Whitechapel Art Gallery 1901

It was Canon Barnet, founder of Toynbee Hall, who purchased the land adjacent to the Whitechapel library as a site for an art gallery, and persuaded Passmore Edwards to provide a major part of the funding.
Originally known as the workingman’s art gallery the Whitechapel has since become internationally acclaimed for its exhibitions of modern and contemporary art exhibiting artists including Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Gilbert & George and Lucian Freud.Art Galleries


After Canon Barnett and his wife moved to St Jude’s, Whitechapel, in 1872, they began to hold art exhibitions, aimed at the working class residents of Whitechapel, borrowing exhibits from artists and friends. These free exhibitions ran for twenty years with growing popularity, to the point where Barnett wanted to build a permanent picture gallery. He chose a site adjacent to the Whitechapel library, which had been funded by Passmore Edwards, and naturally approached Edwards in his appeal to finance it. Edwards agreed to give £5,000, the amount that Barnett said the Gallery would cost and which Edwards considered ‘sufficient to build a suitable gallery‘. But the plans drawn up by Harrison Townsend were costed out at over £7,000 and an appeal was launched to raise the extra money. In addition the site, adjacent to the Free Library was valued at £6000. Edwards thought that Townsend was an extravagant architect, insisting that his own architect, presumably Maurice Adams, could build a suitable building for £5,000, but went along with Canon Barnett’s proposals, even to offering another £1,000 towards the land. Having the library and the gallery side by side, ‘as brother and sister Institutions’, appealed to Edwards. and offered a further £1200, another £1,000 towards the cost of the land.
After the opening of the Whitechapel Library, funded by Edwards, Barnet had promised Edwards that if he funded a further building he would name it after him but seemed to have forgotten this offer when it came to the gallery project and since others had also donated towards, in Edwards view the unnecessarily high costs of, the gallery he declined to do so. There was a lot of discussion between the two, the detail you will find in my book, “The Passmore Edwards Legacy”. Barnett stuck to his guns with Edwards’ name not even appearing on the foundation stone. Edwards withdrew his offer of the additional £1200, leading to the cancellation of the commission for a mosaic frieze by Walter Crane that was to be installed across the front of the building and the space remained plain and unadorned.

The Gallery opened, with the first Annual Spring Exhibition, on 12 March 1901,Lord Rosebury performing the opening ceremony. Over 200,000 visitors attended the exhibition in the six weeks with the largest daily attendance being over 16,000. However donations received at the door were only £100 and, without an endowment, it was clear that the gallery was going to survive only through the enthusiasm of Charles Aitken, the full time Director,and with active, and generous Trustees.
Canon Barnett was the chairman of the Board of Trustees until his death in 1913. Other Trustees included Henrietta Barnett, Edgar Speyer, H Lawson, of the LCC, and W Blyth, who became Secretary and Treasurer. Many prominent people, including some local Anglo Jewish families, and the City Guilds were supporters of the Gallery. The gallery needed an income of around £500 per year to cover basic running costs and even with the regular donations, the gallery struggled to continue. The prospect of relinquishing the manageemnt of the gallery to the LCC was discussed but the LCC were not infavour but did award an annula grant from 1909.
1901 saw the staging of an exhibition of Chinese art, organised and funded by a separate committee, and in 1906 over 150,000 people visited the six week exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquities.In 1910 George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were both involved in the staging of the Shakespeare Memorial and Theatrical Exhibition. However, in 1914 prposals for an exhibitian of Twentieth Century Art, organised by Aitken and Gilbert Ramsey, who had become Director when Aitken moved to the Tate, caused Henrietta Barnett to write to plead with the them ” not to get too many examples of the extreeme thought of this century, for we must never forget that the Whitechapel Gallery is intended for Whitechapel people, who have to be delicately led and will not understand the Post impressionist or futuristicmethodsof seeing or representing things”.Whether the aims of the original Trustees- “to open to the people of East London a larger world than that in which they usually work. To draw them to a pleasure recreating their minds , and to stir in them a human curiosity” were being met is a matter of debate. Whilst many local people did attend the exhibitions even more were attracted from elsewhere. Perhaps there was value in them visiting the East end and seeing the daily living conditions of the working classes was equally valid.
After Barnett’s death in 1913, Aitken’s move to the Tate and the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, the struggle to finance the gallery became greater. By 1922 subscriptions had fallen to £200 and the LCC had withdrawn their grant. An appeal was launched which brought back several previous supporters as well as new ones but the effect was short lived and subscription income had fallen again by the end of the decade. Significant income was raised by hiring out space within the building, £500 being raised in 1922/3. At this time, however, the gallery was meeting its original aims in that many exhibitions showed local artists and both student and local school children’s work. The gallery was becoming to be known as the Working Man’s Gallery.
In 1939 an exhibition, opened by Clement Atlee, which included Picasso’s Guernica resulted in enormous attendance figures and raised funds for the Aid Spain movement, to support the Spanish Republican cause.
During the second world war the Gallery was used mostly for war related exhibitions and also suffered bomb damage.
In spite of the work of Lord Bearsted, appointed Chairman of the Trustees in 1943, until his death in 1948,and Director Hugh Scrutton to reestablish the gallery after the war by 1949 finances were again low with less than £900 of the £5000 annual requirement being received in assured income.
The Whitechapel Art Gallery Society was formed in February 1948, in order to support the gallery financially through private and business subscription and to serve as an opinion forming body on Gallery policy. It was intended that Society subscriptions be used to fund visible improvements to the gallery, however they tended to be absorbed into the day to day running costs. Of greater benefit was the receipt of grants from the LCC and the East London Boroughs and also grants from the newly formed Arts Council.
The upturn in the Galleries finances was reflected in more ambitious exhibition projects attracting greater numbers of visitors. During the 1950s and 1960s, exhibitions included works by Modernist masters such as Braque, Kandinsky, Barbara Hepworth, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1982 the Gallery Trustees felt the need for a separate Trust to be created to channel non-government funding in the form of exhibition sponsorship and donations to the gallery, and a planning group for a Development Trust was established. This led to the formation of the Whitechapel Art Gallery Foundation on 1 Feb 1984. At the same time an Advisory Board was set up to provide expert advice to the gallery on areas such as advertising, marketing and sponsorship.
In addition the American Friends of the Whitechapel Art Gallery Foundation Inc was incorporated in New York in 1987 to raise funds for the gallery in the USA.
The Gallery celebrated its centenary in 2001on a more stable financial footing. Private support and earned income (such as gallery hire, catalogues and membership schemes) had risen to contribute 50% of the budget. Foundations, such as the Henry Moore Foundation and the Morgan Stanley Foundation along with corporate sponsors such as Bloomberg have given genorously to maintain the Gallery in more recent years.

The restoration of the former library and its reopening as part of an enlarged Whitechapel Gallery, in 2009, finally joined the two buildings together, as Edwards would have wished them to be.


Posted in Galleries & Museums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *