The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years.
Every time I walk into the Bluecoat the place is buzzing. The impression is of a wide variety of people here for different reasons. I’m here for the art, but some are drinking coffee and chatting, there’s a woman in the corner performing dance moves, the sound of music drifts in from somewhere else in the building, there are signs for a book fair, while at reception a couple are booking for a poetry event. Browse the Blucoat’s web page and you’ll find a galaxy of events on offer: visual arts, lectures, poetry, dance, philosophy, and reading groups. All of this can be traced back to 1907, the year that the building was saved from an uncertain fate for the first time when a group of disaffected artists formed the Sandon Studios Society.
But the story of this elegant Queen Anne style building goes back much further. In 1708, the Reverend Robert Styth and Bryan Blundell, a merchant and sea captain, founded the Liverpool Blue Coat School, dedicated to ‘the promotion of Christian charity and the training of poor boys in the principles of the Anglican Church.’ (A Latin inscription of this text above the main entrance remains to this day as a reminder of the building’s original function.) Work on the building began in 1716 and was completed nine years later.
Blundell provided finance for the building from his income as a merchant and sea captain. Like many of Liverpool’s most noted philanthropists, Blundell was a successful slave trader, involved in carrying Virginian tobacco to England and transporting ‘refuse slaves’ from captivity on Caribbean sugar plantations to the Virginia tobacco plantations. He invested in a number of slave ships, and some of the wealth from these ventures contributed to the expansion of the work of the Blue Coat, as Blundell pledged 10 per cent of his annual income to the institution. Henry Fox Bourne, Victorian social reformer and author of English Merchants, noted that Bryan Blundell ‘found in his philanthropy no argument in joining in the slave trade’. In 1763 the building was further extended by Bryan’s son, Jonathan, who was more deeply involved in the slave trade than his father.
The Blucoat School continues to operate to this day. But in 1906, needing a bigger premises, the school moved to a new building on Church Road overlooking the Mystery. The future of the original building now seemed uncertain.
But, in 1907, a group of painters and sculptors – calling themselves the Sandon Studios Society – moved to the Bluecoat. They were disaffected former students who had broken away from the University of Liverpool’s School of Applied Art and Design, whose classes were housed in the early 1900s in a cluster of rather makeshift buildings known as The Art Sheds.
Artistic activity has been at the heart of the Bluecoat building ever since, a story that is surveyed in a one of two exhibitions currently on show there. Art at the Heart of Bluecoat explores the central role of art at Bluecoat through key personalities, exhibitions and organisations that found a home here, beginning with the efforts of the Sandon Studios Society in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1910 they convinced Lord Leverhulme to buy the building.The Sandon Society sought to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life, enabling ‘all the bright, appreciative people to meet the clever and original’.
Their first exhibition, in 1908, featured work by Claude Monet. In 1911 they brought Roger Fry’s ground-breaking Post-Impressionist exhibition to Liverpool after it had shown in London. It featured works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and others. The exhibition was recreated at the Walker in 2011.
One of the founding members of the Sandon Society was the artist Edward Carter Preston, born in Walton in 1885. His family, originally from Lancashire, had moved to Liverpool in the late eighteenth century, exchanging a history of farming for a brewing firm in Vauxhall Road. Although Carter Preston’s early interest in art was strongly discouraged by his father he followed his convictions to succeed as a professional artist, and was a passionate member of the Sandon group. Two of his early paintings – evocative, dusky studies of the Bluecoat and its environs – are on show in this display.
In the first of Edward Preston’s paintings – made in 1908 – we are are looking from the courtyard of the Bluecoat through the gates to the shadowy bulk of St Peter’s Church beyond. The church had given its name to Church Street, where it stood from 1704 to 1919. It served as Liverpool’s Pro-Cathedral before the plan to build the Anglican Cathedral on St. James’ Mount. Once the decision to build there had been made, the diocese realised it could only fund the ambitious project by selling off its valuable real estate in the city’s main retail street. At one stage it looked as if Harrods would build their only store outside London on the site, but finally, it went to the American chain, Woolworths, whose store remained on the site for the next 50 years. The second of Preston’s paintings is an interesting view looking along Church Alley towards Church Street where the block containing Compton’s hotel and ground-floor shops (later taken over by Marks & Spencer) can be seen. Wooden scaffolding is erected around the building in the foreground which I suspect may have been destroyed in the May Blitz of 1941.
