Manchester Art Gallery

Grayson’s Art Club- The Virtual Tour

If you can’t make it to see the exhibition in person, you can now experience Grayson’s Art Club from home.

Exciting new 3D scanning technology has been used to create our virtual tour of the Grayson’s Art Club exhibition.

All the works on display are very personal visual representations of lockdown, made by the public, well-known artists and celebrities for Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club.

These tours are developed by the University of Manchester Institute for Cultural Practices, funded by Creative Manchester, and supported by Digital Futures.

What will change on 19 July?

In line with Government guidance we are asking visitors to wear a face covering when inside the Gallery, unless they are exempt. The Government’s latest guidance makes it clear that Step 4 does not mark the end of the pandemic or the need for caution and restraint and lists wearing face coverings among the key protections.

As the Government guidance points out: ‘While we are moving away from most legal restrictions, the guidance is there to help us all act responsibly. While prevalence is high, it is essential that everybody follows the guidance and takes action to protect themselves and others.’

Our priority is the safety of all our visitors and staff. Asking visitors to wear a face covering is among the measures we have put in place to ensure everyone can enjoy their visit to the Gallery safely. We will continue to review our approach in line with Government guidance and feedback from our visitors.

Greater Manchester Cultural Venues – COVID-19 Pledge: As theatres, museums and galleries across the city-region begin to re-open their doors and spring to life once again, as a sector, we want to reassure audiences and visitors alike that your health and wellbeing is our upmost priority. No two venues will respond to the introduction of Stage 4 of the Government’s ‘Roadmap out of Lockdown’ in exactly the same way. Our venues are different sizes, shapes and operate in different ways appropriate to the needs of those individual businesses. What is consistent, however, is the thrill and excitement our artists, production companies, staff and volunteers feel at the thought of being able to share great art and culture with you again face to face. It has been a tough old time, but we’re back, side by side and cannot wait for you to join us.

Re-imagining Manchester Art Gallery

This new hang is part of our ‘show-our-working’ approach to the Gallery rethink. Over the coming years we will be working with a group of co-curators whose lives have been affected by migration to completely rethink the space. In the interim we need to create an environment which helps start conversations on the subject of migration and travel, that’s less heavy-Imperialist-Victoriana in its aesthetic. Our newest acquisition Green Field  by Kate Davies is the centrepiece of the new hang, the look of which is inspired by the School of Integration bright colour vibe. This will be the space where gallery staff will teach a module of the In Place of War ( course this autumn (pandemic permitting). This is a learning programme for creative entrepreneurs affected by migration to help them to develop their practice. Our pair of Canaletto paintings are also back on display, and they look lovely against the pale purple wall colour.

The element of the new hang that I am most attached to is probably the work by Jean Spencer, 4 part painting (Nuremberg). It was given to the gallery by the artist’s family in 2002, a few years after Spencer had died (in 1998).  The Gallery was just reopening after a four-year closure for redevelopment and expansion. Spencer’s paintings were gratefully received, but had not been factored in to the long-planned opening displays, and for a few years they seem to have been forgotten about. I say ‘seem’ to have been forgotten about, because I have had my eye on them for a while now. My reason is personal – I met Spencer the year before she died. It was my first volunteering stint at a gallery, spent at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Helping Jean to install her work set me on a museums and galleries career path for life.

I didn’t know this in 1997, but Spencer was a member of the collective Countervail. The title was chosen by this group of women artists in 1990 as a word that defies definition. For example, it can mean the same as counterbalance, but is also used in the sense of fighting against, or acting with equal power. The group resisted the pressure of an easy label. Spencer thought of a picture as a space of countervailing energies, of power sharing, and of struggle. She described her colours as fighting against the system which divides them. For me, the colour boundaries  serve as a metaphor for the borders of nation states. Spencer herself was an internationalist, exhibiting more in Europe than in her native Britain. She took part in a group show in Nuremberg in 1989, which is why this work has its title.

Written by Hannah Williamson, Curator: Fine Art




Artworks going out on loan

Our Loan Manager, Siân Stephenson complied a list of loans that are going out recently.


Manchester Art Gallery has loaned three works from the collection to Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life at The Hepworth Wakefield.  The exhibition marks the 10th anniversary of the gallery opening and will be the largest exhibition of Hepworth’s work since the artist’s death in 1975.  The works from MAG include a length of furnishing textile produced in 1940, the intricate ‘string’ drawing Spiral with Red and a rarely seen lino-block printed curtain which Hepworth designed and cut by hand.  The artworks will be presented alongside pieces by Bridget Riley and new commissions by contemporary artists Tacita Dean and Veronica Ryan.

