Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Manchester Meeting with Pierre Adolphe Valette

This is Manchester in the north-west of England. It is said to be a place which exists because of rain - where the atmosphere is so humid that the fibres of cotton bolls didn't snap in the looms, where the running water kept running, where there was space to build, and then, quickly, a population of people, drawn from the impoverished countryside with the promise of work - and so the village became town, became city. It spread - sprawled - over the fields around it, subsuming other villages, other towns - with more and more people scuttling and falling as if this was the only place they could stop.

It was dirty, polluted, overcrowded and dangerous. Canals and then railways and then roads forced their way through like blood vessels feeding a new growth. The people lived back to back, side to side, one on the top of the other - crammed, squeezed, choked. Effluent discharged into drinking water, the days became dark as the nights, the work never stopped - all roads led to the factories and all the factories discharged to the slums. They fed upon each other - each growing fat and noxious.

And then, at the end of this, came Valette, an artist from France born in St Etienne in 1876. He was an impressionist, learning his craft through evening classes in Bordeaux and then, after winning a scholarship, at Birkbeck Institute. After a few months he mysteriously left London and went to work in Manchester as a designer in 1904. Again he resorted to honing his craft in evening classes - this time at the Manchester Municipal School of Art. In 1907 he was invited to join the teaching staff where he taught in the French style - by demonstration. The industrial scenes of Manchester lent themselves well to his sfumato style.

According to this article
he revolutionised the place. He also inspired Lowry - which I think is obvious from this detail of his painting of Albert Square. This cart-pusher is almost a caricature of a man - more expressive than a likeness - the drudgery of his life comes over very clearly, and the background - the smog, the yellow-grey dirtiness of everything all adds to the effect.

But Manchester is not like that now. Even when I used to work there as a university research scientist at the end of the eighties, it had changed completely from the smog-ridden industrial city to a place where people came just to work in offices, shops and institutes. At that time no one I knew lived in Manchester. Everyone commuted in from places in the suburbs - Altrincham, Hale, Ashton. Then came the IRA bomb in 1996
which devastated the central area. Recently police footage of the explosion was released and here is a BBC news report recorded on YouTube. No one died, because the police had managed to clear the area after a tip off to a local TV station using the IRA code word. But many were seriously injured and there was million pounds worth of damage.However, out of this disaster has come something good. Since so much was destroyed Manchester was able to use the millions donated towards rebuilding the area into urban regeneration. Public conveniences have been converted into fashionable-looking bars...

(although I cannot rid myself of a slight queasiness as I look at it - surely this place would retain a little cologne d'urinal on Manchester's many damp days?)

While the fine old buildings like the town hall with its cloistered entrance-way

and the art gallery

were thankfully outside the zone of the blast.

People now live where they work, including the person I had come to Manchester to see: Susan Tranter who works for the British Council as 'Reader in Residence". We met in the Manchester Art Gallery, which is the fine building where I encountered Valette's works. There were drawings and paintings - all superb and preferable to Lowry in my view. The man's drawings are robust whereas his portraits are more gentle - but each evoke the character of the subject as well as conveying likeness. You can see the whole collection here . I am now a Valette fan.


Anonymous skint writer said...

A nice read Clare, deep and wide and all relevant.

Just one thing the bomb wasn't in 2006 but that's probably a little typo

Thu Aug 24, 04:12:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Duh. THANKS Skint. I really shouldn't write this stuff when I'm feeling so dopey.

Thu Aug 24, 04:48:00 pm  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I too lived in Manchester in the late 1980's, and went back there to live later on.. I remember a friend of mine having a plan to turn a subterranean toilet in All Saints' into a bar. The one on your photos looks further into town.

My wife Bridget (though not then my wife) was due to go into the city centre on the day of the bombing. Fortunately she didn't make it due to having a hangover.

I took a a snail photo in your honour by the entrance to Treak Cliff Cavern. I'll post it on my blog when I have a chance.

Thu Aug 24, 07:36:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Never heard of Valette before. I like the way he uses his sfumato to create depth.

