Liverpool's Art Sheds

Augustus John, the subject of The Last Bohemian exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, moved to Liverpool in 1901 to teach at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art, known as the Art Sheds. But what were the Art Sheds, how did they bring such a leading figure to the city, and what were their legacy? Joseph Sharples explains.

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Mechanisation, mass production, man-made ugliness: the social and artistic fallout from Britain’s industrial revolution left many sensitive Victorians horrified. A possible remedy lay in art education, pursued through institutions such as Liverpool’s Art Sheds.

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin railed against the repetitive, dehumanising nature of 19th century factory work and the soulless character of factory-made products. He pointed to the Middle Ages as a period when craftsmen had worked freely and spontaneously, drawing inspiration directly from nature.

Ruskin’s ideas fed into the work of the designer William Morris. From the 1860s, Morris and his associates used traditional techniques to fashion materials by hand, applying their design skills to everything from wallpapers and textiles to furniture and stained glass. By the time Morris died in 1896, the Arts and Crafts movement had become a powerful force.

poster with winged figures and text 'CITY OF LIVERPOOL SCHOOL OF  ARCHITECTURE & APPLIED ARTS. CLASSES IN ARCHITECTURE MODELLING PAINTING  AND DRAWING CARVING IN WOOD AND STONE ORNAMENTAL WROUGHT IRON WORK ETC ETC FOR  THE PARTICULARS APPLY TO THE DIRECTOR UNIVERSITY COLLEGE'

Robert Anning Bell, Poster for the School of Architecture and Applied Art, 1894

The new School

An important strand of thought in the movement was the idea that Architecture was the ‘mother’ art, in whose service a range of crafts such as metalwork, sculpture, woodcarving and mural painting could all flourish. It therefore made sense – in theory, at least - to train architects side by side with students of these various crafts.

It was in pursuit of this ideal that the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art was established in 1895 as a joint venture by the City and the fledgling University. Trainee architects studied in the red brick Victoria Building on Brownlow Hill, while classes in the applied arts took place in an adjoining cluster of wooden buildings nicknamed the Art Sheds. 

A diverse group of teachers joined the staff of the new School. Robert Anning Bell, instructor in drawing and painting, was a decorative artist whose work embraced stained glass, relief sculpture, book illustration and graphic design (the impressive poster he designed for the School is a fine example of this new art form, which rose to sudden prominence in the 1890s). 

teacher talking about drawings pinned to a wall

James Herbert McNair teaching at the Art Sheds, photographed by Mary ‘Bee’ Phillips. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, © the artist’s estate

James Herbert McNair, instructor in decorative design and a close associate of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, brought the strange and slightly unnerving stylisations of the Glasgow School with him to Liverpool. Charles John Allen, who taught sculpture and modelling, represented the French-influenced New Sculpture, which was in the vanguard of progressive sculptural practice in Britain.

Sketch of a man's head

Enid Jackson, Portrait of James Herbert McNair. Jackson was a student at the Art Sheds, noted for her draughtsmanship. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

Richard Llewellyn Benson Rathbone, instructor in copper and brass-work, was a member of a leading Liverpool merchant family and worked with the important designers AH Mackmurdo and CFA Voysey. And of course a major presence between 1901 and 1904 was Augustus John, with his vivid personality and his dazzling technique as a draughtsman and painter.

group portraits of teaching staff on the steps of an Art Shed

Staff and students on the Art Sheds steps, photographed by Mary ‘Bee’ Phillips in 1904. The male staff are, from left to right, CJ Allen, David Muirhead, Charles Reilly (newly arrived Professor of Architecture) and James Herbert McNair. The sculptor Phoebe McLeish is in the foreground with McNair’s son, Sylvan. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, © the artist’s estate

A change of direction

But Liverpool’s ambitious attempt to integrate the training of architects and artists lasted only a few years. Funding problems meant that by 1902 the applied art section had to join the national ‘South Kensington System’ of art training. Finally, in 1905, applied art was absorbed into the municipal School of Art in Mount Street, and only architecture was left at the University.

The break was perhaps inevitable. The Arts and Crafts movement was rooted in 19th century medievalism, but the tendency of British architecture by the early 1900s was towards Renaissance classicism and the new technologies of steel and concrete. A building like the baroque Museum Extension and Central Technical School in William Brown Street (now part of the World Museum Liverpool), which opened in 1901, shows the direction in which taste was moving.

In the same year, a debate raged in the local and national press about whether the Gothic style prescribed for the new Liverpool Cathedral was really appropriate for a 20th century building. The London architect Charles Reilly took the bold step of submitting a magnificent Renaissance design in the Cathedral competition. He didn’t win, but three years later he was appointed Professor of Architecture at Liverpool, and in this role he energetically pursued a classical agenda.

Charles Reilly

Portrait of Charles Reilly by Augustus John, 1931 
© the Estate of Augustus John/ Bridgeman Images courtesy of Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 

Legacy

The legacy of the short-lived Art Sheds is difficult to quantify. The school did not transform Liverpool into a major centre of the Arts and Crafts movement like Birmingham, but it left a lasting mark. Some of its teachers made prominent contributions to Liverpool buildings. 

RLB Rathbone made the superb beaten copper doors of the Unitarian Church in Ullet Road, while CJ Allen was responsible for the impressive carved frieze on the Royal Insurance headquarters at the corner of Dale Street and North John Street. Allen also did the wonderfully animated bronze figures around the base of the Queen Victoria Memorial in Derby Square, and he contributed to the exuberant decoration of the Philharmonic Hotel on Hope Street. 

Highly ornate metalwork gates

Gates of the Philharmonic Hotel, Hope Street, 1898-1900 (detail). Part of a comprehensive decorative scheme including work by CJ Allen and H Bloomfield Bare of the Art Sheds. © Joseph Sharples

The influence of the Art Sheds also permeated the local art scene through its students. H Bloomfield Bare supplied panels of beaten copper for the Philharmonic Hotel, while another student, Cassandia Annie Walker, became a designer at the Della Robbia Pottery, a major Arts and Crafts enterprise based in Birkenhead.

But perhaps the most significant graduates were Edward Carter Preston and George Herbert Tyson Smith. Carter Preston carved most of the figure sculpture for Liverpool Cathedral, while Tyson Smith, working from his Liverpool studio, became a nationally renowned letter cutter and architectural sculptor. His work graces a number of Liverpool landmarks, from Martins Bank to the Cenotaph. In his hands, the ideal of a vital partnership between art and architecture remained alive into the 1960s.

mermaid figures carved in stone in archway above door

George Herbert Tyson Smith, Carved lunette, Martins Bank Building, Water Street, 1927-32. © Joseph Sharples

The exhibition The Last Bohemian: Augustus John, is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery until 30 August 2021. Open Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, 10am-6pm.