This exhibition, Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on, marks the anniversary of the largest art exhibition ever held. Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, contained over 16,000 exhibits and was held in a specially constructed iron and glass building at Old Trafford, just outside Manchester’s city centre.
As one of the most important and fastest growing cities in the mid 19th century, Manchester had grand cultural ambitions. The city’s affluent bankers and textile merchants had made their fortunes through business rather than inherited wealth. Critics from longer established, historic towns thought the newly rich city was ugly and its inhabitants dull and ‘money-grubbing’. The Art Treasures of the United Kingdom exhibition of 1857 was intended to answer these critics, and was the city's international cultural debut.
The current exhibition includes only a fraction of the exhibits shown in 1857, but marks nevertheless an important and influential event which, until now, has largely been forgotten.
In 1853 Manchester was granted city status and became the world’s first industrial city. It had been a small market town since medieval times, but grew steadily from the late 1700s as people flocked from rural areas to work in the emerging cotton industry. By 1857 Manchester was known as the “cotton capital” because its impressive new city centre warehouses distributed textiles worldwide.
Manchester was a city of contrasts, famous for its wealth, free trade and radical thinking but notorious for its slums, hardship and poverty.
These social problems became worse as the city grew, eventually spurring civic leaders and political reformers to set up public health and educational institutions in an attempt to improve the city’s image.
William Wyld, Manchester From The Cliff, Higher Broughton, 1830. (detail)
© Manchester City Galleries
During the 1800s Manchester’s population grew steadily as people arrived from rural areas in search of work. Early migrants mainly came from the Pennines, the Scottish borders and Wales. Others came from overseas - Ashkenazi Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe and Irish people fleeing the 1847/8 potato famine. Not everybody came because of poverty and the need for work, the city also attracted affluent merchants from Germany, Greece, Morocco and Armenia.
Manchester in 1857 had no sewerage system or clean water supply. This resulted in a high death rate mainly due to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Terrible overcrowding meant infections like tuberculosis to spread rapidly and consequently, life was often short and grim for the poor. It took the city corporation twenty years to improve life expectancy by building many miles of sewers and setting up a clean water supply.