Manchester's most famous artworks

I studied Art History in Manchester, and I spent countless hours following a lecturer around a gallery while he droned about something pretentious like Victor Hugo and the Sublime. Needless to say, I often zoned out.

By Manchester's Finest | Last updated 10 November 2017

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But if there is one thing I learnt, other than it’s impossible to be an artistic icon and alive at the same time, it was that Manchester has a rich artistic history and a handful of fantastic galleries that can boast some pretty influential and important works of art.

J.M.W Turner- Now for the painter (1827)
It is safe to say that any work by English Romantic painter J.M.W Turner is, by definition, famous. An artist trained by the esteemed Royal Academy and renowned for his imaginative, turbulent landscapes, Turner is often referred to as the ‘painter of light’. The artwork ‘Now for the Painter’, seems to emit luminescence, with sky and sea so realistic it almost tricks the eye into thinking it’s moving.

Apparently, the title was part of an elaborate joke between himself and friends. No, I didn’t get it either. But apparently, painter is also the term for a rope on a ship which the sailor is trying to attach the passengers to the smaller boat. I know… bloody hilarious.

Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL

L.S Lowry – Coming from the Mill (1930)
A list of Manchester artists would not be complete without mentioning L.S Lowry. Born in Strettford, Lowry is famous for his wide, industrial landscapes which are often seen as studies of the human condition in post-war Britain. He is famous for his naive, almost childlike painting style, which utilises bright primary colours contrasted against grey (it wouldn’t be Manchester without cloud), and his legendary ‘matchstick men’.

It is hard to pin down a single artwork that is most notable, so instead, I have chosen my favourite in the collection. “Coming from the Mill” is a typical Lowry, and shows a hoard of people leaving for home after a long hard day of factory work. Perhaps this is a comment on the strong work ethic of the people of Manchester? Or not. Maybe it was just the view from his bathroom.

The Lowry, Pier 8, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ

 William Blake – The Ancient of Days (c.1794)
Unrecognised in his lifetime and off his proverbial trolley, poet and artisan William Blake is now thought of as a national treasure and symbol of British innovation. Truth is, he was a nutcase. Pious, spiritual, perhaps clairvoyant and with his own mythology of ancient gods intertwined with Christianity, his work is charged with complex spiritual power.

“The Ancient of Days” is a great example. Originally the frontispiece to a book of his personal mythology, this depicts one of his God’s Urizen, emerging nude from a dark and turbulent sky. It is perhaps the image the artist is most often associated, and a  favourite of his own. As noted in Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, the design of The Ancient of Days was “a singular favourite with Blake and as one it was always a happiness to him to copy.”

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Rd, Manchester M15 6ER

Stanley Chow
Like Lowry, it is difficult to tie down a most famous, or most crucial artwork by Manchester-born artist Stanley Chow. His parents moved to the UK from Hong Kong and opened a fish and chip shop. In 2014 he exhibited “The Takeaway” at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, a nostalgic look at his past through his illustrations. His work is simplistic and playful with nothing but positivity flowing from its core.

You can see his work everywhere in Manchester including on city marketing campaigns and the sides of trams. His portraits of celebrities are also famous, and you can buy the prints here. Other clients include McDonalds, Saatchi & Saatchi, WWE, wired magazine and The New Yorker. I assure you once you see his work, you will be spotting it everywhere.

Vincent Van Gogh -The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (1887)
The Dutch post-impressionist painter Van Gogh is most famous for his psychedelic fields and starry nights that adorn the walls of the Musee D’Orsey. In a little over a decade, Van Gogh produced a monumental amount of oil paintings, most of them created in the last two years of his life, so it is not surprising that at least one would end up in rainy old Manchester.

The painting depicts the outskirts of Paris on the edge where urban meets nature. The eye is drawn to two ghostly figures in the centre, perhaps erased by the artist or probably intentional. Much of Van Gogh’s work is descriptive of a disturbed mind with bold colours, impulsive brushwork and subjects which teeter on the edge of troubling. This oil is part of the collections at The Whitworth Gallery. It is not currently on display, but you can arrange to view it with the collections team.

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Rd, Manchester M15 6ER

 Invader – Aliens
An incognito French urban artist who works by night on a global-wide project putting mosaic space invaders on the sides of buildings. The project began in the 1990’s in his local area and then expanded across France, into Europe and eventually China and the US. The mosaic style is representative of the 8-bit graphics of the arcade games of the 1970’s and 80’s, and in his artworks, each tile represents one pixel.

There are a total of 3581 Space Invaders out there spread over 74 cities, and Manchester is home to 47 of these bad boys. Have you ever seen one? Probably. But did you know they were special? Probably not. There are definitely a couple knocking around the Northern Quarter if you look hard enough.

Astarte Syriaca- Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)
The Manchester Art Gallery can boast one of the most significant collections of Pre-Raphaelite artwork in the country and their prized work would be Astarte Syriaca by artist-poet Rossetti. A dominant full length work with his typical female model with full lips, flowing hair and draped in a Grecian robe. She is a depiction of Jane Morris, wife of textile designer William Morris, who was the object of Rossetti’s desires. I know, how scandalous.

The subject is wrapped up with all sorts of mythology- a Middle Eastern Goddess, an eight-pointed star, the meeting sun and moon, it is full of all those, magic, middle earth, medieval vibes that encapsulate the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL