Unearthing the Mysteries

of Manchester Art Gallery’s lost sculptures

As part of the ongoing Out of the Crate exhibition, a group of volunteers have been tasked with researching some of the gallery’s ‘cold cases.’ This refers to items in the sculpture collection about which the gallery knows very little. The gallery is also encouraging members of the public to engage in active research and get in touch if they know anything that could contribute to a more complete record for these objects.

A mysterious disappearance

As one of those volunteers, I have had the tremendous opportunity to engage in archival research. Before the COVID-19 lockdown required the gallery to close – thus halting my research – my research partner and I were focusing specifically on Cold Case 1. This concerns the mysterious disappearance of the gallery’s first acquisition, a group of 13 plaster casts (7 of which were copies after works by Antonio Canova) and 3 marble busts, donated by wealthy corn merchant Jonathan Hatfield. He donated them to the Royal Manchester Institution in 1825, which became Manchester City Art Gallery in 1882. Several of the casts stood in the main Entrance Hall well into the 20th century, flanking the pillars either side of the staircase. But by 1945, they had been removed from public view, possibly never to be seen again. Whilst our research has not yet uncovered a definitive answer as to what happened to them, it has brought to light several fascinating details that have helped the gallery build a clearer picture of these sculptures’ history.

Fragile works

Our first stop was Manchester Central Library, who hold a substantial amount of the Royal Manchester Institution’s records, including their meeting minutes. The casts are first mentioned during the meeting of 14th April 1825. It is here we find out that upon opening, some of the casts were “considerably damaged.” A fortnight later, a group of Italians were paid a sum of £13 to repair them. The minutes from the meeting of June 2nd indicates that by this time they had been repaired. This information is quite remarkable, for two reasons. First, it indicates that conservation work had to be undertaken before the sculptures were ever displayed. Second, it gives us a clue as to the sculptures’ fate. It shows that the casts were fragile, and easily breakable. It is possible that the casts were lost or disposed of after sustaining further damage in the 20th century.

Drawn by artists in the city

Another interesting point uncovered in these records is that upon arrival to Manchester, the casts took up residence in the kitchens underneath the Portico Library, where they would stay until at least 1827. During this time, artists were invited to draw them, and a competition was held for the best drawing, with a prize of ten guineas. A quick look in the Portico’s archives confirmed that the casts did indeed remain in the Portico for a time. Whilst this does not give us any clues as to their current whereabouts, it tells us that Manchester’s cultural institutions were not operating in isolation at this time. Much like today, they are working together for the city’s academic development and wellbeing.

Donor’s wishes

Relatedly, the Central Library’s archives also have details of letters from Jonathan Hatfield that indicate his reasons for donating the casts. He wrote: “I offer them in the spirit of affection, and in the hope that the example will be followed by others, who wish to embellish their native town.” In another letter he also expressed a particular fondness of the cast of Endymion, stating: “this statue has excited more interest in Italy than any other of his [Canova’s] productions and indeed than any statue of modern times.” It is evident that the casts and busts meant a great deal to Hatfield.

Case solved?

Lastly, our most recent piece of archival research brought us back under the gallery’s roof. We scoured through works on paper, documents, photographs, and exhibition brochures in an attempt to pinpoint when the casts were removed from the Entrance Hall. A watercolour from 1906 shows some of the casts, and an ‘Illustrated Guide’ to the gallery’s collections from 1945 (by then curator Lawrence Haward) contains a photograph in which the casts are absent, after which their location is unknown.

Written by Holly Johnson, MA student,

Art Gallery and Museum Studies, University of Manchester