James Purdy was a prolific local artist who documented the changing landscape of Oldham throughout his life. Many of his sketches are now in Gallery Oldham's collection and of the 23 finished works featured on the Your Paintings site all but one of them is in his home town gallery.
This picture is by far his most ambitious work in terms of scale and subject. Purdy has made a conscious attempt to record an important moment in Oldham’s history. When first displayed at Oldham Art Gallery’s Spring Show in 1924 it was immediately purchased by a local benefactor and presented for the Gallery’s permanent collections.
The unveiling captured in this painting took place before a crowd of more than 10,000 people. The 10th and 24th Battalions of the Manchester Regiment (Oldham’s Territorials and Pals battalions) were in attendance to hear a speech by General Sir Ian Hamilton who had commanded many of the men at Gallipoli. The dedication was made by the Bishop of Manchester.
The solemn ceremony had been preceded by several years of argument about whether this town centre site close to a pub was actually a suitable place for such a memorial. The sculptor had favoured a different site in Alexandra Park to allow viewing of the work from a range of angles but ultimately he was over-ruled. The painting shows that the memorial was not completely finished – the bare walls behind the statue were ultimately to hold bronze plaques listing the names of 2,688 Oldhamers killed in the First World War.
Today this dramatic structure is one of the finest pieces of public art in Oldham. It was designed by Albert Toft who produced studies of soldiers for several other war memorials, including one in the neighbouring town of Chadderton, which had been unveiled two years earlier. For the Oldham memorial his dynamic composition of figures in action was one of Toft's most ambitious works. The main standing figure has emerged from a trench and is calling on the others to advance. You can see an excellent portrait of Albert Toft below.
Sean Baggaley, Social History Curator, Gallery Oldham