Grant for SAS books expert to research art collections of Industrial Revolution’s nouveau riche

Thursday 16 November 2017


Hart Collection, Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli, Dala’il al-khayrat (Guide to Goodness), 18thc, Persia, ink on paper, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Dr Cynthia Johnston, Institute of English Studies’ MA course tutor and lecturer in the History of the Book, has been awarded a curatorial research grant of £10,000 from the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art.

It will support her work on the collections created by industrialists in the North West of England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries who had made great personal wealth from the Industrial Revolution.

The project begins in April 2018 and concludes in 2020 with an exhibition entitled, ‘Holding the vision: collecting the art of the book in the industrial North West’ at the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. It is very much a progression of the research by Dr Johnston as part of the academic partnership between the Blackburn Museum and the Institute of English Studies (IES), which forms part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London.

During the 19th century, Blackburn, Preston and Burnley were among the communities transformed from small, regional market towns to industrial centres producing miles of cotton and calico cloth each day. The enthusiasm for collecting was encouraged by cultural critics like John Ruskin and inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Bibliomania was one of the collecting strands that was pursued with passion by the newly rich in the industrial North West.

The images destined for the exhibition are found in books held by a group of libraries and museums in the North West. They depict collections bequeathed to them as part of the philanthropic impulse which informed the collecting phenomenon. The books were meant to inspire and their images to delight the citizens of the towns.

Diverse collections of coins, icons, Japanese prints and more surprising categories such as scent bottles and beetles form the eclectic collections found in regional museums of the North West.

‘The images found between the covers of the books which belong to these collections are doubly lost, both within their own closed forms, but also by their ability to be economically stored,’ explains Dr Johnston.

'Museum vaults, cupboards and cases most often hold these collections; their virtues unseen by the public for whom they were intended. The project aims to bring back the art of the book, by reinterpreting the collections and making them newly relevant to the communities to which they were gifted.’

The proposed exhibition aims to raise awareness in local communities, as well as nationally and internationally, of these visually captivating, and culturally important collections. Dr Johnston’s project expands the intellectual reach of this research to the motivations and processes of industrialist collectors of the art of the book from the holdings of the Blackburn Museum’s newly catalogued Hart collection, to other un-researched collections in the region. Work on the Hart Collection has resulted in community recognition of the socio-cultural and historical value of the collection.

The Dunn Collection held by the Blackburn Library, the Shepherd and Spencer Collections at the Harris Library in Preston, and the Hardcastle Collection of book illustrations at Towneley Hall in Burnley have the potential to engender similar community recognition of their value.

Dr Johnston explains that a crucial component of her application for the curatorial research grant (CRG) is for the exhibition to be delivered at the Blackburn Museum. It is working towards becoming a centre for the study of book historical collections in the North West. These highly competitive grants are awarded annually to institutions, galleries or museums to help towards the costs of appointing a research curator to undertake research for a specific project.

‘The fusion of art and culture, visual delight and intellectual curiosity are core motivations of industrialist collectors. This exhibition aspires to deliver these experiences to their historically intended communities,’ adds Dr Johnston.

‘In the conclusion to his last book, The People's Galleries, the late Giles Waterfield argued that 'the idea of the family gallery, of the gallery that belongs to all and appeals to all regardless of social or educational background…is the most important legacy left by the Victorian art museum. ‘Holding the vision: collecting the art of the book in the industrial North West’ aspires to bring these gifted books and their great variety of images and messages back to their intended local audiences; their content and context enriched by original scholarly research.’

More information
Hart Collection reveals its treasures
Pleasures and perils of Public Engagement
Blackburn Museum academic partnership