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Adolphe Valette (1876 – 1942) at The Lowry

Adolphe Valette (1876 – 1942) at The Lowry

on until Sunday 29th January 2012

Reviewed by Dr Charlotte Starkey November 2011


Adolphe Valette’s haunting impressions of Manchester and Salford sometimes evoke the response, ‘Oh, they are so dark!’ That is not true of most of them but also not a surprising remark for a few paintings of which it is only partially true. When he painted scenes of Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, 1909, Albert Square, Manchester 1910, India House, Manchester 1912, York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester 1913, and others, Manchester and Salford were regularly dark, very dark. Engels had described the area close to the River Medlock in 1842 to 1844 (cf. India House, Valette) as one of the worst slums in Manchester.


Fog, smog, pea-soupers of an atmosphere which left faces, lungs, clothes and lives filthy, damp and generally pretty dismal enabled Valette to see nocturnes of a ghostly beauty. He is, arguably, one of the first painters to recognise beauty specifically in the commercialised industrial world, certainly to find it in Manchester. In fact, India House is reminiscent of Turner in its use of reflected light and in many of his ‘Manchester/Salford’ paintings Valette’s colours are a complex mix of muted tones and colours, creating highlights and depths for emphasis and perspectives, never simple.


The Lowry exhibition of Valette’s work is a valuable experience in its own right. Amidst the now-transformed quayside setting of the Salford Docks where once the barges and freighters of the industrial landscape of a turn-of–the-century northern city caught Valette’s eyes, his paintings are on display until the end of January, some of them almost yards away from the original scenes he painted. In the adjoining galleries his most famous pupil, L. S. Lowry, has his own inimitable and exhilarating exhibition, and it is an opportunity not to be missed to be able to see both artists, teacher and pupil, next to one another whilst the Valette exhibition is here. One should add, too, that Manchester Art Gallery acquired its own collection of nine of Valette’s work, when he finally left Manchester in 1928, including his famous Albert Square 1910 and Hansom Cab at All Saints 1910. A visit to The Lowry and Manchester Art Gallery would be a natural combined visit; Salford Museum and Art Gallery has two sketches of the Bridgewater Canal by Lowry at the moment (Nov. 2011).


Pierre Adolphe Valette (he would also sign his paintings as Adolf) was born in Saint-Etienne in 1876. He was the third of four children born into a family that earned its living from arms manufacture at a time when the town was gaining importance as an administrative and industrial centre in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Valette progressed through art school with credit and potential, winning commendations and prizes for his work, and with a distinct bias towards art rather than commerce. He studied at the local School of Art, a foundation that emphasised the connections between art and industry, metallurgy, design and engraving. When Valette moved to Lyon he worked as an engraver by day and attended Lyon art classes in the evening. He went thence to Bordeaux, again working as an engraver and draughtsman whilst attending art school. Throughout this time Valette was coming to the attention of his teachers as an artist of promise and some distinction against a wider context of the growing importance of Impressionist painting in France and Europe.


Details of his movements in these early formative years are sketchy in parts (perhaps explaining the absence of some dates alongside some illustrations in the accompanying informative book for this exhibition) but Valette was certainly living in Manchester by 1905, at the age of twenty-nine. He joined the printing firm of Norbury, Natzio and Co. Ltd in Old Trafford, part of the thriving printing industry of Manchester. They published illustrations, engravings and a wide range of books, and it would be tempting to guess there are as yet unknown works produced by Valette for the company since he did produce commercial posters and the company itself printed and created illustrated works. One senses his affinity with this operation – working with the techniques of printing, the lithographic presses, the materials and colours of the inks, plate-making, papers, silks, lettering and typesetting. The exhibition includes recently discovered works by Valette, references to other work as yet not found for public display. While working for Norbury, Valette, following his earlier routine in France of paid work by day and evening study, enrolled at the Manchester Municipal School of Art in the imposing building which is now part of Manchester Metropolitan University. The plaque outside the renamed Grosvenor building at All Saints commemorates his work there.


As a painter he shows a distinct impressionist influence on early paintings, through his ‘Manchester/Salford period’ and into his later years in France again. In his rural paintings, Le Berger et ses Moutons, Shepherd and Sheep under Tree, Peasants going Home and more, the treatment of the pastoral subjects leads to pastel colours, brush strokes and perspectives reminiscent of Cézanne at times. Such can be seen in his paintings of North Wales too. They create a languid frame of reference that is to be found in later work, after leaving Manchester, in the idyllic scenes of southern France. In particular one is reminded of Monet (Bathers at la Grenouillére, 1869) in Valette’s L’Échaudage des Vignes for both painters realist detail gives way to an impression of shape, colour and movement suggesting, in the smaller ‘sketches’ in Valette’s case, pictorial notes for a large composition. Valette uses a number of quite distinctive brushstrokes to capture an instantaneous definition of one colour against another to achieve highlights and modifications of pure colour and tone; and natural light was important for such effects. He, like Ford Madox Brown (currently at Manchester Art Gallery), advocated painting en plein air, a tradition of outdoor painting which goes back to Constable and, famously, Turner who was tied to a ship’s mast in order to witness a sea storm (c.1842). The nearest Valette would come to this was his observations of the barges on the canal and river systems around Manchester and Salford, but the importance of working in front of the subject was central to Valette and his contemporaries among the French Impressionists to capture the ever-changing effects of light, cloud and movement outdoors.