Fri Aug 25, 12:07:00 am  
Blogger twitches said...

Great photos, and interesting read! Thanks for posting it!

Fri Aug 25, 04:36:00 am  
Blogger Anne S said...

Thanks for pointing out Valette - I've never heard of him before.

I love his paintings, that wonderful smoking misty effect is beautiful.

Fri Aug 25, 07:13:00 am  
Anonymous Jan said...

THe paintings Clare are lovely. Is this a permanent collection at this gallery or a temporary exhibition? And your photos too were excellent. It's certainly made me think re a visit next time in M/Ch..

Fri Aug 25, 03:13:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Jeremy: Small world! Perhaps we passed each other in the street without knowing it.

I would never, in a million years, think of turning one of those public conveniences into anything. I really hated them when a child - there was definitely something monstrous in them as far as I was concerned. And something very smelly. Thinking about it I could well have been right. I think your firend, and who ever who converted this one, has a lot of vision.

Very lucky escape for your future wife! You never stop thinking if that circumstance, do you?

And thanks for the snail photo. It is very kind of you to think of me. It's very sweet.

Jonathan and Anne S: You noticed! Ha.

Twitches and Jan. Thanks. Not sure if it is permanant or not, I'm afraid.

Fri Aug 25, 06:42:00 pm  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

Thanks for this fascinating insight into a city that seems to smack of 'industrial' in our consciousness - although the Commonwealth Games did help squash some of that preconception.

Mon Aug 28, 12:43:00 pm  
Anonymous mike f said...

If you like Valette's atmospheric use of impressionism, check out Henri Le Sidaner- like a haunted visionary Monet even when painting still life! Real art aspires to greatness and profundity via skill and technique- many contemporary artists are little more than trivial entertainers. Let's have a campaign for real art!

Fri Jun 08, 01:55:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

I agree completely Mike F! For me much of modern art is like the emperor's new clothes. A few years down the line people will be looking back at Emin's bed and Hurst's diamond skull and laughing at us.

Sat Jun 09, 11:55:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had been trying to find photos of Valette's paintings, came across your site and was so pleased to find a fellow enthusiast. I am completely nostalgic to a Lancashire milltown near Manchester in the 20's and what a subject for the paintbrush! I am sure enthusiastic students of today realise how lucky they are to be able to choose between a typewriter/whatever and a paintbrush..
As an amateur painter now (a weekend painter as Lowry dreaded being labelled), I would gladly swap the present scene, but not the living conditions.
I agree to prefer Valette to Lowry but they are poles apart. Valette captured the mood and the mystery; Lowry the grinding poverty. Valette is not the only one who did not achieve proper recognition in his day, and Lowry must be one of the few who did. Is this because he was different?

Tue Jan 15, 11:23:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article, and well done for spreading the word. I'm a Manchester exile, and whenever I go back I go to the Lowry/Valette room at the art gallery.

I've got a big print of Albert Square in my living room. Reminds me of misty November dusks heading for the bus stop afer a day in "Town".

100 brownie points to the first person to identify the purpose of the wires across the foreground sky in "Albert Square". And before you say "tram wires" (as the plaque in the art gallery says!) look at the ground for the rails ...

Wed Jan 28, 03:10:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to Anonymous:
They are not wires. They are cracks in the painting.


Sat Mar 07, 10:22:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Deniis! And thank you also to the two anonymous commenters. You all increase my appreciation of the artist enormously.

Sat Mar 07, 10:26:00 am  
Blogger WolfBuckingham said...

I remembered Valette's art from a Manchester trip I took some 13 years ago and wanted to make mention of it in a poem I'm writing. I knew there was a style to his painting (you provided the answer--sfumato).

While I still love Valette, I agree that Lowry is different and good in his own right. Thanks for the trip backward!

Wed Jul 14, 04:55:00 am  
OpenID leelcampbell said...

Vallette is a hero of mine and it's great to him finally getting much deserved attention. Thanks for posting.

Wed Feb 25, 11:30:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And thanks for taking a look,Mr. Campbell!

Fri Feb 27, 07:25:00 am  

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