New Year’s Eve, Liverpool, at the close of the 1950s

New Year’s Eve, Liverpool, at the close of the 1950s

Since Christmas Day I’ve been reading Tune In, the first of three volumes in which Mark Lewisohn intends to tell the definitive story of the Beatles. It’s a grand book in every sense of the word: this volume clocks in at close on a thousand pages and ends just as the group travel to London to record their first single ‘Love Me Do’; it’s also meticulously-researched and written with passion, authority and elegance. This is not your average pop hagiography, but an informed and insightful social history of Liverpool and the emergent youth culture of the 1950s.

As the year turned, I found myself coincidentally reading Lewisohn’s evocative descriptions of two New Year’s Eves in Liverpool at the close of the 1950s. I thought I’d share them. Continue reading “New Year’s Eve, Liverpool, at the close of the 1950s”

‘In My Life’: the song from Rubber Soul I grew to love the most

‘In My Life’: the song from <em>Rubber Soul</em> I grew to love the most

35 years after John Lennon’s death, and 50 years since the release of Rubber Soul, here’s one of his best songs: ‘In My Life’. Half a century has passed since The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was released on 3 December 1965, and as the years have passed the song that I have come to love most off that album is Lennon’s ‘In My Life’. Continue reading “‘In My Life’: the song from Rubber Soul I grew to love the most”

Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

The months drifted by, and to complete my plan to walk the Mersey from source to the sea I still had the section from Warrington down to Widnes to do.  On what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, four of us set out on a walk through 250 years of industrial history. Continue reading “Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes”

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head.  It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago. Continue reading “Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey”

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Peacock Room 2

Detail of the reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat

Ruskin famously put down Whistler with his sneer on seeing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that the painter was ‘a coxcomb asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.  Whistler promptly sued him for libel.  At about the same time, the tempestuous Whistler, who didn’t suffer fools gladly (and anyone was a fool who failed to understand his work) was having another mighty  difference of opinion with his patron, the Liverpool shipping magnate from Speke Hall, Frederick Richards Leyland, who had commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room. The resulting Peacock Room was rejected by Leyland as a gross act of vandalism, though it is now considered one of Whistler’s greatest works.

A reproduction of one wall of the Peacock Room forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Bluecoat, part of the 2014 Liverpool Biennial programme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack.  It’s a small exhibition, consisting of several etchings from local collections, a couple of watercolours and a couple of oil paintings.  But it’s intriguing, nonetheless, highlighting a row with local connections, and revealing works by Whistler squirrelled away in the archives of the Walker and, more surprisingly, Liverpool Central Library.

Frederick  Leyland, the owner of the Bibby Shipping Line, and his wife Frances were generous Whistler patrons. Frances, a beautiful, lively woman, was, according to a rumour spread by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (another artist patronised by Leyland), Whistler’s lover.  In later years, Frances Leyland denied the rumour, but did add that had she been a widow she might have married Whistler. Certainly, the artist was a ‘never-ending guest’ (his words) at Speke Hall, and the Bluecoat exhibition begins with the painting Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, painted in 1875.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, 1875

The woman about to play a shot is Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Dawson, sister of Frances who is portrayed in the red dress, seated next to Whistler, who looks as if he’s been at the laudanum. For several months the family were under the impression that Lizzie was engaged to Whistler, but it became clear eventually that there was no engagement. To Frances right are her daughters Fanny, Florence and Elinor, while to the left of Whistler is Jane, Frances’ other sister. The man at the far end is Frederick Leyland’s first cousin Thomas Layland (different spelling) who was married to Jane. Thomas was an architect and gifted amateur painter – Whistler would arrange for some of his work to be exhibited in London – and some art historians think it likely that Thomas painted this portrait of the Leyland family.

Whistler, Speke Hall, No. 1

Whistler, ‘Speke Hall, No. 1’

Whistler stayed with the Leylands at Speke Hall several times, including the period from January to March 1875 during which he worked on several etchings of the house and the nearby area. One of these, Speke Hall: The Avenue aka Speke Hall, No. 1 is in the Bluecoat display. Kathleen Lochnan commented on the composition:

Whistler employed … the compositional structure which he had learnt from Japanese prints, selecting a high viewpoint, “tilting up” the background, and constructing a shallow picture space. The long, lean vertical format of the etching, which emphasizes the distance between the figure and the house, resembles that of the Japanese oban print … [he] isolated the foreground figure, silhouetting it against a white ground in the Japanese manner, … The position of the figure, seen from the rear in a three-quarter pose, appears to have been adopted from Japanese prints. In the ukiyo-e woodcut, a rear view of this kind is often used to show off the beauty of a kimono.

