The Cool Balm of the Library

It was a day of ugly rhetoric and meanness of imagination.

I tried not to listen. It was impossible to avoid. Sadly, the sound of the shattering of the last egg cup of optimism in humanity was so deafening during the Conservative conference speeches, it dragged me into a low hum of misanthropy.

Fortunately, I was on my way to Preston and the Harris Museum. While we look at a country that doggedly hopes to strip away all non lucrative ambition, here is a building of architectural boldness that rose from the desire for free libraries and museums in the mid nineteenth century. Opened in 1893, this is a library and museum of splendour and spectacle, no drab municipal edifice nailed down to practicality alone. As William Morris almost said,”have nothing in your library that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”
(Sad to hear that the Science Museum’s Launchpad area for children, despite the sponsorship of an oil company intent on drilling in the arctic, will be charging children admission most probably due to government pressure. This sort short termism that chips and stabs away are a cultured society of bold imaginings is the antithesis of the Harris Museum)

The accessibility and appreciation of beauty and curiosity is not a pointless bauble, I think it makes better humans. It can dilute mean spirits and encourage bold ambitions of creativity.

My visit to Preston coincided with a Michael Foreman exhibition was housed in the Harris Museum (and began at Seven Stories).

When feeling disappointed about human potential and entering the doldrums, few things are more cheering than walking into a room brimming with the imagination of passionate author and illustrator of children’s books. Here are the better sides of humanity, watercolours of thoughtfulness and compassion and sweetness. These books are not just an escape, but an incitement to benevolence, tenderness and action. Complacency, avarice and suspicion are rarely upheld as laudable attributes in this world.

It is encouraging to see an increasing number of exhibitions celebrating the art of the children’s book, with the new light and new eyes of a gallery, distanced from the creases and staples, you can delight in the care for colour and the spectacle of the detail. Over the three rooms were Foreman’s works from War Boy, Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish, War and Peas and War Game, his book about the armistice football game of 1915. There is something about the pinky blueness of it all. Like so many things I see that are way beyond my capabilities, such skills become wizardry to me.

In a cabinet, there is a tortoiseshell and next to it, The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha. This was a Foreman book I had missed during my years of stocking up for bedtime stories for my boy.
It is a true story of a soldier in Gallipoli, caught in an explosion, gripped by fear, then meets a tortoise and how this unlikely bond between the shelled and the shelled gave him hope and encouragement. These are often hard subjects, but with soft brushstrokes.
Even we can immerse all the children in the books of Shirley Hughes or Anthony Browne, allow them to see the world from those authors eyes, that we offer them ways of thinking about others and themselves that can enrich our world. This is one of the many reasons we still need libraries, despite what the commentators may tell you, not everyone is spending their children’s book money on booze and flat screens, some people don’t have that money at all, or internet access, kindles or somewhere to go for shelter and quiet for an hour or two. I have no temple, so libraries can function as a place of contemplation, and the chairs are comfier than pews.
When you are in your library, take a look at Sydney Smith’s Footpath Flowers.

On the stairs to the art gallery, I was wary. The first painting I saw was in one of my least favourite genres, the Victorian dog anecdote canvas. This was Dog with His Master’s Dinner, I prefer Muffin McLay like a bundle of hay, and Bottomley Pots, all covered on spots.

Another popular Victorian genre, naked lady and swans, was represented by Alfred East’s An Idyll of Spring, but I always worry one of the swans may be Zeus in disguise, it so often is.

I had been told that the most popular paintings were Pauline in the Yellow Dress by Sir James Gunn, known simply as Pauline to those who work there, as she has now become more than a painting, and Charles Spencelayh’s Why War?. Repeated staring is rewarded. There is also a still life by Lucian Freud, so used to seeing how he obsesses over the folds and creases and hangings of human flesh, on this wall is a leaky and naked squid next to a sea urchin.

One of the prize articles within the gallery is Richard Dadd’s Puck, painted in 1841, just two years before paranoid schizophrenia took hold and he killed his father, believing him to be the devil. He spent the rest of his life painting the strange, fairyish and fabulous in Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals. (I would recommend reading David Seabrook’s All The Devils Are Here).

I have skipped over much of what I saw, but I should not forget the factory sky and hard lines of a house painted by Algernon Newton. It joins the long list of “I still don’t know why I like it so”

I am thankful the Harris Museum exists. I spoke to a few people who worked there, and the passion for this institution was evident. It is important for everyone such places exist if we are still enamoured by an idea of culture for everyone and still believe civilsation is a promising idea.

I wonder if all those clamouring “I want a Great Britain like it used to be” include art and books for all, let’s hope so.

New Book Shambles is up and the latest one is with Noel Fielding  before that it is Alan Moore.

Postcards bought in the shop – Squid and Sea Urchin, Why War?,Nude (GS Watson 1951), In for Repairs (Laura Knight), Pauline in the Yellow Dress, Girl Reading (Harold Night)

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2 Responses to The Cool Balm of the Library

  1. GloP says:

    The Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish? I still have my copy, now housed in my boys’ bedroom. It must be 40 years old.

  2. Mark Robinson (@ThinkinPractice) says:

    This is really great to read. Just to add: the Michael Foreman exhibition is a touring show from Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books, whose home is in Newcastle, where the exhibition was first shown. Seven Stories’ work is all about the work of children’s authors and illustrators, through our visitor centre, tours and collection. (I say ‘our’ as I’m the vice-chair of the board of trustees.) I’m glad the Harris still exists too – I grew up in Preston and sometimes think I got most of my big ideas in or around that library and gallery. They;ve done a great job with the Michael Foreman show – including the community project in the video if you recall that – made in the primary school my dad went to in the 1940s- St Ignatius in the town centre. But it were all mills and factories round here then….

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