After Leverhulme’s death in 1925, the future of the Bluecoat looked grim. He had made no provision for the building in his will, and it had to be put on the market to raise pay death duties. Advertised as a development opportunity, the ground floor space was let as a car showroom. However, the Sandon Society raised an appeal to save the building again, and in 1927, having managed to raise the money, a charitable trust, Bluecoat Society of Arts was established to ‘preserve the building for its architectural value and to establish a centre for the arts.’
Despite those efforts, two decades later the building was almost lost. During the May Blitz of 1941 the building was severely damaged (and wasn’t fully restored to its former glory until 1958). Then, in the late 1940s, city planners proposed demolishing the building to make way for an inner ring-road.
But the plans were resisted and, despite the damage to the building, exhibitions were mounted and, from the 1960s onwards, the Bluecoat firmly established itself as a cornerstone of Liverpool’s artistic life.
The Bluecoat has a pretty astonishing history of hosting big names in the performing arts, including visits by Stravinsky, Bartok and Britten, Captain Beefheart, and the performance art of Yoko Ono, who gave her first paid performance here in 1967 not long before she met John Lennon. That event is captured on a television film being screened in this historical display and in Public View. Yoko returned to the Bluecoat in 2008 for the building’s reopening exhibition, Now Then.
After casting an eye over this display with its focus on the changing functions of the building in the past 300 years, I moved on to explore Public View. Ever since the Post-Impressionists show in 1911, the Bluecoat has gained a reputation as an important regional venue for new art. Public View brings together works by 100 artists who have previously exhibited at Bluecoat – people such as John Akomfrah, Jeremy Deller, and Yoko Ono, just a small sample of the many hundreds of artists who have shown here.
The earliest exhibit is this early painting by Nicholas Horsfield. It recalls an influential figure in the post-war story of the Bluecoat. Horsfield was a teacher and art administrator in Manchester and Liverpool, and the Arts Council’s regional officer for visual arts in the North-West between 1948 and 1956. In Manchester he rubbed shoulders with painters such as L.S. Lowry, Alan Lowndes and Harry Rutherford. Influenced by his friend, the Manchester Guardian art critic John Willett, he came to see that Liverpool’s art had a more challenging avant-garde edge. In 1956 Horsfield moved to Liverpool and began teaching at the art school, soon to be the locus of cultural and artistic ferment reflected in students such as Maurice Cockrill, Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon, and staff such as Julia Carter Preston (daughter of Edward Carter Preston).
Horsfield’s paintings were rarely concerned with local subject matter. But there is a Liverpool street view of his, made in 1957, and now in the Walker Art Gallery collection (not on show at the Bluecoat).
During the 1960s and 1970s the Bluecoat flourished as the ferment of the 1960s was reflected in an adventurous programme of art exhibitions and performances of music, theatre, dance in the concert hall. A working community of artists was
based in the building, along with shops, creative businesses, craft specialists, arts organisations such as the Merseyside Film Institute (strong memories for me of the excitement of receiving the new season’s programme presented in an unusual slim booklet format, and of attending screenings – sometimes two or three times a week – in the basement cinema).
Adrian Henri’s City Painting reflects this period. It was exhibited several times at the Bluecoat, starting in 1958 with Five Painters. Other exhibitions at the Bluecoat that have featured Henri’s work include Art and the Sea, 1981; a solo exhibition The Art of Adrian Henri, 1987; Under the Volcano: An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry, 2009; and A Democratic Promenade, 2011.
This little picture is interesting for me because it’s caught between three influences – residual Euston Road School which is murkily tonal. Then it’s very much Nicholas de Stael in the shapes. But then again it’s also proto-pop. The adverts are meant to be hoardings or neon-lit – they’re stuck on. It’s not a particular street in Liverpool or a specific city. It’s any city – a kind of universal city. I was cutting up and using adverts and putting them into something that’s otherwise not very pop-ish.
I suppose in a way this was being a bit rebellious – then. In a way it looks a bit obvious and rather trite now. The idea of introducing advertising into fine art was one that was around – with the Independent Group and with people like Richard Hamilton and Lawrence Alloway – something I’d been exposed to. This is me using it in a rather hesitant way, rather than as I did a year or so later when it was a bit more out front.
