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Should the Harris Museum and Art Gallery have ever had steps?

Posted on - 5th September, 2013 - 10:00am | Author - | Posted in - History, Locations, Opinion, Preston City Centre
The Harris Flights Debate

Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery with the temporary addition of the ‘Harris Flights’

The editor of BlogPreston, Ed Walker, recently asked me “Should the Harris have had steps?” This is a perfectly reasonable question in light of the Harris Flights which is a temporary structure of steps leading to the portico of the Harris from the Market Place.

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In pondering this issue, I thought that my good friend Stephen Sartin, one time keeper of fine art at the Harris and well known for his intimate knowledge of Preston, may be able to shed some light on the matter. It turned out that my expectations were exceeded by his reply to the almost enigmatic question.

The following passage is Stephen’s view of what the Harris architect, James Hibbert, had in mind during the design stages of what we now all know as the Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

The simple answer is “No”; the more complicated answer is that in the first stages of looking at his brief, any architect will cast his mind over several possibilities, for instance, Hibbert, in thinking of his Museum commission, would certainly have visited Charles Barry’s Manchester City Art Gallery, which is a two-storey building with an Ionic portico accessed by a few steps from the road.  So he might conceivably momentarily have thought of a Harris building approached through a central portico approached up half-a-dozen steps leading to a ground floor.

Charles Barry’s Manchester City Art Gallery by David Dixon

Charles Barry’s Manchester City Art Gallery by David Dixon

But Hibbert never can have intended the steps of the present portico of the Harris building to extend down to the Market Place.  In the first place, the Scheme for the erection of The Harris Free Public Library and Museum, dated July 21, 1882, specifically states that “the Corporation, have undertaken to appropriate the piece of land and hereditaments situate in the Borough of Preston aforesaid, on the east side of the Market-Place and the west side of Lancaster-road, and bounded upon the north and south sides thereof by two intended new streets, measuring on the north side 190 feet, on the south side 190 feet, on the west side 130 feet, and on the east side 130 feet, and containing in the whole 2,745 superficial square yards, and more particularly delineated and described in the plan hereto annexed and thereon edged red.”

The instructions are unequivocal: there is no way that Hibbert could have interpreted this as meaning that he could idly extend the steps into the Market Square.  In any case a new street (Birley Street) was envisaged which would run from the covered Market, past the facade of the new Harris building, and on to Church Street.  It is interesting in this context that Hibbert caused a furore in the Town Council because he had placed a couple of steps in front of the doorways in the middle of the side facades in Harris Street and Jacson Street.  Members of the Council said that no permission had been given for them to project on to the pavement, and that people might walk into them at night!

But there were other factors which determined the design of the facade of the Harris building.  Hibbert, who was not backward in coming forward with his opinions, thought that Greek architecture of the Classical Epoch should be the only appropriate style for an institution devoted to the arts, sciences, and learning.  There was also the question of how the Harris building, confined to its island site, could compete with Sir George Gilbert Scott’s huge Gothic town hall with a bell tower rising to 172 feet above ground.  And it is here that the origin of Hibbert’s design lies.  In order to compete with the town hall, Hibbert conceived an ingenious plan to raise the Harris portico to give the appearance of a classical temple on a huge plinth, the wall fronting Market Square.  In doing so he achieved a harmonious balance between the two buildings.

                                                                                                          Stephen Sartin.
 

 So there you have it! My view is that from the geographical constraints set by the Corporation, it does appear that Hibbert would have been, to some extent, restricted in his design of the Harris and that alone would determine the lack of steps down to the Market Place. However, with the absence of the George Gilbert Scott Town Hall and that Birley Street no longer exists in front of the Harris, there may well be a different approach if the Harris was to be designed today.

The Harris Flights afford the people of Preston a view of how it would have appeared, and in many ways we are the richer for its temporary existence as we may never see this unusual and interesting sight again.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to Stephen Sartin for his invaluable input to this article and without whom, we would not have been able to put such a compelling argument forward in stating the case for the absence of steps on the Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

What are your views on the Harris Flights and do you think that the Harris should have had steps?

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