Whistler, Speke Hall

Whistler, ‘Speke Hall’, 1875

On 1 February 1875 Whistler wrote from Speke:

The etchings and drypoints are getting on famously – I have quite got back into my old delight in the work and think I shall have some pretty things to show you soon.
At the time, he was working on five etchings of Speke Hall and the vicinity, including Shipbuilder’s Yard, The Little Forge, Speke Shore, and The Dam WoodWhistler’s biographer Elizabeth Pennell writes:

‘Mr Leyland gave Whistler commissions to paint his four children, Mrs Leyland and himself … and Whistler made long visits at Speke Hall, Leyland’s place near Liverpool. … The record of these visits is in the etchings and dry-points of Speke Hall and Speke Shore, Shipping at Liverpool and The Dam Wood and the portraits in many mediums. The house was not far from the sea, which he loved to paint. But often days passed without his finding the effect he wanted… But Speke Hall always put him in better mood for work, and when the sea failed he turned to the portraits … There are pastels of the three little girls, sketches in pen and ink, and the fine group of dry-points.

Whistler, Speke Shore

Whistler, ‘Speke Shore’, 1875

Whistler, Shipbuilders Yard, Liverpool

Whistler, ‘Shipbuilders Yard, Liverpool’, 1875

Whistler, The Little Forge

Whistler, ‘The Little Forge’, 1875

While Speke Shore looks as if it was sketched at nearby Oglet, it would be interesting to learn the location of the shipbuilders yard and the little forge.

Meanwhile, Whistler was about to embark on the act which would bring his relationship with the Leylands to a dramatic end.  Frederick Leyland had bought an elegant townhouse at 49 Prince’s Gate in Kensington, London, and had engaged the British architect Thomas Jeckyll to remodel the dining room in order to display his collection of  porcelain.

Jeckyll covered the walls with 6th-century wall hangings of leather that had been originally brought to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Aragon. They had hung on the walls of a Tudor house in Norfolk for centuries, before they were bought by Leyland for £1,000. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolise her union with Henry VIII. Against the walls, Jekyll constructed an intricate lattice framework of walnut shelves that held Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain.  Over the fireplace was hung Whistler’s painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, to serve as the focal point of the room.

Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain in situ in The Peacock Room

Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain in situ in The Peacock Room

Jeckyll had nearly finished the work when illness forced him to abandon the project. Whistler volunteered to finish Jeckyll’s work in the dining room while Leyland returned to Liverpool, allowing Whistler to work on the room alone.

Concerned that the red roses adorning the leather wall hangings clashed with the colours in The Princess, Whistler suggested retouching the leather with yellow paint, and Leyland agreed to that minor alteration. But while Leyland was away, Whistler grew bolder with his revisions:

Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on ―without design or sketch― it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection ―putting in every touch with such freedom― that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.

Whistler covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks.  He wrote to Leyland that the dining room was ‘alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree’. ‘I assure you,’ he said, ‘you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!’ He urged Leyland to delay his return to London, so that he would see the room complete and perfect in every detail. Meanwhile, without Leyland’s approval, Whistler invited friends from the London art world around to the house to admire what he had done.

When Leyland did return, he was aghast.  Whistler demanded two thousand guineas for his work, but Leyland refused to pay, adamant that the artist should have consulted him before extending the scale of the work. Eventually, Leyland did pay Whistler – but only half of the amount requested, and added further insult by writing his check in pounds, the currency of trade, when payment to artists and professionals was customarily made in guineas.

Peacock Room 1

The reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat

A bitter feud resulted.  In retaliation, Whistler returned to coat Leyland’s valuable Tudor leather with Prussian-blue paint and on the wall opposite The Princess he installed a mural depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other . He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The other peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler’s forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. He obtained a blue rug to complete the scheme and titled the room Harmony in Blue and Gold.

After concluding his work in March 1877,Whistler never saw the Peacock Room again. But, despite the feud, Leyland kept the Peacock Room as Whistler had left it until his death in 1892. Twelve years later, the Peacock Room was removed from the Leyland house and exhibited in a London art gallery. It was then purchased from the gallery by Charles Lang Freer, who took the room apart and reinstalled it in his house in Detroit. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was transported to Washington DC, and installed in the new Freer Gallery of Art. The Peacock Room is now regarded as one of Whistler’s masterpieces.

Meanwhile, Whistler had had the last word in the feud with Leyland. In 1879, bankrupted by the costs of the Ruskin trial and with huge debts from building ‘The White House’, his studio-house in Tite Street, Chelsea, Whistler made a painting which he left in The White House for his creditors to discover when they arrived to make an inventory of his possessions.  One of the creditors was his former patron Frederic Leyland.

The Gold Scab, displayed in the Bluecoat exhibition, depicts Leyland as a hideous peacock, seated upon the White House as his piano stool.  Whistler caricatured Leyland’s miserliness, piano skills, and habit of wearing frilled shirts (hence the title, “Frilthy Lucre”). Whistler’s butterfly monogram bears a barbed tail poised to strike at Leyland’s neck.