Albert Square Manchester, 1910 by ValetteIt is generally believed that, whilst in Manchester, Valette created some of his most enduring works, impressions of an industrial city that have echoes in Whistler’s search for tonal patterns. Albert Square, Manchester, 1910 (the full version is in Manchester Art Gallery) captures a moment of industry and commerce in front of the Town Hall only thirty three years after the completion of the building. Above, to the left are the cables for the original Manchester tramway system, opened just ten years before the painting. The sky is sombre light with distant buildings almost wash shapes of muted spectral hues, suggesting the fog that pervades the scene. The Town Hall is a slightly darker wash of grey (by this time the building was coated with grime and soot), whilst the Albert Memorial forms, with Gladstone’s statue and the figures between them, a horizontal eye-line leading upwards and behind the corner of the Town Hall out of the canvas. In the bottom left there is the much darker, larger figure of a man pushing a cart, his left-inclined body balancing the outstretched arm of Gladstone pointing to the right of the frame. Behind him the bent neck and head of the cart horse echoes the foreground lines of the man – both huddled figures. The retreat from foreground dark to background light (seen also in the hauntingly lit India House, Manchester 1912) gives a mysterious depth to the scene and just has echoes of the use of a central light by Turner, whilst the unmistakeable foreshadowing of Lowry’s own leaning figures is found in the stooped figure pushing a cart. Without Valette’s name the painting could almost be attributed to Lowry for that one figure alone. The old cab and stooping horse centre right of the square is found as the main subject in another painting by Valette of the following year, Old Cab at All Saints, 1911. It is as if Valette was finding signatures in the figures and buildings of the city, making of them his own statement, reinventing impressions and Impressionism in his portraits of an industrial city whilst all the time using his great skills in drawing and composition.


Certainly paintings such as India House (a beautifully lyrical painting from the Oxford Road bridge over the River Medlock), Manchester 1912, Bailey Bridge, Manchester 1912, scenes of the Manchester Ship Canal, his Study for the Irwell – with accompanying smaller studies for the larger works – indicate an enduring fascination with the atmosphere created by the specific industrial climate of the city and its waterways. Arguably Valette found new ways of seeing cityscapes in art, exploring shapes, colours and the ambiguities of definition between water, sky and architecture to suggest, rather than portray precisely, a range of moods and atmospheres which are both ‘out there’ and within his own perception. It is fascinating that, in depicting his responses to one of the most polluted spaces on earth at the time, he was applying techniques which Monet, in his delicate and reflective paintings of water, lilies and bridges, would have recognised. One of his works, the view of Anglesey and the Menai Straits as seen from either the Great Orme or Llandulas, Beach Scene, North Wales, uses very similar techniques of broad brush strokes for sea, mountains and figures which he uses in his sketches for the finished scenes of Manchester and Salford.


Valette continued to paint many portraits throughout his life and as a teacher believed strongly in life studies. In The Lowry we see works by both Valette and the painter L. S. Lowry close to one another on similar subjects showing the attention to the details of anatomy and proportion. Early works by L. S. Lowry at The Lowry reveal how closely Lowry followed Valette’s advice in drawing, draughtsmanship and subject. Of course, because Lowry was a pupil, he used the same life models as Valette used as an artist and teacher of art. One feature differentiates Valette and Lowry, however. Valette’s portraits have a serious quality, They are strong, sensitive portraits suggesting character and personality in typical portraiture pose. There are delicate pictures of his son Tita of 1915 but sometimes his portraits lack the humour that Lowry presents even in a crowd scene. Valette did know sadness and suffering: his first wife Gabriela, who is represented in his sensitive portraits of her, died in 1917, just eight years after their marriage. His son Peter, who remained in Manchester after Valette left for France one year earlier, died in 1929 of tubercular meningitis, a disease closely related to tuberculosis of the lungs. Certainly TB was a common killer in Manchester, and the very atmosphere that inspired Peter’s father to portray the city did not help Valette’s son.


L. S. Lowry, talented, individual and with a route of his own to follow, posed problems for Valette. Lowry brought humour into the city, as the displays in adjoining galleries to Valette’s exhibition in The Lowry galleries reveal. L. S. Lowry’s quirky dogs standing, as dogs do, without regard for anyone yet still an integral, unpredictable feature of the street scene, are nonchalant observers in the midst of a sea of characters leaning one way and another, like wavelets in motion, skipping one another with a vitality that captures the bustling colour and rhythms of chaos that he found in the city and towns of the north. The chance to see both together with so much of Valette’s work on display next to Lowry’s permanent exhibition at The Lowry is a great opportunity to make comparisons and consider the distinctive traits of two significant artists. Chimneys, spires, rectangular warehouses, shops, walls, football stands, angular buildings jostle together, like the crowds, to form a multi-coloured jigsaw of shapes and sizes in L. S. Lowry’s work. He invented his own smokeless zones in his paintings: the smoke from his chimneys curls to the right or left in regulated randomness, just like his characters. In a Valette’s painting smog suffuses the whole work. In Lowry it is as if everyone is going somewhere, but no one quite knows where or why - and not really worrying, either. In Valette it is the mystery of the scene itself, the streets, buildings and waterways shrouded in the fog of industry, which tries to speak. That one carter in Albert Square, alone among all his paintings of Manchester and Salford perhaps, leads us to ask whither he is going, whence he came but he is defined by the grime of the municipal symbols. In the Manchester scenes that mystery powerfully and beautifully finds expression. In both artists, the teacher and pupil, we have testimony to the potent and different kinds of beauty and humanity that came out of all that muck.


It is well worth seeing this exhibition of Valette’s work, a painter, engraver, draughtsman and teacher obtaining a recognition that can only help us understand more this unique and individual talent from the first quarter of the twentieth century.

On until Sunday 29th January 2012 - see

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