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The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

by John Maguire
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Walker Art Gallery
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The Walker Art Gallery is located on William Brown Street in Liverpool. It is unique as it is the only street in the UK to house a gallery, library and museum. It is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. It was designed by H.H. Vale in 1877 with later extensions by Sir Arnold Thornley and Cornelius Sherlock. (What a great Victorian name!) The gallery is home to a fine collection of art ranging from medieval to the modern. It was originally founded on the collection of Italian paintings owned by my hero, William Roscoe. The elected mayor, Alderman Andrew Barclay Walker – a local brewer – announced he would pay for its construction in 1873 and the building was named after him. The people of Liverpool gained a public holiday on its grand opening.

On entering the Walker Art Gallery, you know you are entering a special space immediately. The steps are flanked by two of the most prestigious bouncers to be found guarding a cultural shrine, Raphael and Michelangelo. As the sculptures were created in the days before spell checker, Michelangelo is inscribed with ‘Michael Angelo’ underneath his plinth. Admittedly they do not bear much resemblance to the celebrated creatives, but go and look at some of the many statues of The Beatles in Liverpool and you may find hard it to decipher who is who.

A stroll around the Walker Art Gallery for an hour out of the frantic business of the day is like a week’s holiday away from the internet, laptop and mobile phone screen. What I love about this free gallery space is the fact that you can see and interpret things in the pieces, subjects that are essentially timeless. ‘Echo and Narcissus’ painted by John William Waterhouse in 1905 is very similar to the current cult of selfie and self-obsession seen on social media. I am aware that this is a common ailment that I too suffer from.

Walker Art Gallery Echo and Narcissus

The painting illustrates the story of Echo who loved the vain Narcissus. The landscape is luscious but also sinister. Echo rejected by her love, withered away until only her voice remained. As punishment Narcissus becomes infatuated with his own reflection, oblivious to Echo as she gazes on nearby. If we take away the water and replace it with a mobile phone, how strangely modern this piece happens to be. When you are next in a café, restaurant or other public space check to see how many couples, families and friends are staring blankly into their phones. Digital spice addiction!

William Hogarth’s portrait of David Garrick is essentially the first great theatrical portrait. It is a depiction of a scene from the play Richard III painted between 1742-45. It is clearly an antique photo shoot, a public relations exercise to publicise the play.

Walker Art Gallery David Garrick as Richard III

What I love is the fact that the viewer is encouraged to think it is an actual historical event happening as it portrays the King the night before the Battle of Boswell Field. He awakes from a nightmare and underneath the helmet in the image there is a note indicating that he is betrayed by part of his own army. I cannot help but think of celebrity tabloid images that catch the ‘star’ in sensitive poses.

John Everett Millais painted his first Pre-Raphaelite painting in 1848-1849, ‘Isabella.’ The Florentine merchant brothers opposed their apprentice Lorenzo’s love for their sister Isabella. She found his dead body, cut off the head and buried it in a pot of basil. The painting was inspired by a poem by John Keats.

Walker Art Gallery Isabella

The bright colour and flat picture is in the style of early Italian painting. It is full of symbolism; the hawk tearing at the feather, Isabella’s blood orange and the passion fruit above her head. It also indicates a antiquated form of branding or product placement as on the bottom of Isabella’s stool there is an engraved PRB to indicate his recent membership of the brotherhood. A logo of initials like modern day YSL or D&G.

‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’ by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre created in 1824 is indicative of the age. The early nineteenth century saw artists and writers become obsessed with the history and landscape of Scotland. A heavy influence from the popular novels of Sir Walter Scott.

Walker Art Gallery The_Ruins_of_Holyrood_Chapel_(Louis_Daguerre)

Not surprisingly, Daguerre trained as a stage designer in Paris and we can see this has informed his composition. He specialised in painting dioramas and invented the daguerreotype process. So all this Instagram filtering is really nothing new!

Self-obsession, the cult of celebrity, branding and filters are all modern phenomena seen in the past through these artistic masterpieces. I would encourage you to visit the Walker Art Gallery, as you can pretend that all the pictures are your own. We never really truly own anything though. I would suggest making good use of our galleries, libraries and museums whilst we can. The current disease of austerity may radically change these valuable public spaces or they may in the future become costly to view. Of course, depending on the political party that comes into place. So for now enjoy the splendour of the public art spaces, if you don’t use them, you may well lose them.

Photographs of the Walker Gallery by Superchilum, Raphael by Elfineer, ‘Michael Angelo’ by Stephen McKay, Echo and Narcissus, David Garrick and Isabella via Wikimedia Commons

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