The £18 million rebirth of The Atkinson is set to become a major attraction for Southport

PUBLISHED: 00:07 08 May 2013

Atkinson Gallery and Library

Atkinson Gallery and Library

Archant

The £18 million rebirth of The Atkinson is set to become a major attraction for people from far and wide. Roger Borrell takes a look inside. PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTY THOMPSON

The finely inscribed masonry on the front of The Atkinson proudly proclaims it to have been ‘The Victoria School of Science and Arts.’ It conjures images of pioneering men with long beards and stove-pipe hats building suspension bridges and inventing steam-driven things.

The reality seems rather different. ‘We can’t actually find any records of much happening in the school,’ laughs John Taylor, head of Sefton arts and cultural services. ‘Behind the impressive façade there seems to have been little more than a collection of sheds with no record of any great student activity.’

Fast forward to today and you would never accuse The Atkinson of being all facade and no substance. The stonework is as pristine as the day it opened but what lies behind will become one of Southport’s major attractions for decades to come.

The project to transform The Atkinson has cost around £18 million and it appears to be a bargain. What else could you buy for that? A civil service computer system that doesn’t work, perhaps, or a teenager’s mobile phone app that hasn’t made a bean.

For 140 years, this has been an outstanding collection of buildings in that most iconic of boulevards, Lord Street. However, until recently it had become rundown, dog-eared and badly in need of repairs. A new roof was just for starters.

Many councils facing testing economic times might have been tempted, at best, to make do and mend. Happily, they took a much bolder course and, after securing some supporting grants, launched a two-and-a-half year programme to transform and extend The Atkinson into a centre for culture, arts, crafts and entertainment with some food and retailing mixed in for good measure.

If anyone was looking for a way to bring more people into this classic coastal town, this was a good place to start.

A lot has been spent on restoring some of the fine architectural features. There are beautifully preserved fireplaces, colourful mosaics repaired to recreate some of the floors and experts have been brought in to rebuild intricate plasterwork.

But the architects have also brought modern design to several areas and a liberal use of white paint gives this monument to Victoriana a much brighter, more uplifting air. The entrance foyer with stylish settees and low tables has a sweeping staircase lined by gilded statuettes of ladies bearing lamps. Try to spot the fibreglass fake – one went missing a long time ago and is now thought to be Southport’s poshest garden ornament.

This is also home to the tourist information and ticket office with a nine-screen video wall and a library with a striking ceiling and great facilities for children . There is also an innovative express book service where you can collect novels even when the library is shut.

One of the former entrances has now been turned into a two-storey atrium with exposed brickwork, original stained-glass panels and a lift. At its centre will be a dug-out canoe, found at Martin Mere and believed to be around 1,000 years old. It will be spectacularly suspended from the ceiling on view from below and from above on the next floor landing.

Completing the ground floor will be an artisan bakery, providing proper bread.

The upstairs floors include newly extended space as well as a 430-seat theatre and a smaller high-tech studio which can be used for anything from giant-screen computer games to concerts. There will be temporary exhibitions of work by local people, items on the history of the area and arts and crafts, some of which will be for sale. There is also a bar, where the bust of Dan Dare, the comic book character created by Southport illustrator Frank Hampson, will have pride of place. This area can use used for anything from wedding receptions to corporate events.

And, of course, the top floor will contain the jewel in the crown – the famous Atkinson art collection including work by John Collier, Jacob Epstein, Dame Elisabeth Frink, L.S. Lowry, Paul Nash and Walter Sickert. According to John Taylor, the icing on the cake is the fact that the gallery has the highest indemnity rating which means it is on the circuit for major touring exhibitions.

‘When we started to look at the classic resort strategy we sat down and thought about who would come to Southport and why,’ said John. ‘Since then significant things have happened. We have attracted some top hotels and our restaurant offering is getting better all the time. The Atkinson is another important part of that picture.’

The building is opening in phases. The ground floor is up and running, the theatres will be in operation shortly and the gallery is likely to be ready by September.

So is a grand opening planned? Not yet but it is worth noting that back in the 1870s, when the original gallery was officially opened, the ribbon was cut by the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. If history were to repeat itself that would be a neat chapter in The Atkinson story, wouldn’t it?

Strong ties

The Atkinson gets its name from William Atkinson, a cotton merchant who made by fortune in Manchester. He was responsible for the Tootal shirt and tie company. His wife’s ill-health resulted in them moving to Southport for the sea air and they became patrons of the arts. They also championed the cause of street children and poverty-stricken fishermen. When The Atkinson was built it cost £6,000 - a great asset for Southport

Jolly good shows

There are big names already lined up to perform at The Atkinson including US Comedian Rich Hall, BBC cricket legends Henry Blofeld and Peter Baxter, the Reduced Shakespeare Company,

The Fawlty Towers dining experience (complete with meal) and folk rockers Fairport Convention.

For more information and to purchase tickets see www.seftonarts.co.uk

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