Detailed review by fizzytom
Gateshead, United Kingdom
Standing outside the John Rylands Library on Manchester's Deansgate on a blustery Saturday afternoon, I noticed how many people walked by without giving the magnificent red stone building a look. Perhaps some of them live in Manchester and have passed by a hundred times or more? I couldn't imagine passing by this amazing building and not finding something new everytime.
Today the library belongs to the University of Manchester and it has done since 1972; it was commissioned by Enriquetta Rylands as a memorial to her late husband and it opened to the public in 1900. Mrs Rylands acquired some collections especially for the library but the collection now includes some important items that were originally owned by the university library. Among the items in the library are medieval illuminated manuscripts and a Gutenberg bible.There are also letters and other documents relating to important Manchester figures such as the author Mrs.Gaskell, and th echemist, meteorologist and physicist John Dalton (discoverer of colour blindness among other things).
It is the building itself that interests me. Not only is it visually very striking, it is fascinating in so many respects - why it looks the way it does, how it was built - the materials used and the methods employed, and how it embodies the values of the time.
The library is open to the public and while it is possible to join a guided tour, you can, if you wish, just go in unaccompanied for a look around. A new extension houses a cafe and gift shop and a lift makes the uppers floors accessible to all. Since there is no admission charge and it is not necessary to be a member of the library to wander around, I would thoroughly recommend a look inside.
WHO WAS JOHN RYLANDS?
John Rylands was a very successful Manchester industrialist; the great cities of northern England were built on the successes of men like him. When Rylands died in 1888 he left a personal fortune of £2.75 million, a phenomenal sum in those days.
Rylands was originally from St. Helens. After he learned the craft of weaving he started to build his own looms and from there found a modest company manufacturing them; at the same time he worked in his father's drapery store in St. Helens. His brothers were also part of the firm but it was Rylands who demonstrated skill as a salesman and at his suggestion the family business moved into wholesale. In time the drapery business was merged with the loom business and before long Rylands & Sons was employing more than 15,000 people in 17 mills and factories. The company was the greatest of all the Manchester cotton companies.
His contribution to Manchester cannot be underestimated; he was not particularly interested in holding public office as many of his peers did, but he was an extremely generous benefactor. Among his charitable acts he established homes for orphans, a home for retired clergymen, a public baths, a library and even the impressive town hall in Stretford.
From the outside you probably wouldn't guess that this building houses a library and if they removed all the books you might not even realise from the style of interior. Built in the Victorian Gothic style it does look more like a grand church than a library but there were particular reasons for this choice of design.
The great Victorian entrepreneurs were sometimes educated men from wealthy backgrounds but many were self-made men who wished to demonstrate their worth against those of nobler birth. Many sought to 'improve' themselves and to show themselves a cultured and intellectual. Education was treated with reverence and an ecclesiastical style seems wholly appropriate for building that celebrates learning. Furthermore, the much of the original collection to be housed in the library was religious in content so the style reflected the contents of the library. The Victorians were big on having using architectural motifs to reflect the purpose of the building - if you want to see a prime example of this, look at Alfred Waterhouse's Natural History Museum in London, which has wonderful birds and foliage carved into the stone arches throughout the building.
Mrs. Rylands commissioned architect Basil Champneys to design the building. Champneys strongly believed that architecture is 'an art not a science' and instead of joining the Royal Institute of British Architects like his peers, he was a member of the Art Workers Guild. Mrs. Rylands had seen the library that Champneys had designed for Mansfield College at Oxford and asked him to design something similar. (Champneys designed a number of buildings for both Oxford and Cambridge colleges as well as the museum at Winchester College and the Butler Museum at Harrow School). It is said that Mrs. Rylands and Champney had a somewhat strained relationship which culminated in her over-ruling the architect and choosing some of the ornamental elements herself.
One very obvious way in which the building stands out in Manchester is in the choice of stone for the exterior; the facade is constructed from a deep brownish red stone from Penrith which is called Barbary. I always think that if I touch the stone the colour will stain my hand. The choice of stone was quite unusual for the time and I cannot think of any other building in the centre of Manchester that looks remotely similar in terms of material. Although it's a fairly soft stone it has more or less stood the test of time, including resisting the heavy pollution in the city at least in the first few decades of its existence.
The heavy pollution that made Manchester a very smoky and dirty place in the late ninenteenth and early twentieth centuries caused some concern among critics of the project who believed that the precious books would be ruined if they were kept in a building in such a busy area. A number of features were worked into the design to combat this such as placing the main reading room on the third floor of building above the road level.
Champneys also built a series of air vents into the walls of the ground floor which were lined with hessian to catch the soot and used water sprays to tackle the sulphur deposits.
This was one of the first buildings in the city to use electric lighting but electricity was also used to power a new ventilation system soon after the library opened. Initially the electricity was generated on site because Manchester was not, at the time, a large consumer of electricity.
THE READING ROOM
If you see only one part of the John Rylands Library make it the reading room. The vaulted arches and ceiling are magnificent and the stained glass window by CE Kempe reinforce the feeling of a religious building (the windows, however, depict a mixture of religious and secular figures). A series of statues of literary figures and great thinkers decorate the pillars betwee the arches and reinforce the theme of learning. Statues of John and Enriqueta Rylands stand at opposite ends of the room.
I've visited the library three times now and always discover something new. My delight at seeing the warm sandstone interior and the elegant arches is never diminished. I love taking people who've never been inside the library to hear that gasp of surprise at what lies behind the red exterior.
The contents of the library have never interested me as much as the building itself. The collection was formed around the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer which was acquired in 1982. There is a collection of fragments of papyrus from North Africa, including one called the 'St. John Fragment' which is believed to be the oldest new Testament document in existence.
There are books printed by Caxton as well as the Gutenberg bible which was acquired as part of the Althorp Library.
In addition there are many works of art around the building and the library stages frequent exhibitions based around some of the collections that make up the library. From February until July in 2012 there's an exhibition entitled 'St Bartholomew's Day 1662: The triumph of bigotry and the birth of toleration' which uses many of the library's collection of documents pertaining to John Wesley.
DON'T BE SHY, GO IN!
The staff and readers are used to people coming in to have a look around the library and very tolerant of in the intrusion; although there's lots of serious studying going on here the volume is modest rather than there being utter silence.
Audio guides can be rented from the library shop and there are occasional tours run by the library staff. Details of how to contact the library to arange this can be found here:
http://www.library.manche ster.ac.uk/deansgate/even ts/tours/
Some city tours also drop in at the library and the tourist information office at Piccadilly will be able to tell you which tours include the library.
It's such a shame that more people don't know what a gem this place is. It's design and the details inside it tell us so much about the history of the city and the Victorian age in general. The reading room is a masterpiece and even a flying visit of fifteen minutes will transport you to a world far away from the hustle and bustle of todays city centre. I can't recommend a visit enough.
The library is open from 10.00 am until 5.00pm Tuesday to Saturday and from 12 noon until 5.00pm on Sundays and Mondays. Admisison is free.
Almost all of the building is wheelchair accessible, however the old entrance hall can only be accessed from a small flight of steps although it can be viewed from a landing outside the gallery.
Note: the is the John Rylands Special Collection, not to be confused with the university library on Oxford Road.
The John Rylands University Library - Special Collections