One of my favourite pieces in the House is the ceramic altarpiece, which hangs in the hall above the entrance to the drawing room. It can be easily missed and you probably get the best view of it from the half landing on the stairs going up to the first floor. It has a somewhat marmite reputation amongst us volunteers and as many of us dislike it as intensely as do those who love it – myself included!
It isn’t a piece that any of the Gaskell family would remember being in 84 Plymouth Grove, and indeed Elizabeth and William Gaskell never saw it. It was bought by Meta and Julia on one of their trips to Venice, as Meta describes in her letter to Charles Eliot Norton, written on 15 November 1848:
‘I am also directing to be sent to you – straight from the photographers – a photograph taken from a Della Robbia plaque which Julia and I picked up… (do you say picked up when you have given a large sum for it in a well known shop!)… this spring at Venice; and which we have ‘presented’ to the Whitworth Institute here. Though I assure you I do not write for that reason, it would be a great satisfaction to me to know whether you think it a Luca, an Andrea, or a Giovanni. There has been a great discussion amongst experts-‘
Luca della Robbia (1400-1452) was the founder of the famous family workshop based in Florence which specialised in making terracotta sculptures. His nephew Andrea, and his grand-nephew Giovanni also worked in the family business. And great discussion amongst experts has confirmed that the altarpiece is a nineteenth century copy and not a production from the original studio. It would be fascinating to know how much Meta and Julia paid for it, and how it was sold to them in the shop! Meta’s letter seem to suggest they had bought it as an original.
In 2018, the Whitworth Art Gallery kindly gifted the altarpiece to the House, where it now hangs in great splendour, both in memory of Meta and Julia’s Venetian holiday, and also of their civic generosity to the people of Manchester in buying the piece as a gift for display in the Whitworth Institute. It has been beautifully cleaned, conserved and bravely hung by teams from Manchester Museum. I love its exuberant colour, and it also reminds me that the Gaskell family’s time in Plymouth Grove extends beyond the life of Elizabeth Gaskell herself and well into the twentieth century.
Do have a good look at it when you next visit the House. Do you love it or hate it?