“If you want to discover the value of the Passmore Edwards Gallery look around you; if you want a monument here it is on the walls”
The Right Hon Leonard Courtney, MP, 22 October 1895
On the day that Passmore Edwards opened the Redruth Library, in 1895, he was approached by a deputation of artists from the Newlyn Art Colony, including Stanhope Forbes, and asked for assistance to provide an Art Gallery in Newlyn. Married to the daughter of an artist, Passmore Edwards had, the previous year, funded the construction of the South London Art Gallery and after making the usual enquires about the upkeep of such a gallery agreed to the proposal. The site, on the sea front at Tolcarne in Newlyn, was given by Charles D N LeGrice with James Hicks chosen as the architect and Passmore Edwards’ schooldays friend John Symonds the builder.
It was through the building of the Gallery that Passmore Edwards, in April 1895, found himself, together with John Symonds, summoned to appear before the West Penwith Magistrates for a breach of the bylaws. Due to a misunderstanding as to the local authority area in which the site fell, had delivered the plans and specification to the Paul Urban Council rather than the Madron Urban District Council. By the time the mistake had been discovered construction of the foundations had been commenced, at that time an offence. Mr J B Cornish appearing for Passmore Edwards reminded the Bench of his client’s generosity to others and told them of his regret over this innocent breach of the bylaws. As soon as he had heard of the problem he had discontinued building operations. Mr Cornish hoped that Mr Edwards might reconsider his decision, because it would be very unfortunate if this mistake was to deprive Newlyn of such a building. Despite this set back the building was completed within six months and, on 22 October 1895, the Right Honorable Leonard Courtney, MP opened the Gallery in the presence of Lord and lady St Levan, Mr T B Bolitho, MP, and Stanhope Forbes, ARA, and dedicated the building to John Opie, the Cornish Artist.
The artists had formed themselves into The Newlyn Society of Artists and were closely involved in the design of “their” Gallery. James Hicks’ original design was modified in several ways as is apparent by comparing the original drawing published in J J MacDonald with a photograph. Internally the reading room vanished from the final plan, a move that did not find favour with many locals.
When Passmore Edwards laid the foundation stone he had used a trowel “not of the ordinary silver type but one “of artistic design in beaten metal- a mixture of tin and copper – an example of repoussé work produced in the Colony” and was later shown the art classes at work. Hicks’ design included for the façade to be decorated by carved frieze work but the artists clearly wanted work relevant to Newlyn and the Art Colony. The result is the four decorative copper plaques representing “Earth”, “Wind”, “Fire” and Water”. Designed by two of the Newlyn Colony of Artists: J D Mackenzie, and T C Gotch, the panels were beaten by Philip Hodder. Hodder had been taught the art of repoussé copper beating at the Industrial Class, in Newlyn, by John Pearson. The completed building showed clearly the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Whilst the Free Libraries could rely upon the “penny rate” to support them there was no such support for the Newlyn Art Gallery and the history of the Gallery is one of continued financial insecurity. A full account of the Gallery and its artists can be found in “100 Years in Newlyn, A Diary of a Gallery” Edited by Melissa Hardie and published in 1995 to mark the first Centenary of the Gallery
The Opening Exhibition at the Gallery took place in November 1895 when over 140 paintings were exhibited. Records suggest that 27 of these were sold and commission to the Gallery amounted to a little over £32.
Until the 1950s the Gallery was managed by a Committee appointed by both the Newlyn Society of Artists (NSA) and the Trustees of the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery. The LeGrice family has remained Trustees throughout. Whilst the money to run the Gallery was generated by the artists, and supported by the members subscriptions, the responsibility for the maintenance of the building fell to the Trustees. Except for repairs, the addition of electric light, indoor plumbing, heating and periodic redecoration, no major structural changes were made until the early 1950s.
The importance of the role of Stanhope Forbes in not only the founding but the continued existence of the Gallery was recognised by the sculptured panel, by the Reverend Allan Wyon, affixed to the front of the building and unveiled in 1948 by Sir Alfred Munning, RA.
In 1921 the Committee was extended, at the suggestion of Charles LeGrice to include lay members in a move to provide wider support. After WW2 the Committee was again expanded to 12 members and the Trustees handed over the responsibility for maintenance of the building to the artists. This was finalise in 1959 when the Chairman of the NSA became ipso facto the Chairman of the Gallery Committee, with the Trustees appointing a one liaison person to represent their interests. The position as either Chairman or Committee member was, however, not so much an honorary post but meant numerous hours of not only organising the exhibition space but also, at times, physically cleaning or redecorating the building.
The financial contributions from sales commissions and members subscriptions were rarely sufficient to give the Gallery the security needed, even when added to by a multitude of fundraising activities and so grants were sought from wherever possible, including the Arts Council, South West Arts and the Carnegie Trust and the Henry Moore Foundation.
In the mid sixties, under the direction of John Miller, artist and architect, a second hand spiral staircase, purchased from Penzance Library, was installed, enabling the lower gallery to be employed as an exhibition space, rather than meting room and studio. At the same time interior walls in the upper gallery were moved to give a more attractive format. Later the staircase was resold and replaced with the central staircase leading to the lower gallery and visitor toilets. “Wider vistas and perspectives opened up, and a feeling of space and airiness was achieved”. In 1973-4 new lower galleries, the Harbour Room and the Green Room were formed after the curator’s residential accommodation was dispensed with.
It was at this time when it was decided that the Newlyn Gallery should be amalgamated with the Orion Gallery, a relatively young gallery in Penzance run by Ella and John Halkes and so in 1974 the Newlyn Orion Galleries Ltd was formed under John Halkes as Director. Application to become a charitable Trust followed which opened up scope for further funding and in 1977 the Newlyn Orion became a registered educational charity.
A new era in the Gallery’s existence began in 1993 with the award of grant of £87,000 from the European Union, Regional Development fund, some 50% of a the cost of the proposals to upgrade and modernise the Newlyn Gallery. Matched funding was obtained from the Penwith DC, Foundation for the Sports and Arts, Rural Development Commission, Henry Moore Foundation, Penzance Town Council and Lloyds Bank. A temporary gallery was opened whilst work was carried out and the Gallery reopened on 16 May 1994, almost 100 years after the original opening.