Constable, Turner, and a soap maker

MY GREAT GRANDFATHER Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) was an industrialist and a politician in South Africa. One of his main industries was soapmaking. Many of his workers would have been black Africans, mostly living in poor conditions around his factory in King Williams Town (‘KWT’). While serving on the town council of KWT, he played an active role in establishing what he hoped would be a township with improved living conditions for some of the town’s black people (including his workers). Named after him, Ginsberg township, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, still exists.

A few years before my great grandfather established the township named after him, another soap maker, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) who was based in England, created what he hoped would be better living conditions for his workers. Far more grandiose and much more attractive than Ginsberg Township, Lever began building Port Sunlight (south of Birkenhead) in about 1887 (a year or two after Ginsberg began making soap). Lever’s model town provided his employees with salubrious dwellings in a well landscaped environment. However, they were subject to strict rules; Lever, who believed that discouraging immorality (e.g., gambling) led to a good workforce, was a benevolent paternalist.

Turner on the left, and Constable on the right

Lever and his wife were avid collectors of artworks. These are housed in the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery in the centre of Port Sunlight. This gallery, contained within an impressive French neo-classical style edifice, was designed by the Warrington based architects William Owen (1846-1910) and his son Seager Owen, and opened in 1922. It contains a fine range of artworks dating from early times (pre-Christian) to the early 20th century. It contains one of the largest and most important collections of Pre-Raphaelite artists’ works. With its spacious, airy galleries and well displayed exhibits, it is amongst my top ten British galleries and museums.

In one small gallery, which contains a sculpture of a reclining nude, two paintings hang close to each other but are separated by a neo-classical fireplace (an exhibit). One of them is by JMW Turner (1775-1851) and the other by his contemporary rival J Constable (1776-1837). It is interesting to see them almost side-by-side because it allows the viewer to compare their styles and what they try to convey  in their paintings. The Turner painting depicts “The Falls of the Clyde”, and the Constable depicts “Cottage at Bergholt”. Neither of the paintings, both created in the age before photography, achieves the accuracy of, say, a photograph; both seem impressionistic, but the effects that the artists were attempting to have on the viewer are entirely different.

Turner’s paintings are often far more impressionistic than Constable’s. Although his subject matter is always at least almost discernible, I feel that Turner’s works are created to evoke both the artist’s and the viewer’s psychological and/or emotional reaction(s) to what was being depicted. In contrast, Constable’s painting techniques seem to have been designed to emphasise aspects of the scene he was painting to give the viewer the impression that he or she is looking at the very same view as that which attracted the artist. Constable regarded painting as being a branch of science. In a lecture he gave in 1836, he said:

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”

Turner, in his almost abstract paintings such as the one at the Lady Lever, appeared to be wanting to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. In contrast, Constable tried to convey what he saw or felt was important in his subject matter. Without resorting to the almost photographic accuracy of, for example, both Canaletto and Vermeer, the two artist whose paintings hang almost next to each other in the Lady Lever successfully achieve their aims. For me, the avoidance of detailed accuracy of representation in both Turner’s and Constable’s paintings, enhances the impression of reality in my mind, something that photography cannot do to the same extent.

Even if you do not wish to compare Turner and Constable, I can strongly recommend a visit to the soap maker’s gallery in Port Sunlight. Finally, it is a pity that my great grandfather did not invest in great works of art!

Once it crossed the River Mersey, but now it has gone

WIDNES IN CHESHIRE is across the River Mersey from the town of Runcorn. In the past, both places were important industrial centres. Currently, they are linked by two impressive road bridges (the Mersey Gateway, opened in 2017; and the Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 and given its present name in 1977) and a Victorian railway viaduct. The Silver Jubilee Bridge (‘SJB’) begins cross in the Mersey from Widnes near to St Mary’s church and the Victoria Gardens.

A few feet downstream from the SJB, there is what looks like a short jetty projecting a little way over the Mersey. On one side of this, there a small building with two separate slate roofs. The wide jetty-like structure looks disused. And so, it is. The structure is all that remains on the Widnes riverbank of the Widnes–Runcorn Transporter Bridge. Until 1905, when it was constructed, the only bridge across the Mersey at Widnes was the railway bridge (variously named as The Runcorn Railway Bridge, Ethelfleda Bridge, and Britannia Bridge), which was opened in 1868.

