Art in Hard Times

Manchester Art Gallery showcases Turner Prize nominee Spartacus Chetwynd’s short film The Walk to Dover.

By Matthew Tyas | 16 July 2012

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A new display at Manchester Art Gallery showcases Turner Prize nominee Spartacus Chetwynd’s short film The Walk to Dover alongside five key paintings from the gallery’s prestigious 19th century collections.

The Walk to Dover by Spartacus Chetwynd image

Made from stills photography and sound recordings, The Walk to Dover documents a seven day walk from London to Dover made by the artist and friends. It was inspired by Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical tale David Copperfield.

Dressed as ‘Victorian Urchins’, the group traced the journey that Copperfield made as a young boy from the harsh world of child labour in London to sanctuary with his aunt in Dover. For seven days, the ‘urchins’ attempted to live in the same way that Copperfield would have: living off the land and foraging for food.

Through the work Chetwynd explores the issue of debt. The piece draws comparisons between Victorian debt prisons (a recurring theme in Dickens’ narratives as well as being experienced by his own family) and contemporary Britain’s credit culture.

On loan from The Arts Council Collection, the short film is being shown in the North West for the first time. It is on display at Manchester Art Gallery alongside five works from the city’s collection that also explore similar themes: Thomas Armstrong’s A Street Scene in Manchester; Hubert von Herkomer’s Hard Times; Briton Riviere’s His Only Friend; Frederick Barnard’s A Dress Rehearsal and William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day.

The late 19th century paintings highlight a Victorian fascination with their changing world of new social types and the rigid class structure of the time.
Von Herkomer’s Hard Times, for example, features a Victorian family on a journey through the British countryside looking for work. While Rivière‘s His Only Friend depicts a homeless child by a roadside, and has strong echoes of Oliver Twist.

The artist said about the exhibition:
“I am really happy to be showing in Manchester, particularly alongside the historic works such as Frith’s The Derby Day…this painting has influenced me so much. I was so pleased that the gallery were interested in the cross historical comparison of Victorian debt prisons and contemporary debt and our credit card culture. I made the performance in 2005 – the film after that in 2006 and it was so obvious the debt crisis was coming.”

Dr Maria Balshaw, Director of Manchester City Galleries and Whitworth Art Gallery said:
“I’m delighted that Manchester Art Gallery is working with Spartacus Chetwynd. It’s a great opportunity for visitors to see work by a rising star of the contemporary art world here in Manchester and her work gives visitors a new way of thinking about our historic collections.”

The display will also be used in education sessions with school groups studying The Victorians and there will be talks and performance events throughout the year. It builds on the gallery’s continuing programme of re-interpreting the collections, which has included the Pre-Raphaelite Experiment; a year long engagement project and display designed to find out what the gallery’s important collection means to today’s Mancunians: and Visual Dialogues, which saw the work of Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, shown alongside collections chosen by young people from the city.

Art in Hard Times featuring The Walk to Dover by Spartacus Chetwynd will be on display at Manchester Art Gallery from Saturday 14 July 2012 until April 2013. It is an Arts Council Collection Partnership supported by Christie’s.

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