I say Kirkcudbright, you say Kirkoobree

Fine Art Curator Hannah Williamson explores the connection between Manchester and the Scottish coastal town of Kircudbright  through the painter Charles Oppenheimer.

I’d recommend to anyone interested in Manchester’s art history a visit to the Scottish coastal town of Kirkcudbright this summer (for the uninitiated: go up as far as Gretna Green and then left for 50 miles, pronounced ‘Kirkoobree’). The new Kirkcudbright Galleries opened last year, and their current summer show focuses on an artist from Manchester, Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1951).

From designer to painter

Oppenheimer grew up in Manchester in the Greenheys area, and trained at the School of Art, the idea being that his design skills would benefit the family mosaic business. Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd was based in Old Trafford, and employed about 25 people to produce beautiful mosaics (there’s a sample on display in the Kirkcudbright exhibition), a frequent client being the Catholic Church. Charles’s father, a German Jewish immigrant, founded the business following estrangement from his merchant banking family.

Charles himself waited until after the death of Ludwig before spreading his wings, choosing to paint for his living, and removing himself from city life. Kirkcudbright was his artistic haven. However, his links with Manchester remained strong. Oppenheimer was a member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, and exhibited there almost without a break from 1910 to 1952, serving as President of MAFA from 1949-50. He and his wife Connie came to Manchester every year for the MAFA Conversazione, as they so glamorously titled their exhibition previews.

Manchester Art Gallery loans

Manchester Art Gallery have lent two paintings from our collection to the Kirkcudbright show, but I suspect that there are more links between Kirkcudbright and Manchester than Oppenheimer alone. Kirkcudbright was a thriving artists’ colony when Oppenheimer lived there, with Glasgow Girls and Boys Jessie M King, Ernest A Taylor, and Edward A Hornel all based in the town. Oppenheimer’s spare room must have often hosted fellow Manchester artists who came to paint the fine scenery. We have some evidence of this in the collection in the form of Maxwell Reekie’s view of Kirkcudbright Harbour.

While at the Kirkcudbright Conversazione last weekend, a fellow guest told me that Mr Brown, of Manchester’s Affleck and Brown’s department store, spent part of his fortune on elaborate castle-building nearby too. I wonder if there are more connections between Manchester’s art scene and the artist’s colony of Kirkcudbright? If you know of any, please do get in touch.

As the Manchester International Festival’s School of Integration, initiated by Tania Bruguera, takes place here at Manchester Art Gallery, it is also a good time to remember immigrant Ludwig Oppenheimer’s contribution to design and manufacture in this city.

Hannah Williamson, Fine Art Curator