Between 1901 and 1905, when it was opened, the transporter bridge was under construction. It was the first of its kind in Britain. At each end of the bridge there was a 180 feet high steel tower. Suspended from them and spanning the length between them was a 1000-foot-long girder along which ran a continuous loop of cable. A transporter car was attached to the cable. The loop of cable was wound around a wheel attached to a winch on an engine housed in a building: the one which can be seen on the jetty-like structure at Widnes. As the wheel rotated, the cable moved, and the car attached to it moved across the river and high above it. The crossing took about 2 ½ minutes in favourable weather.

When it was built, the transporter bridge was cheaper to construct than a conventional bridge such as the one that replaced it in 1961 (i.e., the SJB). The transporter bridge, which was deemed inadequate for modern traffic volumes, was closed on the day that the SJB was opened, and it was demolished soon after. All that remains in Widnes is what can be seen at the end of Mersey Road next to the start of the SJB and Victoria Gardens. Although we did not visit Runcorn, I have read that the approach to the transporter bridge can be seen on that side of the river.

When we came across the remains of the transporter bridge, we had no idea what we were looking at. We asked several young people nearby, and they were unsure of its purpose. Older people whom we met in the nearby friendly pub (The Mersey), whose garden provides not only a pleasant place to drink but also a fine view of the SJB and the railway viaduct, were able to inform us about the bridge which is no more.

A Boer War warrior in Warrington

PALMYRA SQUARE IS a delightful rectangular piazza in the heart of Warrington in Cheshire. I use the word ‘piazza’ because the English word ‘square’ includes many squares which are anything but square. The centre of this open space is filled with the pleasant Queen’s Gardens, the Queen in the name being Victoria. It was near the end of her reign that the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (‘Boer War’; 1899-1902), a bloody conflict between the British Empire and the Dutch speaking colonists in what is now South Africa, occurred. In the middle of the eastern half of Palmyra Square there is the statue of a man in a helmet carrying a rifle in his left hand. His right arm points forward, as does his right index finger. The other fingers of his right hand clutch a pair of binoculars. He is wearing knee high boots, standing on a sculpture of a rock, and dressed in an old-fashioned military uniform. As soon as I saw this statue, I guessed (from the style of the uniform) it was connected the Boer War, and when I looked at the plinth upon which the military figure is perched, I discovered that I was right.

The monument was unveiled by General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (1839-1908), in the year before his death. Buller commanded British forces in South Africa during the Boer War. The man depicted on the plinth is Lieutenant Colonel MacCarthy O’Leary (1849-1900). He was killed on the 27th of February 1900 whilst leading men of his regiment (The South Lancashire) during the Battle of Pieters Hill. Richard Danes in his “Cassell’s History of the Boer War” (published 1901) pointed out that the 27th of February was Majuba Day, which was when the British were soundly beaten by the Boers at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. The battle at Pieters Hill, which led to a British victory, facilitated the opening of the road to Ladysmith, which was being besieged by the Boer forces. An informative website (www.alamy.com/stock-photo-statue-of-lt-col-william-mccarthy-oleary-in-queens-gardens-warrington-54385554.html) revealed:

“The Regiment drew many of its recruits from the then-South Lancashire town of Warrington, where Colonel O’Leary was very well known. When the town erected a memorial to the men of the Regiment who died during the war, it chose to feature a sculpture of Colonel O’Leary on campaign in South Africa.”

The statue was sculpted by Edward Alfred Briscoe Drury (1856-1944). Amongst his many other creations is the South Africa Gate on The Mall in London.

The plinth upon which O’Leary stands forever motionless bears a large plaque on which the many members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the South Lancashire Regiment, who died during the Boer War, are recorded. These include a few officers and too many men of lower rank. Another plaque records the campaigns in which the regiment was involved. Apart from Pieters Hill, these were: Spion Kop, Vaal  Krantz, Colenso Kopjes, Tugela Heights,  Relief of Ladysmith, Botha’s Pass, Laings Nek; and the occupations of Wakkerstroom, Utrecht, and Vryheid. In other words, they took part in most of the important struggles during the Boer War.

The monument stands in a peaceful square in a small town, once in Lancashire but now in Cheshire, just about 400 yards from the River Mersey. As I stood looking at it during an unusual heatwave when the air temperature was between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the brave men recorded on the plinth, who would have been encumbered with military equipment and inappropriate uniforms, managed to keep on going during the hot weather that they would have encountered whilst struggling against the Boers in the south of Africa.