21 May 2021 – 27 Feb 2022


Another furnishing textile from the MAG collection is now on loan to the Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of the Women in Abstraction exhibition.  The ‘Pamela’ pattern was designed by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and was produced by the Omega workshops in France in 1913.  Bell was one of a number of pioneering female artists experimenting with abstraction in both textile design and fine art.  This exhibition seeks to highlight the role of women in the development of Abstraction and includes 106 artists and 500+ works from a wide range of disciplines dating from 1860s – 1980s.

5 May – 23 August 2021


The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral will soon open The Last Bohemian: Augustus John exhibition exploring the artists time spent in Liverpool whilst teaching at the School of Architecture and Applied Art and his interest Romany culture.  There will be seven works from the MAG collection on display including three oil portraits and four works on paper.  Merikli (a Romany word for jewel or necklace) is the earliest portrait of the artists first wife Ida Nettleship and was John’s first critical success.

Opening date TBC (depending on restrictions) – 30 August 2021


A total of six works from the MAG collection by John Nash, Paul Nash and Claughton Pellew will be on display at Towner Eastbourne as part of the John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace exhibition.  This retrospective will take a broad view of the artists career spanning six decades and the various relationships that influenced his work.

18 May – 26 September 2021 (will tour to Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park from 23 October 2021 to 2 January 2022)


John Crome’s View near Norwich with Harvesters, unusual in its depiction of rural agricultural labour, is now on loan to Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery as part of the A Passion fo r Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome bicentenary exhibition.  This major exhibition will attempt to explain why Crome’s work has been largely neglected over the years and to reinstate his reputation as one of the country’s great landscape painters. Following the end of the exhibition the painting will remain at the Museum on long term loan alongside Norwich Castle’s own pre-eminent collection of Crome’s work.

17 May – 5 September 2021


A Mystery Solved: Peter Clough 1928-91

Sometimes galleries can give the impression that they know everything about the works of art in their care.

Out of the Crate, which displays about a third of the Manchester Art Gallery’s entire sculpture collection, has changed all that for us. It seems that admitting you know nothing at all is the first step towards obtaining a wealth of knowledge.


The Little Monster 1961, Peter Clough

The Little Monster 1961, Peter Clough


Here’s what we said on the label for Little Monster, by Peter Clough:

‘The file is empty… We have no creation date, no artist’s dates, no high resolution photograph. Without this information the Little Monster is forlorn. If you are able to find out more, please get in touch via the Out of the Crate page of the gallery’s website.’

Helen Scott saw our appeal for information, and she emailed us, suggesting that the artist was the Peter Clough whom she had known. She then contacted Peter’s son, who confirmed that Little Monster was one of his father’s works. We now have not only life dates, but biographical detail, we have photographs of other works, and Helen has shared this photograph of Peter, at work in his studio in Norfolk.

Peter was born in Hazel Grove, Stockport, in 1928. He went to a Catholic boarding school from the age of 12. When finding his feet as an artist he moved around a lot, although it seems he lived in London in the early 1950s. He moved to Paris in around 1957, where he married and had three children. On the breakup of his marriage in 1982 he returned to England and set up a studio in Dalston, London. This was when he met Helen. Helen was Peter’s girlfriend for the last nine years of his life. They shared a converted schoolhouse in Norfolk, with the large schoolroom forming Peter’s studio, and the smaller room used as the bedroom and Helen’s office. When he became ill with cancer in 1990, he was disappointed in the care offered by the NHS, and went back to France to see if his son Krishna, a cancer surgeon, could help him. Sadly it was too late, and he died in 1991.


Peter Clough at work, image copyright Helen Scott

Peter worked in different media, including metal, glass, wood and plaster-of-Paris. His work was exhibited by the New Vision and Drian Galleries in the 1950s. He made public sculpture and sold to private collectors, but he never hit big time commercial success. You can find his work at auction occasionally. I look forward to the time when we can urge you to come to Manchester, to find and enjoy his Little Monster, now supported by a respectably thick artist’s file.

With many thanks to Helen Scott for so generously sharing all of the above information. If there is anyone out there who knows any more about Peter Clough’s life or work, please do get in touch.