Whistler, The Gold Scab- Eruption in Filthy Lucre

Whistler, ‘The Gold Scab- Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor)’,1879

There’s another caricature of Leyland in the exhibition – a small, decidedly unflattering, etching of a shaven-headed, thin-faced Leyland looking lean and rapacious and again wearing one of his frilly shirts.

Whistler, Caricature of F.R.Leyland 1879

Whistler, ‘Caricature of F.R.Leyland’, 1879

After all this feuding we enter calmer waters, with a series of Whistler’s Thames-side etchings, now held locally in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery and Liverpool Central Library.

Whistler, Old Hungerford Bridge, 1861

Whistler, ‘Old Hungerford Bridge’, 1861 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler, Old Westminster Bridge, 1859

 Whistler, ‘Old Westminster Bridge, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Battersea Dawn (Cadogan Pier) 1861

 Whistler, ‘Early Morning Battersea’, 1863 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Thames Set Limehouse

 Whistler, ‘Limehouse’, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler, 'Rotherhithe', 1861

 Whistler, ‘Rotherhithe’, 1860 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Thames Set Chelsea Bridge

Whistler, ‘Chelsea Bridge’, 1871 (Walker Art Gallery)

James McNeill Whistler, 'The Little Pool'

 Whistler, ‘The Little Pool’, 1861 (Walker Art Gallery)

The Thames etchings are followed by examples of Whistler’s Venice etchings, many of which were presented in his 1883 exhibition at the Society of British Artists, titled Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler arranged for the walls to be painted in different shades of white, the skirting boards yellow, and he displayed his butterfly signature throughout the gallery. He asked the gallery attendants to wear yellow clothes to match and as a final touch, he made small yellow butterflies for his favourite guests to wear at the exhibition’s opening. The press quickly nicknamed the exhibition ‘The Poached Egg’. The catalogue for the exhibition was a personal compilation of heavily edited snippets from
Whistler’s worst press reviews.

Whistler, The Palaces, Venice

Whistler, ‘The Palaces, Venice’, 1879

Whistler Two Doorways, 1880

Whistler, ‘Two Doorways’, 1880

The exhibition culminates in three magical paintings.  Sunrise Gold and Grey, is a tiny watercolour from 1883, first exhibited as part of Whistler’s major solo exhibition, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey, in London in May 1884.  Subjects included scenes of Chelsea and the Cornish coast; nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam; and a series of watercolours of female models in Whistler’s studio.  Most were mounted in unusually wide, flat gilt frames Whistler designed himself.

Whistler, Sunrise Gold and Grey, c1883, watercolour

Whistler, ‘Sunrise Gold and Grey’, c 1883, watercolour (not ‘evening’ as labelled)

As with the previous year’s Arrangement in White and Yellow, Whistler showed himself to be at the forefront of exhibition design. He devised the colour scheme for the show – pale pink walls and light grey furniture, while the works were ‘hung on the line’ and well-spaced out – a radical departure from the conventional salon-style hang in which pictures would cover every inch of the walls. Whistler’s approach was controversial and innovative, challenging long-standing assumptions about the display of art, and paved the way for the minimal style of exhibitions familiar today.

Whistler was unusual, too, in describing his works in musical terms – as symphonies, arrangements, harmonies, or nocturnes. The Bluecoat had one of these – Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly,  an atmospheric impression of thick fog through which pedestrians and omnibuses are barely visible, as pale light glimmers through the murk from windows and gas lamps.

Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold - Piccadilly, 1881-3

 Whistler, ‘Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly’, 1881-3

In the summer of 1899, Whistler stayed at Pourville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, convalescing from a recurrent illness. While he was there, he painted a series of nine small seascapes on panel, thinly brushed, and subdued but refined in colour.  One of these paintings, Beach Scene with a Breakwater, concludes the exhibition.

Whistler, Beach Scene with a Breakwater, 1899

Whistler, ‘Beach Scene with a Breakwater’, 1899

This was a fascinating exhibition, enlivened by the story of Whistler’s feud with the local shipping magnate from Speke Hall. Quite what the connection was with the Biennial theme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, remains a mystery to me. I can’t do better than end by quoting the last paragraph of Sandra Gibson’s review of the exhibition for Nerve magazine:

You can’t help but be drawn towards someone who was dismissed from the US Military Academy at West Point for “deficiency in chemistry”, who lost his map-drawing job because he drew mermaids and whales and sea serpents in the margins, whose girlfriend was the model for Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866) and who collided with the art establishment with such bloody-minded passion that he took John Ruskin to court. It’s easy to get side-tracked into the nineteenth century road movie that was often Whistler’s life but he was an immense figure in the development of Western art. He had the courage to walk his talk and the passionate conviction not to be floored by ridicule. He was a pioneer in the movement towards abstraction, in the acceptance of colour as subject and the concept that art and its environment are one. His public life might have been tumultuous and financially precarious but his inner conviction was harmoniously tranquil and beautiful, otherwise we wouldn’t have the Nocturnes.