The golden gates

BANK HALL IN Warrington (Cheshire) was designed for the local industrialist Thomas Patten (1690-1772), who had successful copper processing works, and built in 1750. It was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1754), whose other creations include St Martin-in-the-Fields (London), Radcliffe Camera (Oxford), and the Senate House (Cambridge), to mention only a few. This elegant building with neo-classical features has served as Warrington’s Town Hall since about 1870. Impressive as the building is, its magnificence pales when it is compared to the grand gates at the entrance to its grounds.

Frederick Monks, a local ironmonger and town councillor, heard about a pair of wonderful cast-iron gates which had been made at the Coalbrookdale works at Ironbridge in Shropshire. The gates had been made to be exhibited at the International Exhibition held in South Kensington in 1862.  The gates were intended for Queen Victoria’s residence at Sandringham (Norfolk). However, when she saw them at the exhibition, she noticed a statue of the regicide Oliver Cromwell behind them. This put her off the idea of installing them at Sandringham.

The gates, having been rejected by Victoria, were offered for sale by the company that had made them. Eventually, Frederick Monks purchased both the gates and the statue of Cromwell for his town, Warrington. The gates were installed in front of the Town Hall in the late 1890s. An informative website (www.warrington.gov.uk/history-golden-gates) describes features of the gates, which were recently restored beautifully:

“Because the owner was supposed to be Queen Victoria, the gates have four winged figures of Nike, the goddess of victory. They also had a Prince of Wales motif above the arch in the middle, but this was changed to Warrington’s Coat of Arms.” We had no idea that these gates with gold gilding existed. So, when we came across them during a post-prandial stroll, we were both surprised and delighted. When you see these beautiful gates, you can understand why Warrington is so lucky to have them. Incidentally, the bronze statue of Cromwell is also in the town: on Bridge Street. Before it was erected there in 1899, there was much discussion in the town council about the suitability of celebrating the regicide with the statue.

Breakfast at Shellys in Cheshire

“BREAKFAST LIKE A KING; lunch like a prince; dinner like a pauper”. This popular saying emphasizes the importance of breakfast amongst the meals partaken during the 24 hours of a day. We spent three nights in Widnes (Cheshire) in July (2022), and wanted to enjoy a decent breakfast. A search of Google revealed that the best-rated place for breakfast was Shelly’s Café located close to Harrison Street, a small road leading off the larger Hale Road.

Shelleys café

There is a sign (for Shellys) with an arrow at the corner of Harrison Street and an unnamed short road with a badly damaged surface. This side road, which is lined on one side by dust-covered parked vehicles, some with flat tyres, leads to a pair of large metal gates, which were closed when we arrived. A key-pad next to the gates allows one to ring Shelley’s. When answered, the gates open slowly. We drove through them into a secure industrial area. This contains several buildings, some of which are warehouses and others factories (including several ice-cream manufacturers). In between the buildings, there are numerous parked cars, vans, and caravans. Most of them are old models covered with a thick layer of dust. We learned that some of them have been standing unused for a year or longer.

Shellys Café is housed in a single-storey wooden shack, adorned with pots of flowers, next to the electrically operated entrance gates. It has large windows and there were chairs and tables outside. The interior is simply decorated with a few wall plaques relating to the joys of riding motorcycles. Two large blackboards list what is on offer. One corner of the building is occupied by a spacious kitchen where Shelley and her husband prepare customers’ orders.  On each of the three mornings we ate at Shellys, we sat beneath a photograph of Marilyn Monroe.  The café had other framed photographs of film stars.

Everything we ordered was delicious. The fried items (including eggs, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, sausages, hash browns, and tomatoes) were tasty and totally free of grease. What is on offer at Shellys is basic and unpretentious, but well-prepared. Given that this place is rated the best for breakfast in the Widnes area, it is remarkably good value. Were it nearer our home in London, I am sure that we would drive out to eat there, despite the industrial nature of its location.

Alice through the stained glass windows

CHARLES LUTWIDGE DODGSON (1832-1898), better known as Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, was born in the village of Daresbury in Cheshire. During his first few years of life, Charles’s father was the curate of the local church of All Saints.