Hannah Williamson, Curator: Fine Art

Virtually there

Not so many years ago, the process of planning a new exhibition or display relied upon rickety foamex models of gallery spaces along with fiddly pieces of photocopied paper – representing the artworks – and bluetack. It worked, after a fashion, but was hardly the most useful way of approaching this complex task.

any change we make to our gallery walls can be visualised in 3D first

Here at the Gallery we have for the past several years planned every major exhibition with the aid of 3D modelling software. Typically any change we make to our gallery walls can be visualised in 3D first, before we hang or move a single picture.

AV Technician Shay tells us more about how and why we do this.

Initial modelling

Once the basic concept for an exhibition has been established the lead curator will share details of the proposed show with me. For example, the gallery space will already have been chosen and a list of possible artworks to be included will have been compiled. Basic details for the exhibits such as a photograph, dimensions, location and other useful information will also be included with this preliminary information. Also an indication of an object’s conservation status or loan availability is included – as sometimes the availability of an object cannot be at first confirmed and so a short-list for modelling is formed, objects certain for inclusion being modelled first.

Because we keep an archive of the models we make, it may be that an object has already been modelled and so these models can be reused, but in most cases exhibits are new to the gallery and have to be modelled from scratch. If we have direct access to the exhibit then measurements can be taken, additional photographs or sketches made and these all contribute to making a convincing 3D representation. If we don’t have direct access to the item then we can usually aquire photographs and dimensions from the lender or owner. Although most objects can be reduced to quite simplified forms, the process of modelling can still be a time consuming process. The level of detail built into each individual model has to be carefully managed.

When an exhibition is conceived there is usually a story being told

When all the objects have been modelled, the process of placing the exhibits into the main gallery model can begin. When an exhibition is conceived there is usually a story being told. The telling of this story unfolds through the placement of exhibits throughout the gallery and out of this process an exhibition plan emerges. Exhibits can be grouped together to tell portions of the story, their locations can be calculated to draw visitors attention to a set of relationships, so they can build the story for themselves. And so a 3D model allows a curator to view combinations of objects and various patterns of arrangement until the most satisfying one is reached.

The flexibility of the 3D model, allowing arrangements to be viewed from all possible points of view, aids in the creative process. Often several competing versions of an exhibition can exist at once and be worked upon in parallel until a clear favourite emerges. From a logistical point of view the narrative demands of the exhibition story can be discreetly merged with the technical demands of the gallery space at an early point in the planning. For instance a video art-work will require a power supply and that requirement might influence its position in the gallery plan and this might emerge as a problem later if not taken into account early on.

Because everything is scaled correctly we can be sure that everything will fit!

Typically, the creation of an exhibition model takes place over a number of weeks and a number of sessions. The exhibiton curator and myself sit side by side at a computer, viewing the model on a monitor or if a larger group of collaborators and contributers are involved we’ll project the model onto a large cinema screen. The exhibits are placed around the gallery walls in a process that mimics the real-world activity. Sections of the exhibition are assembled one at a time. Typically, everything designated for a particular area is placed randomly on the walls first to ensure there is sufficient wall space and then carefully rearranged to best effect. Because everything is scaled correctly we can be sure that everything will fit!

Is it real, or is it Memorex?

Once the layout of the exhibition has been decided, a document is created that illustrates how the exhibition will look and is distributed to colleagues and contributors for discussion and comment. This layout document is also useful for forwarding to interested parties who can’t be present at the gallery, but need to be informed of current progress. Once finalised this document is forwarded to the gallery buildings manager and art-handling team to act as a guide for the exhibiton installation.

Having finished the planning process and a final layout document, there is still one more benefit a 3D model can give – realistic photo-rendering. Using a powerful application called Vray we can create realistic images from our model with a process called ray tracing. In Vray we can simulate the motion of light around the model and capture that motion as an image. By introducing photo-realistic textures into the model we can enhance the models surfaces to closely resemble their real life counterpart. The final result can be an image that is difficult to discern from a photograph.

Where next?

The next step for 3D modelling at Manchester Art Gallery? We’re planning in 2021 to step into the world of Virtual Reality.

3D Modelling Program: Sketchup Pro 2020
Ray Tracing program: Vray

Shamus Dawes, 27 Jan 2021

10 More novel ways to spend lockdown

Patrick Kelleher from our Visitor Services Team shares his recommendations for lockdown reads.

