Memoir essay from Norman J. Olson

Minneapolis to Manchester and Port Sunlight (a few years ago)

by:  Norman J. Olson

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Bower Meadow

Mary and I went traveling last week to look at some Victorian and specifically Pre Raphaelite art in North Western England…  winter is a good time of year to travel to England…  the flights are open and the weather is usually kind of crappy so the tourist areas, museums, etc. are not crowded…

the flight was in a huge 767 Boeing jetliner…  I love flying in these big planes…  watching the lights of the Minneapolis area spread out below…  as we head into the clouds…  really beautiful and amazing that we can fly like that…  the flight left on Tuesday evening at about ten p.m. Minnesota time and got to London Heathrow at about noon London time…  I watched the movie Lincoln (I would give it three out of five stars…  ok…  but not great) and slept the rest of  the way…

 

we have some experience with travel in England…  the inter city buses are very cheap, but only if you buy the ticket before hand on-line…  in summer, the cheap fares sell out way ahead of time…  but in winter, they are often available right up until the bus leaves…  it is kind of a pain in the ass system because you have to buy the ticket and then have it sent to a coach station so you can get the paper ticket you need…  unless you have a printer on your computer…  so, we went to Victoria coach station (in central London via their amazing subway system) and found a place in the train station with free wi-fi…  but then did not know where any of the ticketing stations were…  but asking around, we found that the Colonnade Station was right by Victoria coach station, so had the ticket sent there…  big pain in the butt, but the bus fare for two from there to Manchester was only 17 pounds and change (one pound is a buck and a half)…  but the first bus that had the cheap fare did not leave until 5 p.m.  so we got some food and waited in the bus station and ate our delicious baguette sandwiches…

I had hoped to leave earlier to see some of the countryside from the coach but, it was dark by time we pulled out…  so did not see much except a few lights once we got out of the city…  the bus ride was four hours (trains are faster and more comfortable but much more expensive)  but we had booked one of the hotels I had scoped out while we were at Victoria, which was within a block of the bus station…

 

Thursday morning, we had a great inexpensive English breakfast in the restaurant of a department store a few blocks from the hotel and then walked to the Manchester art museum which had some art I wanted to see…  unfortunately the main work I had wanted to see, Ford Maddox Brown’s Work was off display…  I had checked the web site (which said nothing about this) before we left and so was a bit disappointed but there were some other really interesting paintings to look at…  I especially was excited to see Rossetti’s Bower Meadow…  a painting I have always liked…  I recently finished a doorstop biography of Rossetti where I learned how he had painted the background of this painting outdoors in the wind and rain with an umbrella hooked to the buttonhole of his jacket…   anyway, I love the cool and rainy feel of this piece…  there was also a beautiful painting of a female in an orange robe, about life-size by Burne Jones…  Burne Jones paintings always are way different in person than in photographs…  they are much less clunky looking in the original…  with more richness and depth…  and there was some nice Victorian painting there too…  a larger version of Egg’s Derby Day for example which is always fun to look at…  and interesting work by Leighton and Millais…  so it was a very nice day at the museum…

 

the next morning, after being rousted from our hotel for some kind of bomb scare, we took the train to Liverpool Lime Street station where we caught the train to Port Sunlight…  to see the Lady Lever Gallery which has a very nice collection of Pre-Raphaelite art…  from the train station, we walked through Port Sunlight Village, a lovely Victorian village with small houses, each with a garden…  it was very pretty and picturesque on a sunny winter day (temp about 45 degrees Fahrenheit) …  and then we got to the museum…  I was blown away by the art…  I got to look closely at two small and very nice Rossetti’s….  Millais’ Sir Isumbras at the Ford was particularly memorable…  again, photographs do not convey the gravitas and presence of this painting which displays Millais immense virtuosity with oil paint…  which was a great treat for me, as a sometime oil painter, to see…  also, there were several of my favorites by Burne Jones covering an entire wall…  somewhat hard to see the higher up ones due to the glare of lights on the glass over the painting…  but still, what a treat for me to look at these amazing things…

 

