Art at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester

The first leg of my ill-fated trip to Buxton last weekend was an early flight to Manchester, and I decided I should take the opportunity to sample its cultural delights. There is a lot to see in Manchester but I rapidly zeroed in on two particular possibilities: the John Rylands Library in the middle of the city, and the Imperial War Museum North, out at Old Trafford.

The John Rylands Library was a bit of a bust, frankly. I really wanted to see Papyrus 52, the oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament in the world (be honest – how many of you knew that was in Manchester?) but it turned out that the papyrus gallery is not being reopened to the public until December; I was three weeks early. In any case, I got there at 11.15 to discover that it closes for a long lunch break at 12. Luckily my lunch date, Lee Berridge, was able to move his schedule around and meet me a bit earlier, and then kindly drove me out to the IWMN after a very nice meal.

This was a lot more satisfying. I am only mildly fascinated by collections of military memorabilia, but I am still a little fascinated, and there is plenty of that at the Imperial War Museum North. It also tries to look at the bigger picture of the impact of military service and war on families and civilians. It's not completely successful – there is one embarrassing dead-end gallery about the contributions of eastern Europeans to the second world war effort for instance – but it's not completely uncritical either.

What made the museum for me was the art collection. My attention was grabbed by the very first painting I saw as I came in the door, which seemed an eerily familiar landscape.

This turns out to be “Land Heals, Memories Remain”, a 2018 painting by Jen Gash. The accompanying description explains that

Gash’s painting reflects on the First World War Battle of Kosturino as it impacted on the landscape and communities at the Balkans Front. More than 100 years on, the conflict continues to shape and score the physical and social character of the region.

During the Battle of Kosturino, the inexperienced 10th (Irish) Division faced an invading Bulgarian Army, resulting in heavy losses. Hard pressed by disease and the enemy, they fought over treacherous and often impossible terrain. Their defeat led to the complete withdrawal of allied forces from Serbia. This battle is a forgotten story of the conflict and the experiences of soldiers on the Balkans front are not well remembered.

I am sure that it has indeed been forgotten by many people, but not by me. My grandfather led the last stage of the Allied retreat from the battlefield in December 1915, and I went to visit the scene in 2007. I felt an electric shock of recognition.

I'm going to single out just a few of the other art works that struck me.

This is a 1918 painting by Flora Lion of the women’s canteen at the Phoenix Works in Bradford. It captures a moment when, because of the war, new social roles were opening up for women, especially perhaps young women. I love the dynamic of the two women whose arms are linked, and the other with a dangling teacup looking wistfully away.

This grim picture shows the Death Cart in the Jewish ghetto of Łódź in Nazi-occupied Poland. The artist Edith Birkin, then a teenager, lived there from 1941 until 1944, and then survived both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She painted this in the early 1980s. It leaves little to the imagination.

As sadly could have been predicted, the Imperial War Museum has very little to say about Ireland. It does have a couple of interesting paintings.

Street Incident, Londonderry [sic]”, a 1973 painting by Gladys Maccabe, captures well how squaddies in Northern Ireland seemed to exist in some parallel time stream. I remember Anne, on an early visit to me in Belfast, commenting that it was very weird to see soldiers in jungle camouflage patrolling the streets – but it obviously worked, because everyone was ignoring them as if they were not there. The IWM says that Maccabe “maintained a deliberately balanced, unpartisan viewpoint”. Hmm, just check out the title of the painting again for a sec…

This is “The Grass Grows Along The Peace Line”, a 1989 painting by John Keane which combines a Belfast peace line with a collage of obscured newspaper headlines. The first, but not the last, peace line built in Belfast after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was between the White City and Serpentine Gardens in North Belfast, a block from the first house Anne and I owned.

Keane’s art really struck me. The IWM doesn’t go into his (lefty) politics in depth, but his work speaks for itself. Here to finish with is his “Scenes on the Road to Hell”, painted in 1991, showing Kuwaiti children celebrating victory and a burnt out Iraqi tank. A picture really can be worth a thousand words.

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