Well, here we are again; another year, another lockdown and that means the gallery is still closed to the public. In the meantime, we’re here with another selection of novels about artists, or with art-based themes, that might help fill that gallery-shaped void in your life. So, if you were given books tokens for Christmas (you lucky people), prepare to redeem them now!

With all non-essential shops closed (I know, how are bookshops non-essential?) you can pick them up at your favourite online shopping mega corporation, or, if you prefer, you can find most of them on Hive, a network of local booksellers.


Check out all of Patrick’s recommendations on the Magnet blog.

The Masterpiece. © Oxford University Press

Unlocking ‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown

“Work”, Ford Madox Brown, oil on canvas 1852-65

Since the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, our team of guides have been unable to deliver live tours in the Gallery, due to lockdown closures and the need for social distancing. We now offer virtual tours once a fortnight over Zoom in the MAG Unlocked programme. We have chosen Ford Madox Brown’s painting ‘Work’ on a number of occasions and focussed on different aspects of the painting. Here each guide talks about their interest in the painting.


Work is about the different social classes and the work and lifestyle available to them. In the mid 1850s, half of Britain’s population was under 20 and Ford Madox Brown has reflected this by including 2 babies and 9 children. 

Brown has used children to add to his description of Victorian society and his observations on it. The type of work that Brown has enabled involves bringing fresh water to the community.  There’d been a cholera epidemic in 1854, because of water pollution and lack of sanitation. 10,000 Londoners died, including one of Brown’s servant girls. 

Let’s have a look at the children. 

The group of motherless street urchins was described by Madox Brown as “Ragged dirty brats, who get in the way and make a noise.”  They do have an endearing side – “they like insects and miniature plants.” They are neglected by their drunken father and he will be prosecuted for this. They’re at the bottom of the painting and the bottom of the social order. 

The eldest child is no more than 10 and wearing a woman’s dress, which has been donated to her.  It’s FAR too big.  She hasn’t the means or ability to alter the dress.  Her work is the role of mother and the two younger children cling to her.  She tries her best to keep her little brother in check and Brown says this is causing her prematurely to be “a SCOLD.” Her little sister is eating a carrot.  The poor didn’t have the problem of excessive sugar consumption affecting the rich at that time. 

But to many Victorians, DRUNKENNESS was the cause of society’s ills.  Many well to do, well dressed ladies, such as the one with the purple bonnet to the left of the road workers, would distribute temperance tracts and they focussed on working class men.  She’s just directed one of her tracts into the trench. You can see that the navvies are disregarding the tract fluttering in their midst and there’s a screwed up tract in the wheelbarrow.  The lady’s little girl is clinging to her – a little bit like the little girl snuggling towards her big sister in the group of urchins.  But their lives are worlds apart. 

There’s another family group underneath the tree – a young, shoeless Irish man with his wife and child – victims of the Great Famine. I think Brown is being particularly sympathetic here.  The young woman’s bonnet looks like a halo, reminiscent of a mother and child or Holy Family depiction.  Look at the way they are tending their child – the husband carefully spoon-feeding gruel and his wife carefully holding the baby. 

Not far away, two little girls are carrying jugs, illustrating how conditions were at the time regarding water supply. They would have to walk long distances to and from a standpipe or pump and they would have to queue. 

But, despite poverty and hardship, children will be children.  Three children are playing on the railings.  They’re barefoot and you can see that the child on the left somersaulting over the railing has no underclothes, such is their deprivation. 

Ann Jackson, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery 


I chose “Work” for my tour “In Fashion”, as it’s a great example in showing the fashions of the mid 1850s and the contrasts between rich and poor. At this time, people had very few clothes and these were mainly all hand-made, so only the rich would be able to afford the expense of tailored garments. Clothes were rarely thrown away, but would be passed on, sold on, recycled and adapted.  

There are some very fine outfits in the painting – we see the MP and his daughter returning from Hampstead Heath in their splendid riding costumes, only to find that their path is symbolically blocked by the road workers. On the left, we see two very elegant ladies squeezing through a narrow space by the workers.  It’s a hot day, but the ladies are wearing voluminous and cumbersome skirts, cape jackets, shawls, leather boots, gloves and tightly fitted bonnets, one of them shielding herself from the sun with a parasol. As a total contrast, just in front of them, we see the chickweed seller in tattered rags, a hole in the brim of his hat and he is barefoot.  

