‘The Rialto’s on Fire’

July 23, 2021

Liverpool fragments from the Toxteth Riots to the Garden Festival, 1981 – 84

When I heard this startled exclamation from the news reporter on my bedside radio, I glanced out the window to see an ominous red glow in the night sky. That warm Sunday evening in July I had endured a miserable train journey across England to arrive at Liverpool shortly before midnight. Exiting Lime Street Station I noticed the absence of the interminable line of black cabs that usually snaked up Skelhorne Street, awaiting fares. A surfeit of taxis had been bought with severance pay by some of the 1500 sugar workers made redundant that April when the colossal Tate & Lyle refinery on Love Lane closed after more than a century. On the bus home to Toxteth a police van careered past at top speed, its windows protected by steel mesh shields like those in TV coverage of the troubles in Belfast. Away for the weekend, I had no idea a police arrest had sparked an increasingly destructive series of riots in Liverpool. These culminated in the burning of the Rialto Ballroom, an elegant art deco building with twin towers and a double loggia façade that in more prosperous times had played host to The Beatles.

Albert Dock in Liverpool, with a boat in at the foreground
Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool

On Monday morning there were no buses running, so I trudged into work down Princes Avenue, past John Gibson’s statue of the Tory MP William Huskisson, clad in a Roman toga – rather incongruously, considering he had been run down by a train at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. It was wet underfoot from the water the fire brigade had sprayed on the Rialto and other blazing buildings. All around lay the wrecks of milk floats set afire and directed at the police, who had responded – for the first time in England – with CS gas grenades. With over 70 burnt-out buildings, the scene resembled photos of the May 1941 Blitz that had devastated Liverpool Museum on William Brown Street, the neighbour of my own place of work, the Walker Art Gallery. Both were unscathed by the disturbances that continued sporadically until the end of the July, although a number of 19th-century oil paintings on loan to the Liverpool Racquet Club were lost to fire in its premises in Upper Parliament Street. A few days later I wrote in ink the final entries on their inventory cards: ‘destroyed in the Toxteth riots during the night of 5/6 July 1981’.

At the time I was working mostly on the Walker’s wonderful collection of early Italian and Northern paintings. This was begun by the attorney and self-taught polymath William Roscoe (1753 – 1831). As a radical Whig MP he played a prominent role in the abolition of slavery, which had long been a cornerstone of Liverpool’s prosperity. Considering Renaissance Florence an auspicious model for his commercial hometown, Roscoe wrote best-selling biographies of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Pope Leo X, the patron of the Raphael Cartoons. He also purchased earlier works by so-called ‘primitive’ masters such as Simone Martini to show ‘the rise and progress of the arts’. Another enthusiast for these then little-regarded pictures was the recluse Charles Blundell, from an old Lancashire Catholic family with estates just north of Liverpool. His collection included an impressive Madonna and Child with Angels, painted around 1520 by the leading Antwerp master Joos van Cleve, which the Walker purchased just weeks before the riots. I discovered it had originally been a triptych, with wing panels of St Catherine and St Mary Magdalene in a Belgian private collection, but had to wait 30 years before all three parts were finally reunited at a loan exhibition.

Landscape with the gathering of the Ashes of Phocion, Nicolas Poussin, 1648. Walker Art Gallery

The Toxteth riots unlocked enormous public expenditure on art projects, including the purchase of the most expensive painting ever bought for Merseyside, Nicolas Poussin’s heroic Landscape with the ashes of Phocion (1648). Praised by Lord Clark as ‘the most rigorous of all Poussin’s compositions’ this relates Plutarch’s moral tale of a stoical Athenian general condemned on trumped up charges and forced to commit suicide. Together with Poussin’s Landscape with the body of Phocion carried out of Athens, now in Cardiff, it was auctioned at London in 1774. By this time, the ancient warrior was lionized as a model of republican virtue, and both pictures were bought by Whig grandees opposed to the ruling Tories. The ashes of Phocion was acquired by Roscoe’s political ally, the 12th Earl of Derby who gave his name to the famous horserace and lived at Knowsley Hall outside Liverpool.

Even in dawn’s grey light it was hard to miss Michael Heseltine’s shock of blonde hair as the so-called ‘minister for Merseyside’ and his minions marched down the platform at Euston on a Monday morning in the winter of 1981 to catch the first fast train to Liverpool Lime Street. The Conservative peer is an honorary member of the Swansea Dockers Club and I sometimes wonder if his upbringing some five minutes’ walk from Dylan Thomas’s birthplace made him feel at home on the mean streets of Toxteth. Its many Victorian terraces, named after Welsh villages to cheer migrant workers, were sufficiently dilapidated (prior to their recent rehabilitation) to provide backdrops for the TV drama ‘Peaky Blinders’, set in the 1920s. Heseltine’s idea of harnessing art to address civic blight was not exactly new. A century before, the government provided land for the original Tate Gallery, paid for by the Liverpool sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, on the site of the obsolete Millbank prison, to help rehabilitate its marshy and decayed neighbourhood. This gave historical propriety to the opening in 1988 of Tate Liverpool in the fireproof warehouses of Albert Dock, which had once held raw sugar for the Tate & Lyle refinery.

Sitting Bull by Dhruva Mistry, 1984. Otterspool Promenade. Photographed by Alex Kidson in May 2021

Liverpool in the 1980s reminded my wife of the stricken city of Dresden she knew as a child. Renewal of the bomb-smashed urban centres of West Germany was accelerated by a biennial horticulture show. This provided the model for the Garden Festival held on 230 acres of former wasteland overlooking the Mersey during the summer of 1984. It proved a great success, with almost 3.5 million visitors. My own modest contribution was to assist with its outdoor sculpture. This included a work by the Gujarati Dhruva Mistry, then just starting a career, since rewarded by a CBE and election to the Royal Academy. I met him on a freezing winter’s day, perched atop a curvaceous but enigmatic steel framework 2.8 metres high. He left me a little the wiser by explaining it was the armature for a Nandi of cement fondue to be painted red. As I learned while writing a catalogue entry, such images of a resting bull are symbolic of Shiva, the Hindu god of creative power. During prayers, they are dusted with red powder, indicative of purity as well as sensuality. Dhruva’s monumental figure has become known locally as ‘Sitting Bull’, or according to The Liverpool Echo as ‘the big pink hippo cow thing’. Almost four decades after it was made, this auspicious image of creativity continues to stare benignly across the estuary where cargoes once approached the Albert Dock.

Having experienced Liverpool’s lows as well as the birth of the heritage business that mended its fortunes, it seems doubly ironic that this unleashed the recent building boom on its waterfront that has now led to the city’s loss of Unesco world heritage status.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


Well done Mark found
it very interesting and informative, thank you.

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