See also

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

Mick Jones Mural 2

The Mick Jones mural in the Old Blind School

Do the walls of a derelict building hold the memories of those who once inhabited its rooms?  Recently I visited the old Merseyside Trade Union Community and Unemployed Resource Centre building at the top of Hardman Street which has been opened up for a Biennial exhibition. I wasn’t there for the art (least said about it the better) but because the building holds memories of mine, and I wanted to see inside before it is turned into a swanky hotel.

The Biennial programme describes the building as ‘The Old Blind School’, which it was, but that was not its most recent function. The Liverpool School for the Blind was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton whose own sight was impaired (more about him later). It was the first school of its kind in Britain, and second in the world after one in Paris. The school made Hardman Street its second home in 1851, after it had begun life on London Road.

Today, on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, there is a white Portland stone extension that dates from 1932.  It replaced the neo-classical school church, designed by John Foster junior, which was built in London Road and, amazingly, moved to this corner site stone by stone in 1851.  There’s a photo of it in 1929, dwarfing the original Blind School building.

Blind school 1929

The Blind School in 1929

The Portland stone extension that replaced Foster’s church dates from 1932 and features a row of bas-relief sculptures designed by John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth’s first husband and a leading figure of modern British sculpture in the mid-20th century.  The bas-reliefs depict the trades taught here: brush-making, Braille, basket weaving, piano tuning, and knitting.

Blind School extension

The Blind School extension dates from 1932

In 1958 the Blind School moved to Church Road in Wavertree where it still remains today. The Hardman Street building was sold to Liverpool Corporation and served as the Merseyside Police headquarters until 1982.  When we lived on Canning Street in the 1970s the extension housed the local police station, and I recall several visits to report a stolen car or a burglary. With the move of the police headquarters to the riverfront, Merseyside County Council was left with a large, empty building.  The left-leaning Labour council agreed to a plan to turn it over to a consortium of trade union, training and community organisations to manage as the Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre.


Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre: the name is still there

This was the height of Thatcher’s attack on the power of trade unions and so-called ‘loony left’ councils – and both the county council and Liverpool City Council were in the forefront of the fightback against her policies and the rising unemployment caused by de-industrialization (in Liverpool this meant the closure of workplaces such as Tate and Lyle’s, Dunlops, Meccano, and many, many others).

In 1981, the first Peoples March for Jobs, modelled on the Jarrow March of the 1930s, had left Liverpool for London, led by the Labour leader Michael Foot. Both the march and the idea of Unemployed Centres were born out of a TUC special conference held in 1980, called to address the issue of mass unemployment – pushing towards 1930s levels at that time. The march forged links between trade unions, community and unemployed workers groups and led to Unemployed Centres being set up to develop those links and provide a focus for the unemployed to organise themselves.

The Hardman Street building, which opened its doors in May 1983, served a wide variety of purposes with conference and function rooms for trade unions and other organisations, a Welfare Rights Advice Centre, a small theatre cum cinema, a basement recording studio, a bar which had a bust of Marx placed (ironically?) next to the till, and the famous Flying Picket music venue, developed with funding from artists including Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono and Pete Townshend.

Peoples March for Jobs 1981

The Peoples March for Jobs 1981

Most memorably from my point of view, the building also housed a Children’s Centre, attended by our daughter, and the Women’s Technology Centre, a project to train women in information technology skills which had been established, with support from Merseyside County Council and the European Social Fund, by two adult educationalists, one of whom was my wife.  So, all in all, I got to know the building very well.

The centre closed in 2004, and has stood empty and unused ever since.  But for the past few months the Liverpool Biennial have opened up the building for a group art show called A Needle Walks into a Haystack. I went inside for nostalgic reasons, but I also had a particular objective: I wanted to see if a particular feature from the glory days of resistance in the 1980s was still there.


Walking through the disused rooms, where paint peeled, buckets caught leaks and plaster crumbled, provoked an elegiac mood.  The distinctive odour of rotting plaster permeated the place; cornices and ceiling rosettes had partly collapsed; architraves and window mouldings had crumbled with rot; old cast-iron fireplaces were filled with rubble.


The art was rubbish, and I began to feel angry that neither the Biennial organisers, nor the artists, seemed to have made any attempt to respond to the history of this listed building and the three major functions which it had served.  Talking to a couple of the young attendants, it was clear that they knew next to nothing about the building’s history and were unaware of its iconic status for the city, whether as the ‘Old Blind School’ or as the trade union centre.


