Manchester is a city of a million eyes. Everywhere, eyes watch you, stare at you, scrutinise you, look you up and down, look past you and through you, but rarely focus or make eye contact. There are some eyes that will never look away, though, once you meet their gaze, and will never close. These eyes of the city are cast in stone, relegated from the level of human life. They watch from a vantage point high above the city, detached from the world of the eyes attached to the heads that rush about below.
For Manchester has a parallel population, unknown to many of its present residents; gargoyles. Exaggeratedly real, these faces, often human-animal hybrids, are the guardians of the city, growing out of the brickwork. The city is their playground, where they contort and perform acrobatic feats. They nestle on the outside of the town hall, clamber up and down drain pipes upside down at John Rylands library on Deansgate and leer down at the River Medlock from the back of the Palace Hotel (the former Refuge Assurance Company), forced to forever look down into the depths below, hidden from most people but passengers on trains going across the railway tracks behind (buses are also good for gargoyle spotting!).
Strictly speaking, a gargoyle spouts water out of its mouth, as the word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the Latin for throat (think gurgle!). Medieval gargoyles were designed to collect rainwater, and non-watery gargoyles are known as chimeras. Most of Manchester’s are merely for decoration and only a few expel water, such as those on the fountain outside the town hall, where winged fish cling to the edge, their mouths forced wide open to spew water for the pleasure of the passing public.
Most are inconspicuous, but dramas are played out by these larger-than-life personalities. Though a few faces are stylised, most are astonishingly human, every last line of recognisable human experience carved into their faces. The erosion and smoothing away of stone, or layers of peeling paint from past attempts to cover up gargoyles, serves only to reinforce the effect, adding to their solemnity and seriousness.
Though gargoyles are often grotesque, their faces twisted into grimaces and mouths extended in agony, some are comic figures, at whom it’s impossible not to laugh. Rows of taunting gargoyles on the side of Manchester Cathedral hold their mouths open with their fingers, pull faces and stick their tongues out at you.
Perhaps it’s for the best that most people rarely look up, though. Some gargoyles are benign, cherubs providing a consoling view, but many people would be disconcerted if they got off the bus at Piccadilly Gardens, looked up at Somerfield and realised they were being eyed up by rows of staring lions, wide eyed and hungry. Somerfield’s pack of lions is just a small part of Manchester’s leonine population. Jowly lions watch over grand buildings, ready to pounce into action from the doors of the Old Fire Station on London Road, or loyally and proudly guard banks, reassuring customers their money is safe inside.
The city is also overrun by guard dogs. Caricatures with giant, pricked ears, they’re watching, waiting and listening. On the buildings of the Northern Quarter, dogs look defiantly out of columns and pillars as if daring you to try any funny business. At John Rylands library, gargoyles nest in corners in the stairwells that lead up to the historic reading room, as if reminding readers, before the days of CCTV, they were watching the precious books within.
Manchester is also a city of thousands of mouths. Eating, talking, gossiping, advising, shouting, singing, the city is never silent. There are some mouths that will never speak again, though. If they could, the roar the of the city would be replaced with a different tune; the singing of anguished souls, the warning cries of gargoyles forced to live out their penance in public in an act of revenge. What stories they could tell if they could speak. Maybe the man who’s holding his head in his hands on a building above Piccadilly could tell us what he did that made him freeze in permanent regret (or whether he’s just suffering from a colossal hangover!).
Manchester Cathedral is teeming with the creatures, a reminder of those less fortunate, the victims of terrible fates, condemned for eternity. One poor tortured soul, clad in human clothes as if a warning to the ordinary man, who sees something of him within himself, has been painted a ghostly green over time by moss, and cobwebs grow from his mouth like strings of saliva over his bared teeth. Forcefully propelled from the building, his mouth is permanently flung open as if in a silent warning. We’re shown the retribution and punishment, but what crimes did these pour souls commit that they were forced to constantly relive their humiliation in public?A cathedral is exactly the type of place you would expect to find gargoyles - think of Notre Dame in Paris - and the Gothic buildings of Deansgate are home to clusters of chimeras, but they’re also dotted about the city. The most unlikely place is the gun shop that occupies a corner on Withy Grove. A winged gargoyle, painted black to contrast with the white walls of the building, is crouched on the corner of the building, about to take off in flight over the Printworks. The man inside the gun shop speculated that the gargoyle was a remainder from those added to the Cathedral in Victorian times, when the building was reclad, and told me there are many more leftover gargoyles on buildings across Manchester.
Whether they’re comical or grotesque, gargoyles, like all good public art, add a human side to the city. They’re also a history of place, a record of the city and its values captured in time.
Imagine if we had gargoyles nowadays; gargoyles seem to have disappeared from modern buildings, but they served a useful purpose. The old Smithfield Market building on Swan Street, from the mid nineteenth century, belies its function with the carved heads of sheep and goats. The Old Fire Station is covered in the likenesses of damsels in need of rescue, almost mermaid like, rendered in terracotta with their hair plastered dramatically across the brickwork of the windowsills. It’s even adorned with busty, topless women perching above doorways, surely as much of an inspiration to firemen as their male counterparts, bare chested young men with rippling muscles. Though they’re some of the most recent gargoyles in Manchester, from the early twentieth century, perhaps they wouldn’t look so good in glass and steel, the ubiquitous material of the modern city (although the 1930s Chrysler building in New York is adorned with gleaming, metallic gargoyles, replicas of hood ornaments).
Perhaps the best example of modern gargoyles and adaptation of the form is in Chicago, where the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa has imaginatively reinvented the concept with his Crown Fountain, which was opened in 2004. A stunningly beautiful city that’s full of public art, in the downtown Loop area Miro and Picasso offer their opposing, yet similarly abstract, visions of women’s faces in huge, sculptural form, adding something personal in amongst the towering minimalist built environment.
In the waterside Millennium Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Plensa’s Crown Fountain sets two giant faces opposite each other, human gargoyles in the best sense. Onto two huge towers are projected close-up videos of the faces of citizens of Chicago - truly gargoyles in which the public can see their reflections. In slow motion, they gradually purse their lips until spurting water, then finally smiling. In summer, children are taken down by their parents in their swimming costumes to frolic in the water, screaming and laughing. It’s public art at its best.
Consider if, instead of consisting of blank stone and smooth facades, the walls of our city were still exciting and had personal touches. A man frozen in blissful repose to guide the weary traveller through the last through steps towards shelter. A series of ‘before, during and after’ gargoyles detailing the various stages of alcohol consumption, from sober to merry to worse for wear, to warn drinkers entering a pub to know when to stop, could be far more effective - and entertaining - than heavy handed government poster campaigns. The caring yet expert face of a doctor reassuring a patient on the way into hospital. An enraptured face lost in the adventures held within the pages of books to inspire the reluctant scholar into a library. A friend above your front door, offering you company on your way home by yourself late at night, or just a few more friendly and welcoming faces around the city.
Update: On May 27th 2010, The Culture Show included a celebration of gargoyles by the critic Andrew Graham Smith, who describes them as 'folk art', goes to see some new garogyles at Westminster Abbey and watches them being made.