Manchester: Dame Edna and Carel Weight

We went to Manchester for the weekend.  It was daughter three’s birthday and to celebrate it a group of us went to see Dame Edna Everage at the Opera House.  We had seen her in London but she was so appallingly funny that we wanted to do it again before it was too late.  It turned out to be the very last day of her farewell tour, her second to last (if Barry Humphries is telling the truth) performance ever – since it was the matinée.


We had booked late, so we were in the Gallery.  This, in the Manchester Opera House, is of a vertiginosity that rivals the mountainous roads of Montenegro.  We emerged from the staircase and looked straight down, as it seemed, onto the stage far below.


Caringly I gripped the better half’s elbow.  “We can do this,” I said.  (I have been reading Armistead Maupin.)


“Omigod,” said the better half – surprisingly, as she hasn’t been reading Armistead Maupin.


We clambered down, slipping alarmingly on the scree formed of popcorn from previous performances, and eventually were able to perch on our seats.


“If you clap,” Dame Edna shouted up to us, “do it with one hand and hold on with the other.”


I thought of the great song The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, made famous by Little Dot Hetherington, who sang it all those years ago gesturing appropriately upwards and painted doing so by Walter Sickert:


The boy I love is up in the gallery,

The boy I love is looking now at me,

There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief,

As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.



Sitting in the gallery at the Manchester Opera House I realised why he was waving his handkerchief.   It wasn’t for the love of Little Dot Hetherington, it was terror.


Dame Edna was of course wonderful.  It was nice to see jokes that had been snapped out in London being stretched as far as they possibly could be without falling flat, and vice versa: just like jazz.  At the end the ice cream sellers passed among us hiring out crampons – and access to a stout rope – at attractive rates and out we eventually emerged into the street grinning and repeating the good bits – explaining them to the slower among us – while Manchester night life got into gear around us.  (Manchester night life is just like night life in London but they wear fewer clothes for it there.)


The following day was Sunday.  We set out in a crocodile, but some people wanted to peel off for different things – such as a visit to the Manchester version of TK Maxx to buy a frock.  Four of us ended up, as I had hoped that we would, in the Cathedral, where they have two great paintings by my hero Carel Weight: The Transfiguration, and The Beatitudes, with Christ and the People above.


Weight made these extraordinary works in 1963, at the height (or one of the heights) of his powers, and he took the commission very seriously.  The Beatitudes are in the archway above the entrance to the Chapter House.  The fragments of the painting are fitted into the spaces between the stonework.  The board on which they were painted had to be cut exactly to fit.  Given Carel’s approximate way with a Stanley knife, as evidenced on other paintings that he reduced in size, he must have got someone to do it for him.  At the bottom are illustrations of the seven Beatitudes:  the peacemakers, those that mourn, those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, and so on.  Above, at the apex of the arch is Christ teaching the people, his arms unnaturally long so as to encompass them all, just as for those who mourn, below, the arms of God – in whom Carel didn’t particularly believe- come out of the walls to comfort.


You can walk into the chapter house.  They don’t invite you to, but the door isn’t locked.  Inside is Weight’s painting of the Transfiguration: that weird episode in the New Testament where Jesus takes three special disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of a mountain where they see him, unnaturally clad in white raiment, talking on equal terms with Moses and Elijah, who are of course dead and also shining white.  It is an episode much approved by those who believe that Jesus was a spaceman: he was taking orders from the mother ship.


Weight’s picture makes the mountain almost as vertiginous as the Gallery of the Manchester Opera House.  On top, like a top hat, are the three main honchos.  The three special disciples are behaving with as much dignity as Little Dot Hetherington’s inamorato and scuttling down a ramshackle wooden pathway.  At the bottom of the painting the others, and I guess everyone else, are getting on with good works, or bad, according to inclination.


They are two great paintings, great in the same way as you would find in a treatment by Breughel of the same subjects, if he had attempted them, but painted with a post-War sensibility.  I am of course biased, and you can if inclined to do so see for yourself.  What saddened me though is the way in which these, at the least, important works are treated by Manchester Cathedral.  This is an organisation whose other art treasures are as vilely sentimental as anything on the railings of Hyde Park. They could not treat their Weight paintings with more contempt if they tried.  The Transfiguration has come loose from its surroundings and would fall out if pushed.  There are postcards of the art treasures of vile sentimentality but none of the Weight paintings.  There are no signs to draw them to your attention.  They are not lit.  If you type ‘Carel Weight’ into the search function on the Cathedral’s website it tells you ‘No Result’.  It is significant that even on the internet there are merely blurred images to be found of the Beatitudes and nothing of the Transfiguration.  It is disrespectful and a disgrace: qualified by the joy of seeing the paintings, but a disgrace nonetheless.


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