When he was 11, the Dodgson family moved away from Daresbury. Eventually, Charles entered Christ Church College in Oxford. It was here that he met the young child Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. It was this young child who inspired Dodgson to create and later publish his famous story. Unlike many other Victorian tales for children it was free from moral instructions.

Dodgson/Carroll died in Guildford, where he was buried. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, money was raised to create a window in the church in Daresbury to commemorate him. Known as the Lewis Carroll Window, it allows light into a Chapel in the southeast corner of the church. Designed by Geoffrey Webb, it was dedicated in mid 1935.

The stained window incorporates depictions of both Carroll and Alice Liddell, as well as some of the creatures drawn originally by John Tenniel, who illustrated the book about Alice.

A modern addition to the church was built onto its North side. This contains a Lewis Carroll exhibition. One of the exhibits is an old Bell. This used to be attached to a barge that served the religious needs of the people who lived and worked on the canals near Daresbury. This floating chapel was the creation of Lewis Carroll’s father.

We visited Daresbury on a July day when the air temperature was 37 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, it was cooler inside the church. I am grateful to Christine Casson for encouraging us to visit the church with the Wonderland window.

Great expectations

I LOVE OUTDOOR sculpture exhibitions. Also, I enjoy visiting the exhibition spaces of the White Cube Gallery, which are located in Piccadilly and Bermondsey. So, it was with high expectations that we drove up to Arley Hall in Cheshire to view an exhibition of outdoor sculpture by artists with whom the White Cube represents.

The works on display until the 29th of August 2022 are by artists including amongst others Gormley, Noguchi, Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum,and Takis. This is a formidable line up of artists.

Arley Hall and its gardens are magnificent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the temporary exhibition of works by eminent modern sculptors. Unlike other outdoor sculpture shows I have seen (e.g. Frieze at Regents Park, Houghton Hall, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park), what was on display in Arley Hall’s garden was unexciting despite the delightful setting. I felt that White Cube, whose exhibitions are, if nothing else, always dramatic, could have displayed a more impactful selection of artworks.

Exhibition aside,visiting the grounds of Arley Hall was well worthwhile as it has given us the opportunity to spend some time in Cheshire, which we do not know well.

A pair of converging railway viaducts

THERE IS A FASCINATING pair of railway viaducts at Chapel Milton, near Chapel-en-Frith in the Peak District. Constructed in about 1860 and then 1890, the viaducts support a place where two railway lines diverge. The viaducts, which join each other at a bifurcation were built at different times as the dates suggest. One of the arcades consists of 13 arches and the other of 13.

Allow Wikipedia to explain:”The Midland Railway opened a new line via Chapel-en-le-Frith Central and Great Rocks Dale, linking the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, in 1867, giving it an express through route for the first time between Manchester and London … The eastern section, essentially a second, mirror-image viaduct in an identical style, was added in 1890 to allow trains to travel between Sheffield and the south via Buxton and the Midland’s own line.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapel_Milton_Viaduct)

Draining a canal

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a canal needs repairing. For example, it might have sprung a leak either in its retaining walls or in its clay bottom. In such circumstances and no doubt others, the repair work can only be carried out if the canal is emptied of water, a tall order in a canal that might be many miles in length. Recently, we were walking along the towpath of the Macclesfield Canal, which links Marples Lock on the Peak Forest Canal with Hardings Wood Junction on the Trent and Mersey Canal, when we spotted something that we had never noticed before whilst walking along a canal towpath.

What we saw was a pile of sturdy wooden planks, each with two metal handles attached to their narrowest edges. They looked quite modern. We asked a man, who was walking his dog, about the planks. He explained that they were used to block both ends of a section of canal between two consecutive bridges. When these barricades are lined with plastic sheeting, the water between the two barricades can be drained from the part of the canal between the two waterproofed wooden barriers, Then, work can be carried out on the drained stretch of the canal. The planks are known as ‘stop planks’

Our informant pointed out notches carved in the stonework near to a bridge. The notch is opposite another identical one across the canal. It is into these pairs of notches that the planks we had noticed ate inserted to create a dam, I regard myself as being quite observant, but I have never seen or noticed either this kind of notch or the wooden planks for inserting in them during many long walks along canals in other parts of England. Maybe, they are common, but until we walked beside the Macclesfield Canal, I had never seen them before, Maybe, this is because other methods of damming (see: https://www.rchs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/OP-128.pdf) are also employed in addition to that which we spotted on the Macclesfield Canal at Bollington in Cheshire.