Lever also collected ancient statues and so we saw a beautiful Roman marble of a nude man, free standing…  I was standing in front of this statue which was about life size and was on a plinth about four feet high…  marveling at the craftsmanship of those stone carvers 2000 years ago, when a young guy came up to me and said something which I could not understand in a very thick Liverpool accent…  he was pointing at the statues genitals which were intact…  which is kind of rare in these statues where the penis is often broken off…  and saying something about “going it a bit rude huh…”  I was trying to figure out what he was saying and asked if he was bothered by the nudity of the statue…  he looked at me like he was going to slug me and said clearly enough,  “my god, you like this”  and then turned on his heal with some more muttering that I could not understand, I think to the effect that he could not take looking at that kind of thing any longer and went stomping off toward a young woman with a stroller…  who he apparently was with…  a very strange encounter…  and odd that people are still so offended by male nude figures…

 

well, the Lady Lever Gallery is in a great old building and is full of interesting, if not great, art…  we walked back through the village to the train station and got to Liverpool Lime Street station just about 4 p.m.  so we had time to walk to the Walker Museum which is in Liverpool just two blocks from the Lime Street train station….  the museum closed at 5, but we had time to see the pictures I wanted to see which included Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream and five or six very pieces by GF Watts which were very nice to see…

we then found a place to have dinner in a pub…  I won 5 pounds in a slot machine and we headed back for Manchester…  we did not see any sign of the Beatles, except for signs that the Liverpool airport is John Lennon Airport…  but we did sing Penny Lane as we walked down Penny Lane from the Walker to the dinner place one of the museum guards had told us about…

 

both the Manchester City Gallery and the Walker had installations by contemporary artists including new work and work by the famous pantheon of the 20th Century…  and although we did not spend much time looking at that stuff, we did stroll through the galleries and all I could think was how lost the artists of the 20th Century appeared to be…  and just looking at the art for its own sake, there is so little there…  is seemed kind of sad to me that my time and place could produce only this…  but, well, I suppose that just reflects my personal taste and many people think that contemporary art is important and profound, so who am I to be a naysayer…  still, I love the Victorian art…  to me it is full of images, quirky, strange, and very human…  and everything about those paintings moves me…  the drawing , the illusion of three dimensional chiaroscuro, the images themselves…  the lumps of oil paint, the brush marks and glazes…  the fumbling of the artists to make great art (which most of the Victorian art is not) but with immense sincerity…  like the artist has laid his heart and mind, his soul so to speak, bare on the canvas…  while the contemporary artist seems to be trying to sell me something…  seems to be a hustle…  a con…  cheese whiz…

 

well Saturday, we had had enough of art museums and so spent the day walking around central Manchester…  a very clean, modern city with nice historical buildings and lots and lots of people walking everywhere…  so many people seemed so happy talking and laughing…  there seems to be a great tram system, which we did not use and the bus which we did ride was efficient and free…  we toured their Museum of Science and Technology which was fascinating with many exhibits about the industrialization of England in the 19th Century and we visited a People’s Museum about the history of the labor movement and how unions transformed the lives of working people by fighting for things like child labor laws, fair wages and shorter hours…  all things which we are turning our back on in the USA…  with, I fear, dire consequences for the working people of the next fifty years here…  it was also strange to hear talk about the dignity of doing labor…  here in USA, nobody wants to be a laborer, we all want to be big shots…

People’s Hisstory Museum

so, after taking a bus to the airport hotel, we left Sunday morning and flew from Manchester airport to Atlanta, made a mad dash through customs and the Atlanta airport to catch the last open flight back to MSP…  it was an amazing trip and I saw some art that I have known from photographs for many years so, it was like visiting a bunch of old friends…  I have not done much artwork lately, just a few sketches like the ones attached that I did on this trip…  I will be 65 in a few days…  my dad died at 65…  I hope I have many years yet to go because I do really love this life…  every day is a blessing and I try to appreciate that and take the time I am given seriously…  I have been thinking a lot about art in general and my own art lately…  I have a body of work that I have done…  it seems to me like great art, but I know from history that artists ALWAYS overvalue their own work…  and the fact of the matter is that even though the small press has liked and published my work, it is unlikely that at this late date, I will ever have any real success as an artist…  ever have my work in one of these museums…  or have it worth any real sum of money…  I am not sure why that is…  I have done the work as well as I could so maybe I am just not quite talented enough to be a major artist…  or I would like to think that it is more because I am out of step with my times…  ultimately, I guess it does not matter…  the art is what it is and I am what I am…  like Popeye…  and perhaps it is best as Browning said that a person’s “reach” should exceed his “grasp”…  I don’t know…

Thoughts on a Visit to Manchester, England

workers of the world

united long ago

and gained the

world…  now we

are giving it back..

lumpy linseed oil paint captures old photons of the imagination

I am growing old

and

every year I seem a little

further from the light

that once burned my

fingertips…

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