The Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library at the very heart of our city is looking to the future with a bright, new vision for our much admired building.
There are various proposals on the drawing board to ‘Open up the Harris’ - including a street level entrance from the Market Square. Besides the numerous treasures within, the building itself is quite wonderful to behold and worthy of future renovation work.
In 1971 it had its façades cleaned to take away the grime of the decades before smokeless zones were introduced. It included a regilding of the letters carved high upon the building.
The thought-provoking messages of the gilded letters are quite clear - on the Harris Street side is writ ‘The mental riches you may here acquire abide with you always’ - on the Lancaster Road side the words ‘ Reverence In Man that which is supreme’ - and on the Jacson Street side the words ‘On Earth there is nothing great but Man: In Man there is nothing great but mind’ - returning to the Market Place it simply reads ‘To Literature Arts and Science’.
The Market Square view with the pediment above the gilded letters has always had my admiration. As for the group of sculptured figures I have just been content to acknowledge there is something Greek about them. However, while delving in the Post archives recently I came across an article from 1933 – some 40 years after the Harris opened – and their significance became clear to me.
This is what the correspondent ‘North- Westerner’ had to say, “The pediment - that was completed in 1888 - with its great group of statuary, of heroic size, is acknowledged to be the crowning ornament of the building. The statuary under the tympanum of the pediment is designed to illustrate a discussion concerning the erection of the Parthenon at Athens, between the great statesman Pericles and his illustrious contemporaries.
“On one side of Pericles, the philosopher Anaxagoras holds a scroll showing the word ‘Nous’ ( Intelligence). Next to him, Ietinus, the chief architect of the Parthenon, displays the plan of a temple. Leaning forward on the opposite side of the dais and supporting a shield is Pheidias, the greatest of all the Greek sculptors.
“Grouped near the central dais three philosophers, Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates, are shown in close discussion and in the angle of the pediment Thucydides reclines in meditation over the manuscript of his history of Greece. Famous Hellenic poets and dramatists are grouped on the other side. Pindar with a lyrical ode to a victor in the Hellenic games, Aeschylus brooding over the fate of Athens, Sophocles and Euripides discussing the art of the ancient world, Herodotus resting, staff in hand, with his finished historic works. A youthful Victor in the games appears in the group, balanced on the opposite side by prancing chariot horses, symbolising the Greek love of sport and athletics.”
The sculptor of this striking conception known as ‘The Age Of Pericles’ was Edwin Roscoe Mullins (1848-1907). Born in London he was the son of a solicitor.
He studied initially at the Lambeth School of Art and spent time at the Royal Academy and in Munich perfecting his skills. Among his numerous distinctive works are a statue of the poet William Barnes in Dorchester and a statue of Queen Victoria in Port Elizabeth, South Africa unveiled in 1903.
It seems, thanks to the great imagination and creativity of Alderman James Hibbert (pictured), architect of the Harris, and those he consulted, that once in the Market Place we can raise our eyes to see such exalted figures. In my ignorance I never realised Socrates was looking down as I walked across the Market Place.
As Socrates was quoted as saying ‘Wisdom Begins In Wonder’ and ‘True Knowledge Exists In Knowing That You Know Nothing’.
Somehow the pediment seems apt for a place were there are treasures of the past, scientific wonders galore, literature aplenty, works of art, history and modern technology all available to you once you step inside.