My feelings were powerfully expressed by Zoe Pilger in her review of the Biennial for the Independent:

In March this year, cuts of £156m to Liverpool’s public services were announced, which means that half of the city’s 19 libraries are expected to close, as well as the majority of children’s  centres. Against this backdrop of social injustice, the 8th Liverpool art Biennial has just opened.

What is the relationship of art to politics? Do artists and the institutions that commission them have a responsibility to respond to the most pressing issues of the day? Or should art exist as a form of aesthetic escapism, untouched by the realities of everyday life? […]

This omission is most keenly felt in one of the biggest exhibitions, housed in the former HQ of the Merseyside Trade Union, Community, and Unemployed Resource Centre, which closed down in 2004. The sign is still printed above the door, albeit with letters missing. This stunning though derelict building is a symbol of Liverpool’s “gentrification”. The building will soon be converted into a complex of apartments, a gastro pub, a spa, and a restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

For nearly 150 years, the building was also the Old Blind School, and the interior appears untouched. Sadly, it is more fascinating than the art itself. There is a lime-green and pink art deco banister, bricked-up fireplaces, graffiti, a maze of corridors, and, most strikingly, a  ceiling mural of the “people’s march”, which shows demonstrators with fists raised and  banners flying. The paint has flaked off in places. This relic of Liverpool’s radical past seems overlooked, which is a great shame – for me, it is the most interesting work in the exhibition, despite the fact that it is not officially included.

Instead, there is a sprawling group show by international artists. There is a lot of bad art. Baskets inexplicably left in a room, a large white patent sofa shaped like a hand, boxes transformed into sheep, a painting of what appears to be a meteor, another of a space station, yet more of people copulating on a picnic blanket while an 18th-century earl looks on with feverish glee.

The elegant dilapidation of the building is an ideal space to show new, experimental, challenging work, but I found myself more enthralled by the decades of peeling patterned wallpaper, wondering what had gone on inside these walls. I would have preferred to see a bold exhibition that asked artists to respond to the history of the site.


In another online article, Laura Harris also argued that the Biennial had shown itself to be distinctly disengaged with the reality of Liverpool’s present political situation:

Against a backdrop of cuts and arts job losses, the need for curatorial politics is perceivably augmented. Moreover, I believe that the choice of The Old Blind School as the main festival venue — an explicitly politicised, evocative space, set up by philanthropist Edward Rushton and more recently used as a Trade Union headquarters – is a promise of a politics that is traitorously unfulfilled. In choosing The Old Blind School, and failing to develop a social and historical narrative, an unspoken politics goes so resolutely ignored as to be offensive.

The site’s exhibition, A Needle Walks Into a Haystack, declares itself to be about our habits and habitats. Incorporated in the theme is an engagement with spaces and their significance; yet a deconstruction of the contextual history of the building is palpable in its absence. Instead of confronting this history in a socio-politically engaged manner, the show confronts us with impenetrable works coupled with impenetrable texts; we must rely on the pretentious copy of the programme as our interpreter. […]

The Old Blind School site itself is a relic of a struggle that continues … Once the Biennial has closed, the building is to become a boutique hotel and a restaurant with ‘Michelin aspirations’. This is gentrification worthy of the most ardent protest, and if ‘silence becomes a type of knowledge’ in the show, as claimed, the lack of protest from within the Biennial is certainly illuminating. […]

It is not enough to rely on implicit politics. It is not enough to suggest a history and leave it unspoken. Unengaged with a political present and an important social history, the Liverpool Biennial fails a public and a city. It is a missed opportunity to explore radical political alternatives, and encourage dialogue between people who feel largely ignored.


Above one of the first floor staircases is a dome containing the feature I had come to see – a mural that condenses the history of this place into a stirring swirl of images representing episodes from Liverpool’s radical past and present. When the Merseyside Unemployed Centre took over the Hardman Street building from what had been the Old Blind School the management team commissioned Mick Jones to paint the dome in 1986 and he made a tribute not only to working class activism on Merseyside, but also to the man who helped found the Blind School.

The mural that fills the entire rotunda commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool, a celebration of all the rage and passion of 1980s political activism.  It was painted in 1986 by the artist Michael ‘Mick’ Jones, son of the Garston-born trade unionist Jack Jones.  As you crane your neck to follow the swirling design, you see depictions in socialist realist images of the 1981 Peoples March for Jobs; young unemployed people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the message ‘Give Us a Future’; Liverpool dockers; marchers who include miner’s leader Arthur Scargill as well as Karl Marx; workers at the Halewood car plant; the house-building programme of the 80s; John Hamilton the leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s: the Women’s’ Technology Scheme; and the central image of Edward Rushton, one of the co-founders of the Blind School. There is a companion piece made by Mick Jones in 1993 entitled Unemployment on Merseyside – Campaigning for the Right to Work on display in the Museum of Liverpool. Mick Jones, who also painted murals in London, died in 2012

