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Matthew Schofield has recently catalogued the archives of the Whitworth Art Gallery. He writes:

The Whitworth Art Gallery reopened on 14 February 2015 following a £16.9 million refurbishment and extension. The re-opening has coincided with the completion of a project to catalogue the Gallery’s archive, which is looked after by Special Collections as part of the University’s archives.

The Whitworth Art Gallery in January 2015 showing builders making some finishing touches to the forecourt prior to the official reopening in February 2015. Photograph: M.Schofield

The Whitworth Art Gallery in January 2015 showing builders making some finishing touches to the forecourt prior to the official reopening in February 2015. Photograph: M.Schofield.

The Whitworth Art Gallery was founded as the Manchester Whitworth Institute in 1887. It owed its existence to the wealthy industrialist, Sir Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887). On his death, he left money for the establishment of an Institute, which it was originally envisaged would include a technical school, a technical museum, a school of art and an art gallery.

Sir Joseph Whitworth, image taken from the Owens College Archive.

Sir Joseph Whitworth, image taken from the Owens College Archive.

The archive reveals the complicated birth of the Whitworth Institute. Three legatees administered Whitworth’s estate: his second wife, Mary Louisa Whitworth (1829-1896), Robert Darbishire, a local solicitor, and Richard Copley Christie (1830-1901), a lawyer and former professor at Owens College (predecessor of the University of Manchester). It was Darbishire who played the critical role in steering the Whitworth Institute towards being an art collecting institution (responsibility for the technical and art schools passed to Manchester Corporation in the 1890s).

The Governors of the Institute were leading local figures and responsible for achieving its original objectives, including developing Whitworth Park as a public amenity. It was here that a purpose-built Gallery was opened in 1908. The papers of the Institute’s chairman Sir Joseph Lee, which form part of the archive, include some interesting ephemera, such as Sir Joseph’s invitation to the opening of Whitworth Park on 17 July 1890.

Sir Joseph Lee’s personal invitation to the official opening of Whitworth Park, Whitworth Art Gallery Archive, WAG/1/1/10/9.

Sir Joseph Lee’s personal invitation to the official opening of Whitworth Park, Whitworth Art Gallery Archive, WAG/1/1/10/9.

The Whitworth Art Gallery and Whitworth Park have always had a close relationship. The Park’s physical proximity provided an agreeable setting for the Gallery, and both offered differing, albeit it was hoped mutually supporting, forms of recreation for the Manchester public. Sir Joseph Lee’s papers include a handbill of the rules of entry to the Park issued by the Governors in 1890. This has a clear intention to regulate the behaviour of the mainly working-class visitors to the Park.

 The rules for entry to Whitworth Park, 16 June 1890, Whitworth Art Gallery Archive, WAG/1/1/10/10.


The rules for entry to Whitworth Park, 16 June 1890, Whitworth Art Gallery Archive, WAG/1/1/10/10.

In the 20th century, the Gallery archive reveals two Directors to have been particularly influential in its development. Firstly, Margaret Pilkington (1891-1974), of the Pilkington pottery firm, who began her association with the Whitworth in 1925. From 1936 to 1959 she was the Honorary Director of the Whitworth Institute, refusing a salary to aid its finances. A recognised artist in her own right, Pilkington appears frequently within the archive, a testament to her energy in planning exhibitions and acquiring art. During the Second World War, Pilkington oversaw the removal of the Gallery’s art treasures to safe storage at the National Library of Wales. She then helped establish a rest centre at the Gallery, for those made homeless by air raids.

Secondly, Reginald Dodwell (1922-1994), who was appointed professor of art history at the University and Gallery Director in 1966, posts he held for the next twenty-three years. In 1958, the University of Manchester had assumed responsibility for the Whitworth Institute, which was renamed the Whitworth Art Gallery. Dodwell ensured that the Gallery built up a collection of contemporary art, at a time when it was much less valued than today, and as a result the Gallery holds a number of internationally important artworks, such as Francis Bacon’s portrait of fellow painter, Lucian Freud (1951).

During the 1960s, the University undertook an extensive remodelling of the Gallery’s exhibition spaces to give them a more contemporary look. These changes are discussed in detail in the Director’s files, which are part of the archive. These records are of some importance, as during the latest renovations, some of the 1960s spaces have been altered, with rooms being in part returned to their original Edwardian look.

The Whitworth Art Gallery archive reveals the institution’s long and complex history, developing from a provincial art gallery built from Victorian philanthropy to its current status as a leading cultural institution of the University. Its rich and varied archive demonstrates the enduring contribution it has made to the cultural and social life of Manchester.

A detailed catalogue of the Gallery Archive is available on ELGAR: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/manchesteruniversity/data/gb133-wag.

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