A Manchester Meeting with Pierre Adolphe Valette
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.