Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire

Book Reviews

Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2018), 167, (1), 177–194.


Book Reviews Book Reviews David Brazendale (with additional material by John Tiernan), Brierley’s Liverpool: ‘The Changing Face of a City’ (The Athenaeum, 2017). 183+v pp. ISBN 9781527218208, £35 paperback. This very attractive book is a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the evolution of Liverpool’s eighteenth-century townscape and, regrettably in most cases, of its disappearance. It reproduces, in a generous A4 landscape format, 102 black and white pen-and-wash drawings of Liverpool buildings and streets which were undertaken by James Brierley during the 1820s. In 1830 the collection was purchased by the Athenaeum, in a remarkable act of enlightenment, and although the drawings have been available to researchers who knew about them, most have never been on public view and are unknown to the wider world. Almost nothing is known of Brierley’s origins – earlier suggestions that he was born in Liverpool in 1791 are quite clearly wrong – and how old he was, where he came from and his social background are all a mystery. He apparently worked as a bookkeeper, in which role he appears in Gore’s Directories from 1804 onwards. It is argued convincingly that he had no formal artistic training, and indeed had some trouble in depicting sloping ground, windows and perspective, while his plumes of smoke tend to look like a child’s work, but it is also manifest that he often displayed very considerable skill and delicacy of touch, and had excellent powers of observation. What makes his work so fascinating and so important is that (perhaps because of this non-professional approach) he did not seek to portray romantic, dramatic or atmospheric scenes, but rather to record with a draughtsman’s eye the prosaic, the humble and the unremarkable. He was not trying to make a living from his art, and therefore he did not have to satisfy the aesthetic tastes of patrons who would have had no interest in most of what he depicted. Although there is a number of drawings of churches, there are also many scenes which depict groups of simple cottages, run-down buildings, smoking chimneys, back streets and (for example) the West Derby workhouse, various public houses and inns, mundane warehouses and small shops. Unlike William Herdman, he seems not to have exhibited his work, and had no apparent contact with the moneyed and influential artistic circles of the day. He rarely depicted people or vehicles, and so the scenes are spare, minimalist and without emotion. That is their strength – to me they seem hauntingly empty and the townscape is thrown into sharp relief, as though the citizens had suddenly been carried off leaving a deserted community. The monochrome tints of pen-and-wash accentuate this sense of emptiness. Book Reviews, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 167 (2018), 177–194

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