The depiction of the workers at the centre of the painting gives a fascinating insight into working clothes of the day – bandanas, shirts with rolled up sleeves, hard-wearing trousers and sturdy boots. By now, the sewing machine, first invented in 1830, is becoming more widely used which means that clothes could now be made more quickly and more cheaply thus meeting the demand for sturdy workwear to clothe the expanding populations in cities like Manchester.  

At the bottom of the painting, we see a young girl holding a baby and caring for her brother and sister. The black ribbon on the baby’s sleeve tells us that there has been a death – most likely the mother of this little family. The girl’s red dress  – once a fine garment that has probably been handed down many times – is too big for her but a pin at the back of her dress  helps with the fit- see if you can spot it in the painting next time you visit the Gallery!  

On the far right, we see two gentlemen – Thomas Carlyle and Reverend Maurice, who are soberly dressed and look very slim compared to the ample figures of the two elegant ladies. There is even a hierarchical dress code for the dogs that you see at the bottom of the painting – the dog belonging to one of the elegant ladies wears a smart red coat and a silver collar, whereas the dog on the right belonging to the lower classes just has a rough piece of rope for his lead. 

There was very little photography at this time, so how fortunate that Ford Madox Brown completed this masterpiece in such amazing detail to show not only  the fashions of the time but  many other aspects of everyday life in Victorian society 

Isabelle Killicoat, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery. 


I used ‘Work’ by Ford Maddox Brown to explore the Victorians’ obsession with social class and placing people in particular social categories. We see the rapid growth of cities together with the economy and a wealthy middle class emerging during this time where improvement was part of their culture. The rise of this wealthy middle class changed the art market with a new class of rich businessmen willing to spend their money on paintings.  

In contrast, the working class/lower working class worked in brutal and unsanitary conditions – they did not have access to clean water and food, education for their children or proper clothing. Artists, instead of recoiling from urban reality, began to celebrate it with street scenes, the nobleness of work, railway stations, seaside and even crime all provided subjects for painting. 

Although Brown was never himself an official member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, he did adopt many of their stylistic tendencies, particularly the use of bright colours and attention to detail. Brown got the idea for ‘Work’ from seeing navvies excavating sewers in Hampstead, North London – it is typically assumed that this was part of the extensions of London’s sewerage system, which were being undertaken to deal with the threat of typhus and cholera.  With the hard-working navvies central to the painting, Brown uses a hierarchical composition to illustrate the different social classes – in contrast to the navvies, and depicting the lower class, the ragged and barefoot plant seller is described by Brown as a “ragged wretch who has never been taught to work”.   

Then there is a group of ragged children, whose mother is dead and the oldest girl of ten is in charge of the rest of the children. In contrast, middle class ladies represent philanthropic acts and religious education. Brown also includes two prominent men of the day, Frederick Denison Maurice and Thomas Carlyle which give emphasis to the importance of education and self-improvement.  

Finally, overlooking the street scene on horseback, we have an upper class couple on horseback, who by virtue of their wealth and place in society, have no need to work. 

So I chose ‘Work’ because it is an excellent illustration of social stratification in Victorian England providing a commentary on the role of work and its relationship to Victorian class structure.  It is also a stunning example of the Pre Raphaelite style of painting. 

Nina Wainwright, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery 


Upon first viewing, one can quite easily feel overwhelmed by this epic sweep of mid Victorian society. A vast teeming humanity seems to tumble out of the canvass as though from a lucid dream, but we can readily find guides in the two prominent figures to the right; Christian Socialist Frederick Maurice and controversial historian, Thomas Carlyle. They are joined in momentary admiration for the swirl of human energy dominating the centre. There, the labourers appear transcendental as they heroically devote their evident physical strength to a water-engineering project that will improve the wellbeing of everyone. 

Careful scrutiny reveals a further reference to Frederick Maurice on the red brick wall to the far left. Amongst the cluster of posters is one bearing the title ‘Working Men’s College’; the institution that he had helped to found in London during 1854. Education and hard work would therefore be the key to personal fulfilment. 

 A recurring theme in Thomas Carlyle’s books was the importance of true heroism and moral leadership down the centuries. But it was through the writing of such history that he realised just how debased the values of his own day had become. Industrialisation he believed, had allowed the relentless pursuit of profit to come to the fore. Where once the human spirit had flourished, there now seemed only to be avarice.  The torn fragment of a poster, again on the red wall, ironically proclaims ‘Money!! Money!! Money!!’ 

