I came across something that I can only describe as astounding recently when going through a bound volume of the Leek Times for 1875. What caused me to be dumbfounded was the description of an art exhibition that took place in April of that year. The venue was the West Street School Rooms and I can probably safely say that at no other moment in Leek’s history has so much cultural and monetary value been amassed in one place. At the opening of the exhibition the report in the Leek Times said that no opening speeches were made but it may have been that the first visitors were simply amazed at the spectacle. The paper gave a list of the artists whose work was being shown at West St over the next weeks.
It reads like a list of the most greatest western artists of the last 400 years Michaelangelo,Correggio,Rembrandt,Jan Steen; Reynolds, Gainsborough and others are programmed as having canvasses at the exhibition.
There are etchings and sketches by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner and Hollar
There was also very high quality sculpture and pottery on display
The works were selected principally from the galleries of the local gentry but also borrowed pieces from the South Kensington Museum which is now better known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The named contributors to the exhibition included such local worthies as Mrs Bradshaw, Mrs Crusoe, Joshua Nicholson, Mr George Wardle, WS Brough, Hugh Sleigh, William Challioner, Miss Condlyffe, Mrs Argles, Major Brocklehurst, Miss Van Tuyl, and Miss Gaunt
The painting that the reviewer is most demonstrative about is a canvas by a Dutch artist David Teniers the Elder (1582-1649) called “Peasants Merry Making” the writer is very impressed that the painting had been valued at £3000 in 1870. It was in his words “wonderfully coloured” and painted in 1650 when the artist was working in Brussels. I have attempted through Google to try to find out what happened subsequently to the art since appearing in Leek 132 years ago. That picture can now be seen in the National Gallery in London it was and presented to gallery in 1948 by John Hanbury Martin. Teniers who was the head of a dynasty of painters was the most famous artist of rustic life and very popular in his life time and beyond when many were purchased by the great houses of England and France in the decades that followed his death.
It is also interesting to reflect on the impact of inflation on the price of art since the days of the Mid Victorians. To give you an idea a Salomon Van Ruysdael another 17th century artist represented at the Leek exhibition sold for $3 million in New York in February this year.
The reviewer obviously liked his rural scenes as another picture to get a rave review is a drawing of cattle by George Morland a very popular London born artist of the mid 19th century who has now largely lapsed into obscurity. The Leek Times expends a great deal of ink celebrating the art of the unheard of Morland but infuriatingly hardly mentions a portrait by the “immortal” Rembrandt.
The 18th century artist and founder of the Royal Academy Joshua Reynolds is represented in the exhibition by two canvasses one is a portrait of the poet Goldsmith who was one of the 18th century artist’s closest friends. It now sits in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the other is of a clergyman.
Antonio da Correggio’s 1489-1534 the principle artist of the Parma school of the Italian renaissance and responsible for some of the most vigorous and sensuous works of the 16th century is in the exhibition with his” Holy Family” painting
A contemporary artist shown at West Street in 1875 was one of the founding members of the Pre Raphaelite School Arthur Hughes who would have been 51 in that year. His illustrations of the Tennyson poem “Enoch Arden was displayed. I wonder as a example of idle speculation whether William Morris a principle figure in the moment and living in Leek at the time might have stared at the work as he knew Hughes through a mutual friend Rossetti
Perhaps the canvas that had the strongest connection with Leek in an oblique way was the March to Finchley by Hogarth. The painting which currently resides at the Coram Foundation- the London based children’s charity is based on a real historical event that Hogarth witnessed in December 1745 when British troops marched 10 miles out of London to rendezvous on Finchley Common to face the invading Highland Scots lead by Bonnie Prince Charlie. At the time Hogarth was observing the amassing force 165 miles away the advancing Scots were in Leek. This was nearly the limit of their advance and they retreated soon as they reached Derby when resources and supply lines had reached a limit. The British Army set off in pursuit of the retreating Highlanders pausing to receive the grateful thanks of the leading citizenry in Leek later that month. They caught up with the Scots at Culloden to smash the army and the clan system with it the following April. When he painted the picture in 1749 the danger was well past and Hogarth could afford to treat the subject in a light hearted and relaxed way mocking gin soaked soldiery as they headed north
There was also pottery lent by Minton’s of Stoke and Doulton of Lambeth. Mrs Cruso donated a Dresden vase with landscape and Morris of London contributed ware again I wonder if William Morris approved. Amongst other pottery was a Vase decorated by Louis Solon a French pottery who was beginning to make a reputation for himself having recently arrived in the country after fleeing war in France.
There was also a Bronze of St John the Baptist by Ghiberti of Florence dated 1412. I wondered if it is the same bronze which is now in now in the Orsonmichele in Florence? Ghiberti first became famous when he won the competition to design the doors of the bronze doors of the baptistery in 1401 described by Michelangelo as being “worthy of the gates of paradise”. This event is thought by art historian to have been the start of the Renaissance
The journalist covering the event over three weeks of the Times wrote glowingly about the Embroidery exhibition
“We think the time is not far off when English Ladies will be spend their spare hours in placing on our fabrics productions of their own minds or designs of the great masters of design and colour
We must not forget to look at three needlework pictures found near the embroidery, relics of better taste than of the cross stitch age, two of them being worked by Miss Condlyffe and one lent by Miss Sutton, they are well worked in the style of the old tapestries”
During the whole week the exhibition has been visited by large amounts of people and this has induced the management to keep the exhibition open by an extra week. £40 was spent on bringing the exhibition to Leek
Music was heard at the exhibition including a performance by the band of the Rifle Volunteers.
The reporter ended his report by praising the organisers of the exhibition and even from a distance of over a hundred years I can only marvel at the range of material that these three men helped to bring to Leek. I do wonder about the security and I have a vision of the Rembrandts and the rest travelling to Leek wrapped in brown paper and travelling in the Guards van.
“Mr Thomas Wardle, WS Brough and John S Winfield must be especially pleased that there arduous labour and untiring perseverance has achieved a success which a week after the exhibition seemed impossible.”
The exhibition had been poorly attended to start with and the committee had thought of making the exhibition free however on the fourth day the number of visitors increased and at the end the exhibition made £25