– Adrian Henri interviewed in Paintings 1953-1998, Walker Art Gallery, p.32
The show is dominated by work from the1980s concerned with social or political issues, reflecting the fact that, from the 1970s onwards, the Bluecoat has tended to showcase the more socially engaged or issue-based strands in British contemporary art. Peter Clarke’s Myrtle Gardens (1982) is an expressionist painting in subdued tones in which the paint has been applied heavily, depicting the now-gentrified tenement block. Pete Clarke has exhibited at the Bluecoat several times since 1981.
I much prefer this sort of thing to some of the more recent works, such as Rowena Harris’ Fingers scrolling, fingers scrolling, fingers scrolling, fingers 2.0 (2016), a small wall-mounted sculpture consisting of accidental iPhone shots embedded in silicone resin and circled by a bent brass wire. Hmmm….
John Monks studied at Liverpool School of Art in the late 1970s. Why his painting of the interior of the mouldering and debris-strewn interior of an abandoned mansion should have a title referencing a kind of wild boar, I can’t really say. But it’s a powerful and atmospheric painting. The Barber Institute in Birmingham, where Monks had an exhibition a couple of years ago, described him as ‘One of the most important painters working in Britain today … much influenced by historical art and the interiors of galleries and historic buildings.’ Maybe there’s a clue there, and this is a fantasy of a gallery, emptied and derelict, perhaps the victim of cuts in arts spending?
Several of the works in Public View make connections with other aspects of pop culture in Liverpool in recent decades: there’s a screen printed poster by Malcolm Garrett advertising an early Buzzcocks gig, and one of Pete Frame’s rock family trees that maps local bands in the era of Eric’s. Jeremy Deller’s History of the World is a silkscreen print based on a diagram he prepared for a Bluecoat event, Acid Brass, which comprised the Williams Fairey brass band playing a night of acid house anthems.
I enjoyed Sean Halligan’s Bluecoat Circumstantia (1986-2016), a slideshow of 300 images drawn from an uncountable number that he has photographed in and around the Bluecoat for more than three decades, not least because several of them feature this guy who I recall was once a student of mine.
In 1979, Pete Hagerty was the first creative director at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool’s only gallery entirely devoted to photography. In 1989, he initiated a successful campaign to establish a charitable trust on behalf of the Liverpool photographer Chambre Hardman and to keep his unique collection of photographs in Liverpool. Today, Hardman’s House and Studio on Rodney Street is a highly successful National Trust property. His photography has been exhibited at the Bluecoat on several occasions, represented here by ‘Man in Golden Suit’, from his series Days in Eldorado. About which local playwright Jim Morris has stated:
Can there be days in Eldorado in Liverpool? Well Hagerty says so. Hagerty says it’s obvious isn’t it? And lots of people in Liverpool will agree with him. But how do you show it? How do you show that feeling that we all get some days? That hard won feeling that sometimes life gives to us? That lets us know we are living? That life is worth living?
Peter Kennard is another famous name in contemporary art whose work has been shown at the Bluecoat. ‘Newspaper 6, 1994’ is from his 1996 show, Unwords: Scraps from a Reading Room. During the late 1960s, Kennard abandoned painting in a quest to bring art and politics together for a wider audience. Influenced in particular by the anti-fascist work of John Heartfield in the 1930s and the Dadaists in the 1920s, he was drawn to photomontage for its ability to show the ‘unrevealed truth’ behind the image.
That sense of ripping into an image, unveiling a surface, going through that surface into an unrevealed truth, is at the core of photomontage. I sit in a room with the tools of my trade and try to pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections.
– Peter Kennard
Kennard’s 1997 Reading Room installation, from which ‘Newspaper 6, 1994’ is drawn, comprised eight wooden lecterns, each bearing the financial pages of newspapers worked over by Kennard in charcoal, smudged and blurred, and with a black hand ripping into the stock market figures.
Here’s something completely different: Peter Randall-Page’s ‘Nocturne l’ is a beautiful piece of carved and shaped Hornton stone which was shown in Art and the Sea in 1981, an exhibition which toured to coastal venues including the Bluecoat. Hornton Stone is a sedimentary rock, formed in the Jurassic period about 160 million years ago, and a popular stone across Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds due to its attractive appearance and good weathering properties. I remember seeing ‘Cone and Vessel’, a work in which Peter Randall-Page had carved a scaled-up fir cone and acorn cup out of sandstone, on the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail in 2010.
