Skip to content | Accessibility Information

Magnus Quaife

13 November 2017

Painter revives old beer with striking new bottle labels

Lecturer Dr Magnus Quaife recreated Old Tom ale for art commission

A painter and Manchester School of Art lecturer has helped revive a historical local ale for which he created limited edition bottle labels with inspiration from the public.

Dr Magnus Quaife researched and recreated a new variant of Old Tom, a popular beer once brewed by Ashton-under-Lyne's former Gartside Brewery, a one-time large local employer in the Tameside borough of Greater Manchester.

The project was a commission for Tameside borough's local museum, the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-under-Lyne, where he held public participation art workshops to help feed into the design of the labelling for the bottled brew. 

Beer bottle as inspiration

Magnus said the inspiration for the project came from an intriguing Old Tom beer bottle he had spotted on display in a cabinet behind the bar in the museum's replica pub.

He said: "Discovering how important the brewery was to the local area - it was huge and just down the road from the museum in Pottinger Street - and the fact there wasn't lots in the museum about the brewery other than a few old bottles, I thought it would be interesting to uncover a bit more about that if possible but I wondered if I could find out what the story was with the Old Tom.

"The idea was to try to find the Gartside's recipe and to try to recreate that and bottle it and produced it as a limited edition work of art.

"One of the great things that came out of the workshops to help design a label was that quite a few of the grandparents and a couple of the older teachers who came remembered Gartside's Brewery and the beer very fondly as a great quality ale.

"It was important on a lot of different levels."

Magnus Quaife behind the Portland Basin Museum replica bar that inspired him

No luck with original recipe

Magnus looked but failed to find the original recipe in the local archives and the national brewery archives and ended up turning to some academic beer experts who came up with a decent approximation of what the Old Tom recipe could have been.

He said: "I discovered a story - I don't know true it is - that in 1968 when Bass took the company over, Gartside's head brewer was so frustrated with the new management that he walked out with the recipe book, which would make a lot of sense because very soon after taking over, Bass turned Gartside's brewery - one of the most technologically advanced, large scale breweries in the country - into just a bottling plant for Bass beer."

Dr Magnus Quaife busy at Portland Basin Museum

Brewing Old Thomas Bell

Millstone Brewery in Mossley near Oldham brewed the renewed beer, named Old Thomas Bell after Gartside Brewery’s head horse keeper, for sale on cask.

In addition, a few hundred limited run bottles given away at the beer's launch night held at the museum last month.

Magnus said: "The idea with the bottles is: do you open the bottle and drink the art and you're left with nothing or do you keep it intact and you've got a work of art but never get to taste the beer?

"There's 300 limited edition bottles and so there's 300 dilemmas for people.

"The label features Thomas Bell, who was the drayman at Gartside's and the design is based on an advert for the Gartside's Brewery that had Thomas Bell on it. 

"It's been changed slightly as we wanted something that would stand out on a shelf.

"It's electric purples and yellows and each limited edition bottle has been hand painted as well - that's a little bit of indulgence by me as a painter."

Magnus' newly designed striking label

A rich and full bodied ale

Magnus said: "And, yes, we have opened a few for scientific purposes.

"It's a golden brown colour, rich, and very full bodied and not like a lot of fashionable ales because it's neither pale nor particularly hoppy and it's got an awful lot of malt and it's brewed with sugar as it's sweet.

"It's a great winter warmer."

Magnus' Old Tom revival project is part of Meeting Point2, a year-long project led by contemporary art agency Arts&Heritage and funded by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund.

Leading UK and international artists have partnered with 10 museums in Yorkshire, the North West and the North East to produce new artworks inspired by the museums and their collections.

Four of the 10 commissions were won by artists on the teaching staff at Manchester Metropolitan University.