A feature for the Fourdrinier that explores the radical history of one of Britain’s first public parks, via a new commission by artist Lizzie King for ‘Rediscovering Salford’. The city-wide cultural programme is highlighting and celebrating Salford’s green spaces, unique history, and overlooked or forgotten stories throughout 2021. Find out more about the project here.
It’s a cold, wintery day in mid-February. Crocuses, snowdrops, the occasional daffodil are beginning to poke through the soil, despite the bitter chill. It’s unusually busy for this time of year, or it would be were it not for the pandemic. The air is filled with the sounds of children playing, the hard smack of a cricket ball, birds. In the midst of everything stands an unremarked bronze statue of a man who looks out over the River Irwell towards Manchester, a skyline dominated by high-rise buildings and stationary cranes. It seems strange that he faces in this direction, given that his story lies so much in Salford.
Elected in 1832, Joseph Brotherton was the city’s first MP, a position he helped bring into creation through his membership of the Little Circle – a group which campaigned for parliamentary reform and better proportional representation. He was an abolitionist, an advocate for workers’ right, a passionate supporter of free non-denominational education, a founding member of the Vegetarian Society, and largely responsible for the opening of the park he now stands in: Peel Park, one of the first publicly owned open-access parks in Britain (named after the then prime minister Sir Robert Peel who backed the public campaign). Brotherton was much loved by his constituents, elected five times (twice unopposed) and his statue – like the park itself – was paid for entirely by public subscription.
One of the many ‘lessons of the pandemic’ has been a reminder of the vital importance of parks and green spaces within cities. In a year when many of us have been otherwise cooped up indoors, they have become essential not only to our physical health but mental and emotional wellbeing. A lifeline, as such. An amenity that everyone should have access to. Yet it takes some effort to appreciate just how radical it was to open a public park in 1846.
By the 19th century, the unenclosed commons had all but disappeared, most parklands belonged to private estates and public access was restricted. In northern industrial cities like Salford and Manchester, many people lived in squalid, overcrowded houses directly neighbouring the factories where they worked. The air was filled with soot and smog emitted by the towering chimneys that can be seen encircling the park in early photographs and artworks, replaced by the office blocks that Brotherton looks out over today.
In an age when the lives of working-class people were treated as negligible, here was a space carved out by the people for the people. A place where anyone had a right to be, and to access the benefits of physical health and ‘mental and moral improvement’ (as described by the Peel Park organising committee).
With no precedent to draw upon, a competition was held to determine the design. The winner, a pioneering landscape gardener from Leeds called Joshua Major, emphasised the need for a variety of pleasure grounds, attractive plants, a spacious promenade and an appealing layout (still reflected in the park’s distinctively-shaped path network). This inaugural park for the people was steeped in grandeur from the outset. It was a destination; a place to be seen. Though it’s hard to imagine now, people dressed up to go. They even sent postcards to family and friends describing their visit.
This love for Peel Park continued throughout the first half of the 20th century, captured in LS Lowry’s numerous drawings and paintings featuring great crowds enjoying the space. The high levels of post-industrial and economic decline that afflicted Salford during the post-war years, however, led many residents to move away from the area – the local connection to the park gradually became lost and it fell into a state of disrepair.
I lived beside this park for nearly two years and visited it often, yet shamefully knew nothing of its radical past. I’m only coming to it today through Rediscovering Salford – an exhibition and events programme which opens this May at Salford Museum & Art Gallery (overlooking Peel Park) as part of a city-wide initiative to highlight and celebrate Salford’s green spaces, unique history, and overlooked or forgotten stories. The project is inspired by the launch of RHS Gardens Bridgewater – a new public display gardens being created in the historic grounds of Worsley New Hall in Worsley (Salford) as part of the city’s green revival.
There’s a satisfying circularity to this story. Salford is a city built on mines, mills, factories and docks, famously characterised by local playwright and songwriter Ewan McColl as Britain’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ in 1949. It the latter half of the 20th-century, it gained an association with concrete, through its notorious tower blocks of the 1960s and rather soulless MediaCity development in the early 2000s. But a recent programme of heavy investment in the city’s green infrastructure by its progressive socialist council has resulted in major transformation. In 2020, Salford was named the greenest place to live in England and Wales by the Centre for Thriving Places, with over 60% of the city given over to green space and its decimated wildlife population returning in great numbers.
Animals and insects are not the only creatures heading to the city. Salford is gradually becoming what its mayor Paul Dennett describes as a ‘go-to destination for lovers of nature, horticulture, botany and wildlife’ – inward investment paying off in the form of tourism. This move to revitalise Salford through its natural ecology is complimented by a parallel strategy of investing in its cultural ecology. Both strands are brought neatly together in the form of Rediscovering Salford – a programme intended to refocus the city’s cultural identity through engagement with its green spaces, and which the council is a key partner on.
Lizzie King is one of four Salford-based artists who have been commissioned to make new work for the Rediscovering Salford exhibition. She decided to use the opportunity to focus on Peel Park; a place she visited often as a child, where she remembers learning to ride a bike, and where the free public gallery nourished her early interest in art. (She later went on to study at the University of Salford, also neighbouring the park, and held a studio at Islington Mill, a former Victorian cotton factory turned artists’ studios located a stone’s throw away, through the university’s inaugural Graduate Scholarship Programme.) Yet it was its significance as one of the first public parks and a space that belongs to the people of Salford – where anyone can go and feel welcome – that drew her to it.