Despite the building’s mouldering condition, the colours are still surprisingly vibrant, but one large area of the paper and plaster has peeling away and hangs in mid-air.  It seems scandalous to me that a work of such significance for Liverpool should have been left to decay. Laura Harris again:

Peeling from a feature dome in the roof of the building is a mural from the space’s iteration as a Trade Union centre. Workers march together, fists in the air, to a backdrop of industry: a salient reminder of the lost art of protest. As visitors are herded around the Biennial, the mural flakes further and the true significance of the building flutters with it to the floor. The Old Blind School is offering us its own metaphor; as bit-by-bit, festival programme in hand, the people’s history is ignored…

Mick Jones Mural 1 Mick Jones Mural 2 Mick Jones Mural 3 Mick Jones Mural 5 Mick Jones Mural 6 Mick Jones Mural 7 Mick Jones Mural 8 Mick Jones Mural 9 Mick Jones Mural 10 Mick Jones Mural 11 Mick Jones Mural 12 Mick Jones Mural 13 Mick Jones Mural 14

Edward Rushton was one of Liverpool’s great radicals, not only a founder of the school for the blind, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty.  He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supporter of the American war for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people.Mick Jones has depicted him in the mural, blind in one eye, sweeping forward with representatives of all the causes he fought for cradled in his arms.

Mick Jones Mural 4

This summary of his campaigning work is taken from Nottingham Trent University’s Labouring-Class Writers Project:

Rushton (1756 – 1814) was a poet, slavery abolitionist and co-founder of the first school for the blind in the country. Born in John Street, Liverpool, Edward was the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler. Apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping company by the age of eleven, Edward was promoted to second mate around five years later after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm out in the Mersey Estuary – back to port.

While on a slaver bound for Dominica in 1773, Rushton grew so appalled by the sadistic treatment of the captives he remonstrated with the captain to the point of being charged with mutiny. As the only member of the crew willing to tend to their suffering, Rushton contracted the highly contagious ophthalmia, which left him blind.

Rushton’s aunt took him in shortly after his return – his father having now remarried a woman antagonised by Edward’s presence. The injustices Rushton observed at sea led to the publication of his first book-length work, The Dismembered Empire (1782), a denunciation of British rulers and merchants in the framework of the American War of Independence. His disgust at the slave trade was given further voice in The West Indian Eclogues (1787). A decade later he wrote to his former hero George Washington, pointing up the hypocrisy of retaining slaves while fighting for freedom: ‘In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot’. A similar letter was dispatched to Thomas Paine, but neither he nor Washington tendered a reply.

After his marriage around 1784 to Isabella Rain, Rushton went on to become editor of the Liverpool Herald. This career was soon cut short after he reproached brutal press-gang practice in several articles, and rebuffed his partner’s suggestion of a retraction. This episode in Rushton’s life inspired the poem Will Clewine (1806).

When he became a bookseller at 44 Paradise Street, Rushton’s outspoken political convictions deterred potential custom, but not to the extent of preventing him from living out his life in relative comfort, and giving his children a sound education. In the late 1780s Rushton became a member of a literary and philosophical society – thought to have been the forerunner of William Roscoe and James Currie’s ill-fated radical Debating Society – where the idea of raising funds to offer care for local blind paupers came into effect. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind opened in 1791. Rushton published a collection of poems in 1806, and the following year an operation by the Manchester surgeon Benjamin Gibson restored his sight, enabling him to see his wife and children for the first time.

Rushton died of paralysis on 22 November 1814 at his home on Paradise Street, just a few years after the death of his wife and one of his daughters. The eldest of his four children, also Edward, became a prominent social reformer in Liverpool’s political landscape, advocating Catholic emancipation and prison reform.

There is a book about him, written by Bill Hunter, which I must get hold of. It’s called, Forgotten Hero – The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. Hunter says: ‘I wrote this book on Edward Rushton in an attempt to rescue from obscurity, this uncompromising fighter for the common people, and to pay tribute to his indomitable spirit.’

Meanwhile, the survival of Mick Jones’ wonderful mural is in doubt. The Hardman Street building was sold to the owner of the Hope Street Hotel in 2010. He intends to convert the building into a complex with serviced apartment bedrooms, a gastro-pub, bistro, chocolatiere and coffee shop, a restaurant, a spa and offices.  There ought to be a campaign to ensure that, as part of the redevelopment, the mural is preserved, along with the carving above the doorway on Hope Street which reads: ‘Christ heals the Blind For who denies / That in the mind / Dwell truer sight / And clearer light / Than in the eyes.’


