When the UK began to wake up in summer 2020, weary denizens gained a new lease of life; eagerly debating what they’d do, where they’d go, and who’d they’d see first when ‘this was all over’.
‘What have you missed most?’ seemed to be the question we were all most keen to ask and answer.
But then, just as we started to get all our favourite things back, they were taken away again. And this time, it was much, much tougher.
The onset of Lockdown Three was the bleakest possible way to begin 2021 – ushering the public back indoors for a long, gloomy winter.
During January and February, Manchester still looked like the city we knew and loved, but it felt like another world. It was the strangest thing. We were all at home, yet painfully homesick.
Permitted activities were mostly limited to freezing-cold strolls in the rain, and the notion of ‘what we’ve missed most’ wasn’t just a throwaway remark anymore. It had taken on a deeper, almost existential meaning.
Local photographer Len Grant found himself mulling this very question during Lockdown Three and was unable to find a single answer. He missed it all.
He looked back over the images he’d captured from the seat of a saddle during his teeth-chattering bike rides, and every picture made him realise just how much he was aching for his city to return to life.
Like the rest of us, Len had nowhere to go and nothing to do during one of the most miserable winters on record – so he retreated to his loft and started sketching artworks of his beloved city to pass the time.
This week, those images came to life.
Len’s 12 artworks have been proudly hung aloft as part of a spectacular outdoor artwork series celebrating the return of Manchester called I’ve Missed You, Too.
Appearing at Escape to Freight Island by Piccadilly and on Redhill Street in Ancoats, the images will also soon appear as ground floor window vinyls at the upcoming QBic Hotel (which will open on the corner of John Dalton Street and Deansgate in May).
Accompanying the series is a glorious 24-page exhibition catalogue.
“They were short days, dark evenings, awful weather,” Len says, remembering the early part of Lockdown Three.
“I found being stuck inside really difficult. So, I began reworking some of my old sketches – and bought a big drawing board to create them at A2 size.
“Starting the series kept me on an even keel and supported my mental health. But what I realised I was doing was creating sketches of these places I was missing so much. Not just the physical places, but the activities we do there – going to the pubs, museums, art galleries, cafes.
“We’ve missed the impact and benefit all these places have had on us. We took them for granted, really. When they were taken away we not only missed them, we realised how these things help us interact as people.”
A homage to Mancunia, the artworks have been created using a range of different techniques including analogue and digital – hand-drawn at A2, painted in watercolour, and then dotted with colours and textures in Photoshop.
Each of the images feature familiar streets and faces – carrying a warm, dreamlike quality and even a few recurring characters.
“Some of the people in these artworks are based on individuals who have been in the environments I’ve photographed before,” Len explains.
“One example is the woman walking past with a tote bag which says ‘2 metres’ – which is kind of appropriate to the era. Some of [the characters] come from my imagination. I draw figures in a notebook and sometimes, if I like those, they appear.
“I realised some people were appearing again and again. I quite liked that idea that you see somebody in one place and you might see them again somewhere else.
“For example, there’s a guy walking his dog in Cutting Room Square, and in the sketch of New Islington the dog appears again. There’s also a little boy chasing a pigeon in two different parts of Manchester.
“Hopefully as people look at them they’ll be able to see the little humorous things.”
Introducing the artwork is a short love letter to the city containing some of Len’s favourite pastimes – from tucking into Rice & Three at This & That Cafe to cutting through Royal Exchange Theatre to duck away from Manchester drizzle.
It’s been a gruelling few months, but Len’s beloved city is back in action. And he wonders whether it’ll be different this time round.
“I’m intrigued to know how the cities will change,” Len muses.
“There’s already talk about big companies not using much office space or inviting people to work from home more often. I wonder whether that’s sustainable… and if over a period of time people will want to start working with others.
“I think we’ll get back to where we were. We’re all kind of Zoom-ed out, now. When I get a face-to-face meeting these days, I’m so excited. It’s novel at the moment.
“I think any nervousness of going back will be short-lived.”
Len has left his mark on the city with many major photography projects over the years – including the magnificent ‘Regeneration Manchester’ – which shows Manchester transforming over three decades.
But according to Len, there’s nothing quite like having your work exhibited outdoors.
“I absolutely love getting my work outside, people just stumble across it,” he says.
“You just get so many more people seeing it who wouldn’t ordinarily do so. I love that idea.
“I’m super excited by it, to be quite honest.”
As beaming families wander down Redhill Street and point at the artworks sizzling in the sunshine, it’s evident that Len isn’t the only one feeling this way.
Manchester is coming back.
You can catch the new series ‘I’ve Missed You, Too’ at Escape To Freight Island at Mayfield Depot.
The artwork is also proudly displayed on the fence of Urban Splash development Waulk Mill on Redhill Street in Ancoats.
All 12 images will be showcased at the QBic Hotel from May.
You can purchase the exhibition catalogue online here.