CoCo and Community

I was very lucky in my choice of my first home away from home.  When I left home for University in Manchester I chose an unusual hall of residence.  Known as the Congregation College then (or CoCo to the inhabitants) it was a 100-bedroom college, about 20 of which were taken up by congregationalist ministers in training, and the other 80 bedrooms were available for students at the university.  CoCo was different to other halls in two key ways: you were allowed to stay for more than one year – in fact, as long as you wanted; and there was no alcohol allowed on the premises.  I know that the latter may seem like an odd characteristic of a university hall but it did mean that drinking (which was indeed a part of university life) was a weekend exceptional activity off the premises rather than the default each evening.  The fact that people stayed there for some time meant that there was continuity from year to year and a sense of community which was rather lovely.  When people talk about strong community I can judge it against two personal benchmarks – a South Wales mining village, and CoCo.  It’s rare that professed “strong communities” can stand that comparison, and I’m lucky to have experienced two in my life, and at formative stages at that.  I suspect that my communitarian tendencies were deeply shaped by these experiences.

Tim Garner and Manchester

I have written elsewhere about discovering the artworks of Tim Garner, and their resonance with me.  To quote some passages from that blog

Tim’s work is fascinating…For me the dominant theme is of transition. His works are post industrial but they don’t just think about the past – they also look to a future. One picture in particular exemplified this for me – it is called Autumn Irewell.


In that blog I wrote

A little about Tim – Tim is my age – middle age (slight clenching of teeth there). Like me, Tim grew up in the country and came to Manchester later. We both moved away from Manchester and the occasional returns expose and underline the enormous changes that have happened in that city over the last three decades. Manchester is reinventing itself, just as, I am beginning to see, people do too.

For me, this is a mid-life picture. It is a picture that illustrates a complex past of many changes, and yet still a future, albeit uncertain.

I have enjoyed watching Tim’s work evolve since, and I was thinking about buying another piece, another view of Manchester and reflecting on places in Manchester that mean a lot to me.  I enquired if he had ever painted CoCo – he hadn’t, and that’s where the idea of commissioning him to do just that came from.

Commissioning CoCo

My visits to Manchester tend to revolve around Local Government Conferences, and it was during the Cipfa conference that I went along to the Artzu Gallery to discuss the commissioning and was delighted to find that I was able to talk to Tim himself.


We also looked at some of his more recent works, and he was moving away from the rather dry almost pastel-like finish to works such as Irewell to deeply blue, glossy and rich colours, with the raised surface paints more likely to be splashes of gold than deep dar autumnal reds.

We discussed the place and what it meant to me, and some of the transitional aspects which I will discuss later.  We also discussed the challenge of representing what is actually a very wide building, meaningfully.  I was very keen that we show the building from one side as a means to do this.  Tim has been painting larger canvasses recently and he was keen to give this one some space.  The latter made me slightly nervous as my available hanging space is rather modest.

Tim went away to look at the College and came up with some ideas – the view from the side didn’t work, and he came up with a clever way of doing a view from the front, representing the essence of the college rather than attempting to render it exactly.

Three months later, (at the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference) I was able to get along to the gallery to see the just finished work.  And I was delighted.

The Picture

ARTZU_Garner_ Lancashire Independent_89 x 169cm.jpgLancashire Independent, Tim Garner (2017), 89x169cm

The first thought on seeing this picture is that it’s big!  I asked that the height be the same as the height of Autumn Irewell as they will be hung near each other and so the width makes this a large piece – it is hard to comprehend in one look – which is exactly also true of the building itself – you have to let detail and structure emerge over examination.

The composition is very clever, if you look at a photo of the building you will appreciate the challenge.


Even the photo in this postcard has to truncate the end of the wings.

It is typical of Tim’s current style with bright rich colours, and the trees in particular are beautifully evoked.  I really enjoyed that despite being a big city the place I was living in had big grounds.  I would walk around those grounds on the evening before exams, and it was usually in those spring walks that the various elements of the mathematical subjects I was studying fell into place, the incredible beauty of maths and the beauty of nature at the same time.  I remember CoCo in the spring, in the bright sunshine of the picture.  I tended to spend the Manchester winters warmly inside!

I mentioned earlier that one of the things I enjoy about Tim’s works is the theme of transition and time, and that may be less obviously apparent in the picture, but as I discussed with Tim the building itself tells a story over time.  Founded as the Lancashire Independent College it deliberately copied the “Oxbridge” style in reaction to the fact that non-conformist minsters were quite literally not allowed in the Oxbridge Colleges.

As a Congregational College it lasted for 140 years, before closing down, somewhat tragically for me, at the end of my second year at university – I would have loved to spend my entire three years there.  The building became the training college for the GMB Union (I suspect a bar appeared at that point), but more recently the college occupies a special place and tells a very symbolic story about Manchester, and about our country – it is now the British Muslim Heritage Centre. and I am told by those who visit that it is once again a centre of community life – not housing an internal community but reaching out into the wider city, which is rather satisfactory.

As such, I think it stands with Tim’s other work in telling the story of Manchester, and a story of change and rebirth, and redefined community.





Original source – Jonathan Flowers

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