Exhibition to showcase Manchester Ship Canal’s fascinating advertising archive

A pictorial map of the Manchester Ship Canal drawn by commercial artist Richard Lloyd Jones. The map was produced as publicity for the Civic Week festival held in Manchester in October 1926.

A new exhibition at Manchester Central Library is set to showcase visually striking adverts created by commercial artists in the twentieth century to promote Manchester Ship Canal and the Port of Manchester around the world.

Curated by The University of Manchester’s Dr Martin Dodge who worked with archivists from Manchester Central Library, Marketing the Manchester Ship Canal 1919 - 1939 includes original artwork that has not been seen by the public for nearly a century.

The 36-mile Manchester Ship Canal was opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, linking the landlocked city to the open ocean for the first time. The transformational impact of the canal - which was the largest of its kind in the world when it was opened - led to the Port of Manchester becoming the third busiest port in Britain. By 1958, almost twenty million tons of freight was being carried by ocean-going vessels along the route.

Dr Dodge has always been fascinated by the history of the canal, but as most existing research on it focused on the period of its planning and construction, he wanted to investigate how it operated through the twentieth century and to examine its impact on the region.

In collaboration with Manchester Central Library, he therefore began examining the extensive Ship Canal Company archives in the building’s basement, and a chance conversation with library archivist Jane Hodkinson uncovered original artwork that had not been seen by the public for around a century.

"The range and quality of original marketing that we unearthed seem to warrant sharing with a wider audience," Dr Dodge said. "Much of the artwork is striking and largely unknown, not having been reproduced since the 1920s. The time period also saw a revolution in publicity with modern ideas on typefaces, much more dynamic imagery and bolder use of colour."

Now the public will get the chance to see the fascinating advertisements for themselves through the exhibition that highlights the work of nine commercial artists engaged by the Ship Canal Company - some of whom were born locally and trained at Manchester School of Art.

The exhibition also includes a section on the Ship Canal Company’s publicity chief Kenneth Brady, who had been a business journalist for the Manchester Guardian prior to his appointment in 1926 and brought new ideas in design and messaging to the company.

All of the featured artists are fascinating characters in themselves, with Dr Dodge having researched their backgrounds for the exhibition, as well as how they worked in Manchester and contributed designs for the Ship Canal Company.

Highlights of the exhibition include a striking ’ship prow’ painting created by Paxton Chadwick, the futurist designs and humorous sketches of Bert Wilson, and the quirky illustrations of John Dronsfield.

"The Ship Canal was a truly a transformative project, the scale and ambition of which is hard to match in Britain today," said Dr Dodge.

The idea of a landlocked city becoming a seaport was so bold, but it was done. It was a Manchester infrastructure project - not led by Whitehall - which changed the region forever and still has ramifications in the present day. Its significance - physically, economically and culturally - is somewhat overlooked today.

"I hope that people will be attracted to the exhibition by the striking advertising designs, but beyond that also by the biographical details on the ten people we examine and the work they created for the Ship Canal Company and others," added Dr Dodge.

A special event is being held on Saturday 9 September at 12pm to launch the exhibition, featuring contributions from speakers including Dr Dodge who will talk about the exhibition, and about the lives of commercial artist Bert Wilson, and Ken Brady, Manchester Ship Canal publicity chief from 1926; and Mike Ashworth, retired design and heritage manager London Underground, who will talk about commercial advertising in the ’Twenties.

Councillor John Hacking, Executive Member for Skills, Employment and Leisure at Manchester City Council, said: "The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the world of commercial advertising in the last century, whilst at the same time showcasing the significant impact the Manchester Ship Canal had on Manchester’s fortunes and its importance to the city."

The exhibition has been supported by Archives+ at Manchester Central Library, The University of Manchester and the Manchester Geographical Society and will be on display until 15 January 2024.

Book a place at the free launch event on 9 September here. More information about the exhibition can be found here.