Like many a star who’s had a long and varied career, Chetham’s as an institution has hoarded many a picture of itself, produced over years of more or less artistic activity. We did think we had seen all the early examples, often many times over, and copied in various ways, redrawn, cropped and copied, prepared for newspaper publication, or badly photocopied and browning in files of old papers.
So a minor stir this week, when we received a splendid print entitled ‘Cheetham College and Library, Manchester’ (yes, the spelling-and-pronunciation headache rears its hoary head again).
The imprint tells us it was ‘drawn and engraved by James Parry, 52 Piccadilly, for T. Rogerson, and sold by T. Sowler St Anne’s Square, 1821’. How are we to read it?
Only two years after Orator Hunt’s presence created the official panic, widespread interest in sweeping state reforms, controversy and finally the cavalry charge of Peterloo (often seen then as now as the anti-Waterloo of massacre at home for business as usual, rather than victory abroad over tyrants), the scene is tranquil. Ancient stones, leaf shadowed, fenced in and with its back turned to the world, it is peopled by figures from a time of peace.
Boys at play
The Chetham’s charity boys, in their quaint garb and Tudor caps, are playing in the yard – marbles?
Two more in the shade of the trees have a barrow that seems to speak of rural rather than urban duties, the unburdened one points back towards the sunlit walls as if to stop his friend wheeling himself out of the idyll by way of the corner of the print.
By the porch a gentleman – who else could be idle during the day? has a Jane Austen lady-in-bonnet on each arm, captivated by the buildings and the figure entering the doorway, a servant of Chetham’s, perhaps.
Only in the haze beyond the sunlit courtyard does modernity seem to loom, in the shape of factory chimneys.
The march of progress is still slow – perhaps
But right at the left-hand margin, gates stand open – to let the boys out, or the world in?
A gate in, or a door out?
We’re often asked if we have illustrations of the industrial revolution in its early and formative stages. Readers know we have a great body of prints and other visual material, which often find their way into books, broadcasts and lectures. But this scene, commercially produced for sale, rather echoes the view Chetham’s seems to have taken of itself at this date. Much as swathes of unique material was collected here on Peterloo and the life of the town, including its vital and nationally influential politics, no-one ever wanted to draw the workers, or the factories that sucked them in by the hundred thousand.