Another sculptural piece, this time worked in wood, is Juginder Lamba’s ‘Cry 2’, from the 1992 exhibition, Trophies of Empire. Juginder Lamba was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1948. At the age of ten his family moved to India and then, four years later, to Britain. In an interview he spoke interestingly of the way these different cultural influences had affected his work:
The years in India, in many ways, were quite different from those in Kenya. Colonialism did not succeed in affecting the culture or the Indian way of life, whereas, in many parts of Africa, these were virtually obliterated. Consequently, you are surrounded by temples adorned with sculptures, ancient monuments going back a millennium, a constant flow of religious ceremonies and festivals which permeate every aspect of people’s daily lives, and a way of life reflecting a civilisation thousands of years old. Art was completely integrated into the fabric of life and, in that sense, was all around you and part of you. Obviously, these have left strong traces which surface and are explored in my work. The desire to look beyond the surface of things, to try and reach an inner reality, and to acknowledge parallel realities, perhaps has its basis in my Indian roots.
These varied cultural influences are reflected in works made in bronze, stone and wood. His African influences, the recognition of the power innate in natural objects, and the history of the slave trade are suggested in this piece. Juginder Lamba was awarded the Henry Moore Fellowship in sculpture at John Moores University, Liverpool in 1994. He now lives and works in Shropshire.
One of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen at the Bluecoat was John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation in 2012, a three-screen video based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall. So when I learned that an example of his work would be included in Private View my expectations were raised. Unfortunately, the included piece – a double triptych of unidentified images is less than overwhelming. Called ‘The Utopian Palimpsest’, there is no explanation as to what these six images represent, though one or two look as if they might reference the slave trade. I can only surmise that there are stills from Akomfrah’s most recent project, Vertigo Sea, a three-screen film installation that blends marine images with archive footage of whale hunting and the slave trade in a meditation on humanity’s relationship with the ocean.
Two years ago the Bluecoat put on an exhibition of photographs made in Liverpool 8 by Tricia Porter. Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presented almost-forgotten, unseen images which portrayed a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when the area was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities. ‘Football team, 1974’ is here to represent Porter’s absorbing exhibition.
The Singh Twins really would have preferred a career in medicine, but it is art and Liverpool’s gain that the two sisters followed the path they did, creating works that draw on the tradition of Indian miniature art, every available inch of their work crammed with patterns, colours and references: works that are both intensely personal and often deeply political.
The Singh Twins first exhibited at the Bluecoat in 1994, and again when the building reopened after redevelopment in 2008. That was when their painting ‘Arts Matters’, commissioned for Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture was displayed here.
In the 2008 painting, the Bluecoat was portrayed at the centre of a rich panoply of detailed images representing the arts in Liverpool in all their diversity. The Bluecoat is there again in ‘Making Waves’ from their 2016 series Mersey Miniatures, displayed here.
In their work, The Twins have continued to explore their mixed, multiple identities: English, Liverpudlian (born in London but raised in Birkenhead), Indian, Sikh. They attended a strict convent school – the only non-Catholic girls to do so. As one commentator observed, ‘Unwilling to be slotted into any one bracket, they questioned the idea of stereotypes.’
‘Stills from The Trophies of Empire’ by Keith Piper, consists of 35mm colour transparencies overlaid with words composed in Letraset. (Remember Letraset in the days before desktop publishing? Making words, one letter at a time, rubbing the sheet with the edge of a coin?)
The Trophies of Empire was commissioned by the Bluecoat for the 1985 exhibition, Black Skin, Blue Coat and appeared again, in expanded form, in 1992. On display here is a sequence from the original tape and slide installation, an examination of the historical legacies of the British Empire and their contemporary impact.
Piper’s most recent work, Unearthing the Banker’s Bones, was on show here through the autumn. Drawing on extracts from works by Octavia Butler and Mary Shelley, the three-screen installation invited viewers to imagine the excavation and dissection of modern life at a future point in time.
Finally, in the far corner of the last room in the exhibition, I found the best work of all – intriguing, absorbing, and slightly mad – tucked away behind Edward Chell’s ‘Foxglove’ (first seen here in Soft Estate in 2013) and Lin Holland’s ‘Guardian’, a multimedia work in text, wood, metal, string, and digital imagery.