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Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Rhodri Meillir as Spike

Rhodri Meillir as Spike in Bright Pheonix

‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’

At the end of the week in which the new Everyman building won the Stirling Prize for new architecture my daughter treated me to a meal at The Quarter and a ticket to see Jeff Young’s ‘love letter to Liverpool’, Bright Pheonix at the Everyman.

Young’s play opens with Spike, a one-eyed, shambling drunk haranguing a sharply-suited woman – a member of Liverpool’s new networked elite, no doubt – who is promoting a vision of business redevelopment for the shabby scene of dereliction that greets visitors to the city when they emerge from Lime Street station.  Soon we are inside the building that symbolizes Lime Street’s decay, the derelict Futurist, Liverpool’s first purpose-built cinema, now a mouldering shell in which the only thing that thrives is buddleia.

Encamped in the derelict cinema, kind of Occupy style, are a motley group who were childhood friends in the 1980s, and the play alternates its narrative between the present day and the 1980s in order to develop Young’s theme of a regenerated Liverpool turning its back on the magic and mythic city of the past. Lucas (played by Paul Duckworth returns twenty years after leaving Liverpool and meets up with the survivors of the gang of kids who scrabbled and fantasised in the dirt and decay of 1980s Liverpool.  Like Lucas, writer Jeff Young has spent his adult life leaving and returning to Liverpool, most recently coming back for Capital of Culture year, since when he’s stayed.

For the 8-year-olds playing games of make believe by the Leeds-Liverpool canal there are dreams of travel to distant places, re-enactments of scenes from war films seen after bunking into the cinema, home-made planes and fishing for rubbish in the canal (‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’), kisses and fags. They dream of flying, like the wartime bomber pilots, or the old Standard firework that gives the play its title. One member of the gang in particular is flying-mad – Alan (calls himself ‘Icarus’, played by Carl Au with Meccano wings strapped to his back.  He’ll come to a tragic end. The other members of the group, who call themselves The Awkward Bastards, are Alan’s sister, Lizzie, with whom Lucas falls in love, Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) who at eight years is already uncertain about his gender identity, and Spike, an imaginative and impulsive boy whose (literal) entanglement with Lucas has terrible consequences. Rhodri Meillir’s terrific, lurching performance as Spike overshadows everything else in the play, making the sensitive but illiterate child, and the damaged alcoholic he becomes, a compelling, sympathetic figure around whom all the other characters revolve.

Carl Au as Alan 'Icarus' Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Carl Au as Alan ‘Icarus’ Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Twenty years later, Lucas, the only member of the gang to leave the city, returns, and is far from being welcomed by the others.  Gradually we learn of the impact that Lucas has had on the lives of the others, including a series of tragic accidents that tore the group apart. The survivors of the eighties fetch up in the derelict Futurist, where Lizzie (Penny Layden) is camped out, attempting to bring the cinema back to life and revive the wild, rebel spirit of their childhood days. ‘Do you live in magical places?’  she asks, a question that goes to the core of Jeff Young’s vision in this play. Bright Phoenix has been described as Jeff Young’s love letter to his Liverpool, populated by the kind of people with whom he feels an emotional kinship, and set in a place for which he holds a genuine affection.In a recent interview, Young said:

My favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!

In the present-day scenes the old Futurist gradually comes to be populated by a motley crew of anarchic rebels. There’s Spike, learning to read and write, spray-painting poetry on the walls; Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) is a cross-dressing torch singer who observes of regenerated Liverpool: ‘We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris’; and wandering in and out is Cathy Tyson in an understated role as a bag lady, Elsie, who remembers when she was beautiful.  She has one great song in the production.

These scenes depend critically on staging that convinces the audience that, amidst the dereliction,  there is magic in the air, but it has to be said that few of the sequences really take flight. It ought to work, as Ovid ‘s poetry is graffitied on the walls, as gorgeously-dressed Stephen sings swooning torch songs from the balcony, and  Lizzie’s Free Radio broadcasts rebellion across Liverpool ‘s airwaves.

But it never really comes together.  The production feels sluggish, stuttering from one scene to the next and between the past and the present.  The occupied Futurist seems under-occupied on stage: too few people, too many halting pauses between scenes. The music is good: compositions by Martin Heslop are played with panache by flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi-instrumentalist Vidar Norheim (who was, the Everyman notes, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011).

Jeff Young in the bistro at the Everyman (Liverpool Echo)

Jeff Young

In the aforementioned interview, Jeff Young claimed that Bright Pheonix was a metaphor:

It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room.

The trouble with this production was that the energy and collective spirit to which Young refers just didn’t come across.  When the police move in to close down the occupation, you don’t feel any sense of loss. Young has said (in a recent post on Seven Streets) that he wants people to look afresh at their city, and to re-connect with places that form part of his Liverpool mythology: ‘I want people to explore those places and spaces again. To consider what public space is – what is it and how should it be used.’

