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Who was Thomas Horsfall?

Thomas Coglan Horsfall was part of a network of middle-class reformers in late-Victorian Manchester. The son of a card manufacturer of moderate wealth, his fragile health led him to spend much of his early life at spas and resorts. Ironically, perhaps, this experience left him more committed to bridging the inequalities that he saw around him. He contributed to a community of like-minded professional men in Manchester, all sharing a deep need to work for change in their society generally and in their city in particular. Inspired by the works of John Ruskin, this group – including architect Thomas Worthington; picture framer Charles Rowley; lawyer (and later Manchester Art Gallery/Workers Education Association lecturer) John Ernest Phythian; city librarian and vegetarian advocate W.E.A. Axon; and cotton spinner Charles James Pooley – took on a variety of interrelated projects to bring art, beauty, and nature to Manchester, by-word and symbol of the Industrial Revolution. They established the first Ruskin Society in 1879, and from 1880 started to put on art exhibitions with explicitly Ruskinian aims in Ancoats, the oldest industrial area of Manchester and dominated by both huge factories and the slums of Ancoats’ densely and poorly housed workforce.

Horsfall consistently advocated for improving urban life, particularly for the working classes, through access to clear air, trees, and countryside, as well as to music, art, literature, good design, and domestic comforts. His Scheme for an Art Museum in Manchester, published as a letter to the Manchester Guardian in 1877, imagined this new institution as located in Ancoats and serving as an outpost of hope, “giving the mass of the people knowledge and admiration of nature and of the most beautiful and interesting forms of human work.” [Manchester Art Museum description 1877, reprinted in 1895, 1] Horsfall enlisted the help of his friends, and sought the advice of Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin was skeptical of the scheme, and advised, “Let there be no assumptions of anything, or attempts at anything, but cleanliness, health, and honesty, both in person and possession. Then, whatever you can afford to spend for education in art, give to good masters, and leave them to do the best they can for you: and what you can afford to spend for the splendour of your city, buy grass, flowers, sea, and sky with. No art of man is possible without those primal Treasures of the art of God.” [Ruskin, Letter 79, June 18, 1877, Fors Clavigera, 7:124 n(a)] Meanwhile Morris admonished Horsfall that “there can be only one foundation for real art, the desire of the whole people to have it; …this desire cannot exist while they are divided into ‘cultivated’ and ‘uncultivated, i.e. degraded’ classes [emphasis in original].” [William Morris, letter to Thomas Coglan Horsfall, December 31, 1882, letter 834 in (Morris 2014), 145.] While Horsfall might not have shared Morris’ radicalism, he worked to create his particular vision of a just society: one in which all citizens had access to beauty.

The Manchester Art Museum in Ancoats developed as a little outpost of beauty in a banging, bustling, tightly packed, often fetid and always smoke-filled industrial area. The Museum offered a particularly late-Victorian kind of beauty in a particularly late-Victorian kind of industrial slum. The beauty enacted an imagined continuity of art, nature, and history: it was eclectic, organized around connections that we might not see today between ancient artifacts, minerals, insects, paintings of trees and flowers, hand-blown glass, hand-painted tiles, and landscapes and historical genre scenes. The slum, too, was that of a particular moment in late nineteenth-century life: thanks to the continued pressure and advocacy of working-class reformers and their middle-class allies, children were beginning to attend state-funded schools; working hours had been limited; at least some limited leisure was becoming an increasing feature across all classes; sanitation began to clean up the streets.

Thomas Horsfall was an important reformer and tireless campaigner for the idea that everyone has a basic right to beauty. His work, like the work of those who inspired him and worked with him, aimed to mitigate what he saw as the ugliness around him – the physical ugliness of the new industrial cities, completely devoid of the softness of ornament, gardens, or trees, as well as the moral ugliness of systems of mechanized production and exploitation that treated people as disposable cogs. Putting an art museum in a working-class district was perhaps an impractical benefit; even his heroes questioned whether such an aesthetic oasis could do much. Around the museum and the university settlement (founded 1901), the workers of Ancoats continued to survive and some even to thrive as they had done, through their own networks, leisure, and advocacy, and with the limited but increasing opportunities opening to them in the early twentieth century. The idea of “art for the people” was part of a longer project to “improve” and “cultivate” the newly enfranchised male worker, along with his wife and children, and to a large extent this idea rested on sharing middle-class domesticity, aesthetics, and morality with those understood as not having their own versions of these things. At the same time, Horsfall’s vision of bringing art and culture to the people was part of a much larger experiment in sharing the arts, based on a clearly articulated idea that art, beauty, and nature can give people’s lives greater meaning and pleasure. We welcome you to explore this site to learn more about this remarkable and enduring idea, and to decide for yourself about its continued relevance. Is art a luxury? Is nature for everyone? What difference can beauty make?

The sections of this website explore Thomas Horsfall’s work and ideas in relation to the question of labor, class, women, and Irish immigrants in Manchester; his contributions to understanding children and childhood; the connections he saw between art and nature; the broader context of architecture and urban planning in late-Victorian Manchester; and how his ideas made crucial connections between image and text that allowed the museum and its location to function as a prime site of social critique.




Amy Woodson-Boulton  
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California,