In the corner was a TV screen that displayed a 30 minute video made by David Jacques, narrated by poet Paul Farley, and entitled Por Convención Ferrer. The last time I encountered Jacques and Farley together was in A Democratic Promenade, an exhibition mounted by the Bluecoat as part of ‘City of Radicals’, a city-wide programme of events commemorating the centenary of the 1911 General Transport Strike in Liverpool. A focal point of the exhibition was a film by David Jacques, The Irlam House Bequest, also narrated by Paul Farley, which imagined the discovery of drawings in a Bootle tower block of templates for 19th century trade union banners. Jacques had also created a huge banner – ‘The Great Money Trick 2011’ – to mark the centenary of Robert Tresssell’s death that was displayed on Dale Street for much of the year.
The video opens with, and frequently returns to, scenes shot in Liverpool’s Central Library before it was modernised, perhaps suggesting that the facts which follow have been discovered by the narrator during research in that place. I could listen to Paul Farley all day, and his quietly stated, almost hypnotic narration begins as follows:
I read somewhere that in the years leading up to the First World War, a small though significant network of anarchists had made their presence felt in downtown Liverpool. It seems their use of direct action in effecting industrial disputes found plenty of scope for such activity in the city, particularly in the docklands. And at the same time, an element within the group had concentrated their efforts on developing new and distinct programmes of education. There was one event – an annual conference cum discussion group – that emerged, called Por Convención Ferrer.
From 1910, each October, and named in honour of the Spanish educationalist Francisco Ferrer Guardia, Por Convención Ferrer provided a platform for presentations that covered an array of subjects that transcended time, space and place, since topics considered at these annual events ranged from the Scotland Road Free School to the zonal mapping of ‘sleeping sickness’ in the Belgian Congo, Thomas De Quincey’s time as a resident of Everton, and a bike ride through Manchester city centre, organised by Critical Mass, a group dedicated to celebrating alternative means of transport to the motor car.
David Jacques’ video combines Paul Farley’s narration with text, illustrations and artworks that represent the history of these annual gatherings and the subjects they investigated, juxtaposed with scenes filmed inside Central Library. Each annual conference is illustrated by an embroidered silk pennant, drawn we are informed, from an archive of such pennants that commemorated each conference from 1910 through to 1918.
The video has a dreamlike quality, such that, at first, I assumed that everything being narrated was pure fiction. Not so: a brief time spent with the always erudite Mr Google reveals that much that is encompassed in Jacques film can be verified. For instance, there was a Spanish anarchist and educationalist named Francisco Ferrer Guardia; and Thomas De Quincey really did spend time in Everton in 1805. Liverpool Record Office has the diary he kept while he was there, in which he writes of the ‘pleasant and rural’ road which leads to the village, a ‘favourite resort of opulence … an assemblage of elegant villas, many of which … connect with architectural taste, the beauty of situation and the decorations of rural scenery’. And it was there he wrote the words which Jacques quotes in his film:
I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium ; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I could overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L , at about the same distance, that I have sat, from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move.
As if in an opium dream, the narrator describes how the programme for the 1917 conference, held that year at Bala, included a visit to the village of Capel Celyn, the village drowned in the 1950s by the Corporation of Liverpool’s construction of a reservoir, but now re-emerged as the result of a long drought.
Asked about Por Convención Ferrer in an interview with Zona, David Jacques said this:
It’s essentially an exercise in collapsing history and interweaving factual and fictional information and relates to that Howard Zinn position that says there’s no such thing as objective history, there’s a notion of history being all around us – it’s not something that disappears in a linear fashion over your shoulder. The history that I’ve always been involved with is the bottom-up approach; that tapping into a multitude of voices and challenging the received wisdoms.
The film ends with the last conference, held in Manchester in 1918, and that Critical Mass bicycle ride through the city centre. Each ride organised by the group is different and follows no set route, with the direction being spontaneously chosen as people cycle together. ‘Anyone is free to join or leave the ride as it pedals along.’
- Pictures of… 300 years of Liverpool’s Bluecoat centre
- Bluecoat heritage and archives: Pinterest board
- Not just a pretty facade: short history of the Blucoat (pdf)
- A Democratic Promenade (2011)
- Under the Volcano: An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry (2009)
- The Bluecoat reopens (2008)
- Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s (2015)
- Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall (2014)
- News from Nowhere: a triumph of patience and hope (2014)
- Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime (2014)
- Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2014)
- John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation (2012)
- Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 revisited (2011)