Dave Sinclair, Bibby's shortly before closure

Dave Sinclair, Bibby’s shortly before closure

There’s certainly a debate to be had about the way the city has changed in the last decade or so – whether it is for the better, how much has really changed, and whether some things have been lost.  But, in my view, Bright Phoenix did not contribute very much to that debate. That Liverpool has changed since the 1980s is indisputable.  Coincidentally, in News From Nowhere this week I came across a book of brilliant photographs of the city in that decade taken by Dave Sinclair, who was working as the official photographer for the Militant newspaper in the city at the time. His book, Liverpool in the 1980s, contains memory-jolting images of the people, streets, derelict factories, docks and protests that gave Liverpool a very different image nationally in those days.

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

In a preface, Sinclair tells how, after leaving Alsop Comprehensive in 1976 half-way through his A-levels, he webnt to work at Kwiksave on County Road, stacking shelves.  After three years he went to art college where he learned to draw, but most importantly became interested in photography, initially as a form of note-taking for his drawings. He found inspitation, too, in books:

Liverpool Central Library had a fantastic collection of photography books, and I’d spend many hours after college poring over photographs.  Cartier Bresson was there, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, William Klein, Eugene Smith and many Europeans, too, including Don McCullin.  Loads of brilliant books taking up some serious shelf space.

I wish those who now advocate library closures could read that.  Sinclair became especially interested in Liverpool’s urban landscape while studying.  In 1983, he went to Newport in South Wales to study photography and by the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in March 1984 he was spending a lot of time in the Welsh Valleys ‘which was going through something very similar to Liverpool economically, albeit with more hills and space’.  Although his photographs of striking miners were being published in socialist newspapers, the college lecturers didn’t regard them as art.  So he left, and was soon working for the Militant newspaper, travelling the country documenting struggles and strikes.  But he was ciontinually drawn back to his home town where Militant councillors had taken over the leadership of the Labour council, and were coming into conflict not only with Margaret Thatcher’s government, but also with the Labour party leadership for refusing to set a budget. The book contains 160 superb photos taken during the hours that Sinclair spent walking around Liverpool, exploring the landscape of dereliction, but gaining increasing confidence in capturing people.

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal '82

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal ’82

In the days before different attitudes toward photographing children in the street, many of the photographs feature children like the young gang in Bright Phoenix – the one above could almost be a scene from the play.

Dave Sinclair went on  to work as the official photographer for Tower Hamlets council in London.  When he went part-time in 2007 he had the opportunity to catalogue his archive, which he placed on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos in the book have been selected from his Flickr photostream.

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Liverpool has changed – our walk from my favourite restaurant to the Everyman reflected this fact in microcosm: the bustling restaurants (with chairs outside!), LiPa, the street art, the Philharmonic Hall renovation, the huge student apartment block going up on the corner of Hardman Street, and the new Everyman itself.  There’s a debate, of course, about how much this is for the better – there may be plenty of new jobs in the city centre in those restaurants, cafes and hotels that cater for the tourists who now flock to the city and the thousands who pour forth from the cruise liners that dock here weekly.  Down river dredging works have started for the Liverpool2 superport which will allow access for post-Panamax size container ships, reversing Liverpool’s long decline as a port.

Surprisingly, much of Liverpool’s renaissance – symbolized by Capital of Culture year – has held up, despite the banking crash that started that same year.  The rub is that in this new economy, many of the jobs in services and tourism are low-paid, part-time or on zero-hours contracts. But what is mostly taking the shine off the city’s renaissance is the government’s policy of austerity and public spending cuts.

Meanwhile – does anyone want to buy an iconic but derelict cinema on Liverpool’s most mythical street?

The Futurist in 1954The Futurist interior

The Futurist in 1954

The Futurist interior todayThe Futurist today

Inside the Futurist today

The Futurist opened on 16th September 1912 as the Lime Street Picture House, an upmarket city centre cinema. Until its closure in 1982, the Futurist was considered to be one of the most luxurious cinemas on the circuit, originally housing a full orchestra to accompany silent films and a prestigious first floor café, with a foyer lined with Sicilian marble. It was the first in the city to show wide screen Cinemascope films. With a Georgian-style façade and a French Renaissance interior, the auditorium was designed to have the effect of a live theatre with rich architectural detailing and plaster mouldings. Now the interior is probably unsalvageable. Whether the façade can be preserved, and Lime Street rejuvenated is another matter. Perhaps we need some artistic and determined young people to occupy it?

And does a building hold the memories of those who have spent time within its walls? Maybe so.  I certainly have memories of seeing films at the Futurist in the seventies.  But I have even stronger memories of times spent inside another of Liverpool’s iconic buildings, also now derelict, in the 1980s – a building I revisited last week.  More in the next post.

Alex Cox gets into the Futurist

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