At the core of her interest is the idea of inclusivity, a theme she chose to explore in relation to the park bench. Benches are one of the earliest forms of purpose-built seating and are fundamentally designed to seat multiple people at once. As such, they serve as an ultimate symbol of community, collectivity and civic society. They offer one of the few remaining spaces within modern cities that allow us to dwell unhampered by the demand to consume, and which acknowledge a human need for rest.
They are also what distinguish parks from other types of green space. As King wrote to me in an email: ‘The bench is an infrastructure that says, ‘you belong here’. It roots the people to the place and gives us a way of connecting to the nature around us. The bench doesn’t ask us to do anything, it just asks us to be.’ (Public libraries, or ‘warm parks’ as King likened them, are among the few other urban locations that afford similar permission to sit without doing. Fittingly, Salford Museum & Art Gallery first opened to the public in 1850 as the Royal Museum & Public Library – the first unconditionally free public library in England).
King will be exhibiting two works as part of Rediscovering Salford. The first she describes as a ‘portrait’ of one of the benches in the park. This she created through an elaborate process of first photographing her ‘sitter’, then digitally engraving the image onto a photographic plate to create a black-and-white negative. She then enlarged and developed the picture in 42 parts and fed these back into the computer to be digitally stitched together and printed, forming the final piece, which measures 48 inches square.
The drawn-out method has a slow and meditative quality that echoes the kind of experiences that parks and especially park benches invite. The etched and slightly fragmentary end-result also counteracts the blunt immediacy of a standard photograph, speaking more to the feeling of being in the park than of looking at it. The image seems to murmur with the gentle sound of wind and shift with the changing rhythms of natural light. Depicted in this way, the bench feels more subject than object, a living connector to the park and an active counterpart to the experiences of those who sit upon it.
The second part of the commission takes the form of a series of six vintage-style postcards created by King in response to the many Victorian and Edwardian-era postcards bearing holiday messages from Peel Park that she found within the Museum & Art Gallery’s archives and trawling eBay. (A few of these can be seen on the University of Salford Art Collection’s Instagram account, posted by King as part of the #RedsiscoveringSalford artist takeover.) “I never thought people would send postcards from Salford,” she remarked when we spoke over Zoom, adding that she liked the idea that people would share their experiences of the park in this way.
Of the six postcards, three are based on photographs King took of benches in the park, while the other three show the view from each of the benches. “There is the ‘being’ and there is the ‘seeing’,” King explained. The complete series will be framed and presented within the exhibition alongside a stack of free copies for visitors to take into the park and write their own messages on. The invitation is to use the combined reflective space of the postcard and the bench as an opportunity to slow down and connect with the natural surroundings. Something we don’t always do, as even parks have become functionalised in our purpose-driven lives, often serving, particularly in Covid times, as gyms, pubs, crèches and date spots rather than as spaces to enjoy in their own right.
The hope is that these written postcards will then be sent by Salford Museum & Art Gallery to people in care homes and hospitals as a way of saying to those without access to public parks, “these spaces are still for you” (King). This is particularly important to the artist as she has been permanently shielding since March 2020 for health issues. The park is the only place she has visited since, and has taken on a whole new importance for her. She concluded her email to me: ‘During these highly distressing times, sitting and looking and being in the park seems more important to our wellbeing than ever. Even though I am an ambulatory wheelchair user and do not use the benches in the park, they remain highly significant of that connection and the fact that we belong in this space.’
As I sit in Peel Park, it occurs to me that to be here feels akin to a holiday. A vacation from my desk and from doing, but more notably from the same streets and parks near my home, ‘on the other side of the river’ in Manchester, which have become rather too familiar over the course of three national lockdowns. The air feels fresh and enticing.
The park is different from when I lived nearby, tided-up and transformed following a major Heritage Lottery funded restoration project in 2017. Brotherton stands beside me, finally back in his rightful place after he was taken down in 1954 to make way for a new technical college (now the university) and subsequently spent over six decades in storage, being moved between sites and cities, and passing between owners. His plinth bears an inscription: ‘My riches consist, not in the extent of my possessions, but in the fewness of my wants’. Despite the heady whiff of Victorian morality, it seems a fitting thought to muse upon whilst sat enjoying the early signs of approaching spring. A sense of contentment settles upon me.
Joseph Brotherton, Lizzie King, and all six of the main Rediscovering Salford partners (Salford Council, Salford Museum & Art Gallery, University of Salford Art Collection, RHS Gardens Bridgewater, The Lowry and Peel Park) are clearly on to something. Green space is something to be cherished and that has an important place within our cities. A place, symbolised, by the humble park bench.
Lizzie King was commissioned by University of Salford Art Collection with Salford Museum & Art Gallery for Rediscovering Salford 2021, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The Rediscovering Salford exhibition opens at Salford Museum & Art Gallery in May 2021. Find out more about the project here and by following the #RediscoveringSalford hashtag on social media. After the exhibition, Lizzie King’s work will enter the University of Salford Art Collection as a permanent legacy of the project.
Originally published on the Fourdrinier: www.thefourdrinier.com/lizzie-king-rediscovering-salford-musings-from-a-park-bench