Bobus Higgins is a fictional character from Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’ (1843) and is the very embodiment of everything that the author deplores. In his prolific and exploitational business practice, Bobus displays a complete ignorance of the individual talent and potential that a person can bring to the world. A later Carlyle work reveals that his villain is in fact a corrupt sausage manufacturer who readily finds a use for horse meat! The sandwich boards being carried along the street to the right, reveal that an election is taking place and that people are being exhorted to ‘Vote for Bobus’. A notice affixed to the fence tells us that depressingly, he will win but just beyond the procession, we notice an emerging horse drawn carriage. The uncontrolled dog in the middle of the road seems poised to worry the horses and we are invited to imagine ensuing chaos of the sort witnessed in Hogarth’s ‘Chairing the Member’ from ‘The Humours of an Election’ series of 1755: 

In ‘Work’, Ford Madox Brown portrays a world still very much at odds with itself, but in so doing, he provides reassuring glimpses of the human capacity to care. A final visit to the red wall discovers the besmirched remains of one more Bobus poster. Scrawled on to it is the word ‘Don’t’. In spite of everything, there may yet be grounds for hope! 

John Ward, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery 

MAG Unlocked Zoom tours are continuing into 2021. Find out more on our events page:

Gallery 1 – Creative Families

In an art gallery, a toddler balances on a row of low sponge tiles, a baby reaches up to the light fittings in the ceiling and a small girl puts a finger to her lips and creeps quietly around a corner so as not to wake the giant painting of a lion. Children participate in art galleries in a myriad of ways that are “sometimes predictable, sometimes completely surprising” (Macrae et al)

Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to co-design a new gallery for families. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the Gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits.

When the Gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space. With lockdown temporarily closing the Gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world. Throughout the conversations a vision began to emerge of how values, interactions and collection artworks might work together in the new space.

The design of the space will be flexible to enable different organisations to deliver public health and education sessions and services. A series of movable screens and functional furniture will be in the space so that we can create new zones and configurations of furniture to suit needs. You can rest, play, feed, drink, watch, follow, share, create, talk, move, draw, listen. In considering the gallery as a holistic experience, we imagined the space as a base or nest from which the families can explore the rest of the Gallery. As soon as it is safe to do so we will begin to deliver a varied creative programme in the space for children, parents, carers and the people who work so hard to support families across Manchester.

The artworks in the space have been selected by our interdisciplinary group and support city wide agendas that aim to improve the life chances of children in Greater Manchester. Last week we installed a selection of bonbonnieres, these little 18th Century pots, originally filled with sweets or breath mints, are colourful and depict fanciful animals that have an almost cartoon like quality that may resonate with younger children. Yet the contents that once lay inside would have been cut from plantations by the hands of enslaved people. Sugar, in all its sweetness, is intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial history. Sections of a poem by Tina Otito Tamsho-Thomas contextualise the bonbonniere as a symbol of enslavement legacy, sugar trade history and British colonialism. Today, excess sugar consumption sits at the heart of the healthy eating agenda, a key priority area for local early years providers.  You can read more about the work we have been doing with MMU Education and Social Research Institute and our research into the bonbonnieres in the recent iJade article.

We would like to thank our partners for their continued support; as a team we have a respect for children and families and a desire to make society a better place, that coupled with a commitment and generosity of spirit has meant that our family programme is more impactful than ever.

Sure Start
Manchester health Visiting Team
Tiddlywinks Nursery Group
Martenscroft Nursery School and Children’s Centre
MMU (Children and Childhood Research Group)
The Whitworth (Early Years)

Message in a Bottle – Workshopping in a Pandemic by Naomi Kendrick


Naomi Kendricks shares with us her experiences as an artist working in Covid-times. 

At the start of the year my role as a freelance artist looked completely different. In essence my job was to gather people together in gallery and community settings and Sure Start centres. These spaces were a place of exchange: exhibitions, artworks, materials, debate, stories and discovery. They were tactile, messy, busy and vibrant spaces, each one a shared experience of art and a route to togetherness that we will never take for granted again.

Inhale (Yellow)
Michael Craig-Martin 1941

Of course, these physical spaces disappeared over night in March, the Gallery’s exhibitions and artworks retreated into gallery website, mounds of materials were left untouched, behind cupboard doors. And of course the people were gone, there was such silence.

