Morecambe Winter Gardens – a labour of love

WG IMG_0595I’ve just been on a guided tour of Morecambe Winter Gardens. Its not the first time I’ve visited, but it is more than five years since my last visit. Morecambe Winter Gardens was a place of music hall entertainment, with a grand ballroom next door, and was designed to give holidaymakers a taste of luxury away from their lives at home. Many of the visitors were on day excursions from the industrial towns of Leeds or Bradford, and would be looking for place to eat, drink, be entertained – all without going outside on a wet day. The Winter Gardens provided an indoor place to promenade, and a ballroom next door for dancing.

Once with a rolling programme of all day entertainment – ballet, mime, comedy, pierrots, song and dance –  the stage is mostly empty now apart from the odd ghost hunt or music event.

Stephen, our guide, took us up near the roof to see the iron girders supporting the elaborate ceiling. The infrastructure is built like a railway station with massive ironwork suspending moulded plasterwork. Unused since the 1970s the building fell into disrepair and has since been looked after, and restored, by a small team of volunteers. The task is enormous. The walls have been damp and crumbling, the roof unsafe. The volunteers have painstakingly removed hundreds of nails from the original parquet floor and replaced the missing pieces with appropriate period wood. They are now restoring parts of the granWG IMG_0593d circle.  Stephen freely admits that the task of restoring this building will take generations, and that they are looking to the future one step at a time.

It is such a shame that our seaside heritage doesn’t attract the sort of funding that would allow the refurbishment to progress faster, and before more crucial infrastructure is lost. During Covid people have been flocking to our seaside towns again and it is a shame when an iconic building like the Winter Gardens can’t be shown off in all its original glory. Of course it is interesting to speculate what the building could be used for, now that the thousands it could accommodate prefer to holiday elsewhere.

But a building so spectacular could be used for many different things – retail, food hall,  marketplace. Personally I would love to see it as a museum or exhibition of the seaside life as we used to know it. There is a tendency to ignore the art of the seaside funfair, circus, arcades and other pier-head attractions, which are a vital and interesting part of our history, with their own particular visual language.

For the volunteers who are bringing this building back to life, it is a real labour of love. They give up their weekends to show visitors around, when they are not painting, plastering or cleaning. They are raising money to put the seats back in the Grand Circle, one seat at a time. You can find all the information you need about how to support their work and their ongoing labour of love on their website  Do book a tour too, its fascinating and gives a real window into seaside culture in its 1930s heyday. Tea and cake can be had in the foyer.

The pictures below show the spectacular Burmantoft tiles in the entrance to the Grand Circle and in the foyer, and the outside of the building with its magnificent arched window overlooking what must be one of the most spectacular views of the bay and the Lake District hills.

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Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – the Lost Ruskin Daguerrotypes

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Venice. The Ducal Palace South Façade. ‘Eastern Windows’ Tracery Looking Out Towards the Lagoon, c.1849–1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. By John Ruskin and John Hobbs (Ruskin’s valet)

I have just visited Brantwood, the Lakeland bolt-hole of Victorian giant of arts and literature, John Ruskin. Whilst I was there, I came upon this fascinating story. When Ruskin died in 1900, he was largely-forgotten figure, having suffered from bouts of mental illnesss, brought on, it’s said by a sense of powerlessness to change the industrial world and bring better conditions for the poor and the working classes. So his library, paintings, and personal effects were sold off in what amounts to a car boot sale in 1936.

Everything was laid out on the lawn at his family home, Brantwood, near Coniston, and locals were invited to make offers. All his possessions were sold that day, and have only gradually made their way back to Brantwood, which is now a museum to Ruskin’s life. Ever since then, his wonderful drawings, manuscripts, books and items of furniture have been gradually reappearing as Cumbrian people finally realise what they are, and their significance. The daguerreotypes had been owned by an elderly man who had inherited them, and who wanted to sell, having no idea they were of much value.

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John Ruskin

The Penrith auctioneers did not help much either, because they misread the label on the box as ‘Vienna’, instead of ‘Venice’, and put in a conservative estimate of £80. Imagine their surprise when two separate bidders – having spotted the possibility they could be Ruskin’s lost photographs – started to bid against each other, each desperate to have them, until the price reached a whopping £75,000. And even better, imagine the face of the elderly gentleman when he heard how much they had made!

So what is a daguerreotype?

A daguerreotype photograph is one where, because of the process, each photograph is unique. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful process in the history of photography. It uses an iodine-sensitized silvered plate, or even a real silver plate, and mercury vapour to produce the image. It was named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Nowadays, daguerreotypes are scarce, though some contemporary artists have re-embraced the medium today. Daguerrotypes can give very sharp and luminous images.

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The Casa d’Oro, Venice by Ruskin


BBC News  The Telegraph Brantwood, Coniston

Quotations by Ruskin:

‘Fit yourself for the best society, and then, never enter it.’

‘Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.’

‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.’

Pictures from Wikipedia and The Telegraph.