's creation.

“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 

His idea of a museum does not necessarily dissolve class barriers, far from it; but rather public institutions like the Manchester Art Gallery would share a common reality between classes. So then, the art that would hang in this museum would need to achieve this goal to go beyond class and education to offer a beautiful truth. Landscape paintings, particularly those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, could accomplish just that. Horsfall, heavily influenced by John Ruskin and his work Modern Painters, thought the exhibition of nature was a universal, common truth that everyone, not just the upper class or the classically educated, could find beauty in. 


John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-1859.


Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Gray, 1833.

"One impulse from a vernal wood/May teach you more of man,/Of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can."


- William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, English authors, artists, and art critics began to think about nature in a completely different way. The era of Romanticism was embodied by poets such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For these Romantic poets, nature had a moral, spiritual essence that was deeply connected to the human experience. This is why nature was seen as universally accessible, because it was integral to the human condition. For Wordsworth, “nature was a teacher whose wisdom we can learn, and without which any human life is vain and incomplete”. For Romantics, the morality of God and his creation was embedded into humanity’s conceptualization of beauty and meaning. Interacting with nature first-hand was a divine learning experience that could be represented artistically.


Horsfall’s purpose was to practically improve the lives of people coming into the museum by showing them something beautiful, and moral. However, even though he perceived certain works as beautiful, who’s to say that working class patrons would share his taste? Aware of this, it is no surprise that the relation between him and the individuals coming into the museum was of the utmost importance. Did Horsfall need to somehow explain the paintings so people would understand where he was coming from? Or would the work he exhibited be so universal to the human experience that its beauty would speak for itself? Horsfall would consider these when planning the institution as he considered that all of the paintings "shall be provided with brief, clearly printed explanations and comments; that on the afternoons of Sundays, and on the evenings of other days, good music of a kind likely to attract workpeople."


The shared sphere of artistic understanding between benefactor and working class beneficiary goes beyond class to create a new group: those who are able to appreciate God’s creation through art. The concept of Victorian respectability mirrors this new subset of the populace. It gives the opportunity for anyone, regardless of class, to become part of a shared sphere of understanding. So that “even the poorest are shown to have aspired to join self-help organizations and become worthy citizens.” With Victorian respectability, acting a certain way or ascribing to certain cultural expectations allows one to be “respectable”, whether or not they are educated or from the upper class.


“Artistically respectable”, then, is the same sort of concept applied to the new group of individuals who share an appreciation for landscapes and natural scenes. Because of Horsfall and other patrons who supplied public works, class was not the deciding factor for who understood the truth of God’s creation.


On the contrary, The Execution of Lady Jane, depicting an intricate historical narrative, was not necessarily accessible. It requires a certain education and culture of the classically educated nobility to be appreciated. Conversely, The Vale of Rest, seen above, incorporates themes of nature, death, and religiosity that the working class could see as beautiful. And if they did find it beautiful, upon seeing it in a public museum, they would be a part of the new artistically-respectable.


William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854-1858.

William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat exemplifies the sort of art someone like Thomas Horsfall would want to exhibit to the public at large. A member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt’s romantic yet hyper-realistic depiction of nature can be understood and appreciated by the working class. Here, “God’s natural creation” is presented to the public as universally beautiful. Hanging on the wall of museum, scenes of nature like this allow benefactors like Horsfall to share their idea of beauty and truth because it does not have the educative constraints paintings like The Execution of Lady Jane Gray had.


This particular work has an interesting story behind it that helps illustrate this idea. In an interview with an art critic, Holman Hunt was asked if the general public would actually understand the Biblical reference behind the goat’s red-ribboned horns. Hunt was confident people would resonate with the painting, so the art critic brought in his young sister and her friends to give their personal opinion of the work. Completely ignoring the Biblical reference, the girls were immediately drawn in by the nature and the charm of the goat and his environment. Holman Hunt was proved wrong, his reference went unrecognized. But in a way, he achieved exactly what The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood hoped to achieve; the populace did not need prior Biblical or historical education to truly appreciate his representation of God’s beauty. Ruskin and Horsfall’s concept of nature as an almost universally accessible form of beauty is instantiated here, even when the Biblical allusion goes unrecognized. At that point, it is more of a window than it is a painting, and on the other side was the natural beauty Horsfall wanted to fill the working class’ lives with. When curating a museum for the working class of Manchester, Horsfall would want Pre-Raphaelite works like this to transcend the class barrier and offer the universal truth of natural beauty. 

Written by Julian Alsarhn


For Further Reading

Class & the Accessibility of Art