Social isolation is not new, even though I work with large numbers of people with very different lives across multiple projects it is an issue that crops up repeatedly. The reasons for this isolation are many and complex, for example becoming a parent for the first time when your family is in a different country, being agoraphobic or waiting years for your new guide dog and having to rely on others to guide you outside of your home.

Covid brought isolation for everyone, in a way we could never have imagined. How could I reach people now, without the space, artworks, materials, gesture, touch?

One route was technology – making films, zoom and social media. Like most people, I have dabbled in these this year, however this has not always been the right route. Many of the adults I work with don’t use this technology for economic reasons, disability or personal preference. And everything the babies and early years children needed was physical; paper, scissors, drawing tools, reflective surfaces, textured fabric…we learned early on from our Sure Start partners that some families lacked even the basics such as paper and scissors.

My working method changed to delivering workshops by post, email and over the phone. To supply materials we formed a production line, filling the gallery’s atrium and sending them out in boxes to hundreds of families I may never see; a message in a bottle.

My approach to workshops has always been that they should be participant-led, a two-way conversation. Ideally each workshop is a space I make which gently nudges people towards their own ideas, making and discovering. I plan a workshop and over the years perhaps come to know how people may respond, but really most of the work happens in the moment, it is noticing, gesturing, and encouraging the people in front of me. This year, without people, I found myself working blind.

Theatre Group No. 3
Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903 – 1975

I shifted to working by memory, having to place faith in my previous experience. Materials chosen for babies and young children that I know other children responded well to in workshops past, films suggesting how to explore materials or mindfully make marks were ‘performed’ by imagining people beyond the camera. Positive feedback has come back out of the ether I am delighted to say, but I would have loved to have been there the moment each of those boxes of materials were opened, or when the first marks were made…

One place where I have been able to communicate directly with people in a way that is closest to the call and response of a ‘normal’ workshop is with phone calls. Phone calls were initially simply a necessity, I needed to audio describe artworks and read workshops to blind and visually impaired people who live alone or phone people who do not use or have access to technology. However, I have come to favour phone calls as a remote workshop method. A phone call allows for an immediate two-way conversation, less self conscious than zoom, a perfect combination of intimacy and non-visual anonymity.

Pulse Index
Rafael Lozano Hemmer

These conversations can, and do, meander in interesting ways. We begin with artworks I have described or printed out and sent in the post, or an artwork the person I’m speaking with has made and described to me. Inevitably questions, stories, memories, the things and people we miss, all tumble out in response to those initial artworks, taking us further and further away from the start of the conversation where ”How are you?” rarely has a positive answer. Art takes us somewhere, sometimes it brings us face to face with our feelings and fears about the pandemic and at others it takes us somewhere funny, tender, beautiful. And I say we, because of course I am not a machine, these points of contact have been beneficial for me too.

There are of course disadvantages in working one to one in this way, removing the framework of a physical setting and other people, means that lines can become easily crossed, and it can be emotionally draining. Something I always have to keep an eye on. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh this. I am able to reach people who are not only bound to their houses temporarily because of Covid restrictions but long term, because of disability and mental health problems. I am able to tailor workshops to an individual’s specific needs and interests, to go on a significant journey with them in a way you can’t when working simultaneously with a group of people. Gaining such detailed understanding of different people’s relationships with and responses to art feels like both a luxuary and a place of learning for me.

Every call has to end and more often than not it ends with the question “when will we be back at the gallery?” “When will Grosvenor Street be open again?” “I really miss everyone, how long do you think it will be?” Each workshop is a community, one person on the end of the phone can do a lot, but can never replicate that.

Ford Madox Brown 1821 – 1893

One year and so many people have been reached by our work in the learning team at Manchester Art Gallery and the TLC Art Project, through technology, post, phone calls and boxes of materials. The strangest, hardest and most revealing of times to be doing this. I wonder what we will take from it when we have had the time to reflect and see what we have achieved?

Thank you to the following for initiating and running these projects, for the work, for the support and for what we have been able to give in spite of it all! Katy McCall Early Years Manager, Kate Day/Nicola Colclough Adult Learning Managers and Louise Thompson Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery and Alison Kershaw and Rae Story at the TLC Art Project.

Naomi Kendrick is a freelance artist.