Monday, 8 March 2010

Victoria Baths

Yesterday we had a trip out to Manchester to a vintage fair in the Victoria Baths, we had seen it a few years ago on 'Restoration' and it didn't disappoint. The stalls were on top of one covered pool, one was completely covered in scaffolding - I presume to hold up the roof - the one below and I think a fourth possibly that we didn't see.

Much work has been done but it seems only the tip of the iceberg, the stained glass has received much attention and I can see why, every room we went in had a different design in its glass, even small sections over doors were different from one room to another.

In my studies I am interested in craft/workmanship/skill, what it was, what it is, how our ideas of it change through time. For instance I don't say that I am a crafter or I do crafts because in my head I think of that label as something that requires no skill, can be bought in kit form from a hobby shop, I prefer to call myself a maker. Before the 12th Century craft was the superior of what we call fine art - painting and sculpture - but for reasons to do with the church and changes in patronage more naturalist forms took over and the work of the furnace and the forge was devalued.

In the 21st Century we look at these Victorian stained glass windows and think that they are fabulous but they are in fact a very watered down version of what stained glass used to be over 900 years ago, to survive as an art form they have become figurative like paintings. Supernatural qualities were attached to glass and its makers, the work seeming as if created by angels not men.

Medieval craftsmen were early re-cyclers re-using glass from ancient mosaic tesserae, glass was so highly valued not just because of its expense and skill but because it resembled gemstones. By the early 14th Century borders and backgrounds were simplified, figures less complex and colours getting paler in order to be more like painting. A good book for all of this is 'The Culture of Craft' by Peter Dormer.

The baths are covered in tiles, obviously, even the balustrades are a fabulous green ceramic, which meant that with no heating it was absolutely freezing, but easy to imagine it in its heyday. Males first class, males second class, females first class and females second class were all separated and given different standards of decoration as were the committee rooms and Superintendents quarters. In later years much of the decoration was covered with formica and plastics, the new high end, which in fact saved and preserved much of what can be seen today, definitely worth a visit but do wear thermals.

In the 50's and 60's it was used for health and therapy, from the outside this pool looks like a massive milk churn and quite intimidating.

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