Art for all

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 51

Art for all

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 51

Art for all

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 51

Alongside the advances of the industrial revolution came a rise in municipal museums in regional cities, funded by philanthropic individuals. Giles Waterfield examines the motives of these 19th-century collectors

Alderman Andrew Walker was famous for his pubs. Stylish, bold, alluring, they offered the inhabitants of Liverpool the excellent beer that flowed from Walker's breweries. They made him a great deal of money, but money was not enough: he wanted to be recognized as a leading citizen, at a time when alcohol was severely frowned on.

Finally, in 1869, he provided the funding for the municipal art gallery that the city had been discussing for years, plans that had stalled because of public unwillingness to spend public money on the arts. The Walker Art Gallery, a grand building in the classical manner, facing St George's Hall, was the result. It opened with tremendous ceremony in 1873, and shortly afterwards Alderman Walker was duly elected Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Not everyone approved: a satirical cartoon was published proposing a fresco that would illustrate how the new gallery was built with a fortune acquired through an enterprise that destroyed innocent families.

The years between 1865 and 1914 saw the most important period of museum building. This occured all over the country, but especially in the North and the Midlands, with art museums set up in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, and many other towns. These cities were rich and mutually competitive, but they also contained large and dangerous slums, infested with cholera and typhus, and were breeding grounds of popular revolt against the ruling order.

Many people felt that it was not only better sanitation, health- care, education and public parks that provided solutions: art and art museums could contribute too. There was a thirst for popular instruction and self-improvement, coupled with a belief in official circles that the populations of the cities of the industrial revolution could be tamed, indeed civilized, by the exposure to art, history and music (through their organ concerts) that the new museums offered.

A financial element also entered this line of reasoning. At a time when it was felt that standards of design were lamentably low, the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) was set up after the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It aimed both in London and in the regions, to raise standards of design among manufacturers and craftsmen, in order to improve exports. The museum was a leading influence throughout the country.

Of crucial importance was the philanthropy of private individuals. The prime movers were no longer the aristocracy and the banking plutocracy who had bought so splendidly around 1800, but the people described by Thomas Carlyle as the 'Working Aristocracy; Mill-owners, Manufacturers, Commanders of Working Men'. These were mostly newly rich men who were grateful to the towns that had brought them wealth: the Tangye brothers in Birmingham, and James Beaney, who after a successful career in Australia (where he seems to have been much disliked) paid for the Beaney Institute in Canterbury, the town of his youth, and many others.

These men (very few women were involved, since it was difficult for married women to enjoy substantial wealth in their own right) represented an alternative Establishment. They were almost all Liberals and Nonconformists, with a strong sense of civic pride and an interest in many aspects of philanthropy. And there was a great deal of competitiveness: the popular phrase 'Liverpool gentleman, Manchester man' (popular at least in Liverpool) rankled in the other city, where in 1857 a powerful group of businessmen organized one of the largest art exhibitions ever conceived, to prove that their city was not only about wealth and power.

Walker was not a collector, and on opening, the gallery only had a single work (an image of the founder). But elsewhere men such as Charles Lees of Oldham and Joseph Shipley of Newcastle – a solicitor, whose house was crammed with primarily Dutch paintings of very mixed quality – wanted their collections to be preserved. They bought contemporary British paintings and watercolors for the most part, only occasionally venturing into French art.

These civic galleries also bought works from their own exhibitions of local art, and they generally had a specific purpose: to acquire paintings (especially) or drawings or sculpture which had a local association, told tales of British history, or which could be seen as morally improving. Frederick Yeames's And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1878, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) is a prime example: a dramatic history painting posing a morally testing question – will the son of the house tell the truth and reveal the whereabouts of his Royalist father, or will he lie and save a life?

Paintings of everyday life, of animals, of landscapes, were all popular. The type of painting bought by these philanthropists was often instructive, seeking to inform the viewer about the greatness of British history, the virtues to be found in the past, and moral self-improvement. Other than in a few advanced galleries – such as Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – Pre-Raphaelite art tended to seen as highly avant-garde and morally demanding. Equally, Old Masters and modern foreign works tended to be the preserve of semi-aristocratic collectors like John and Josephine Bowes of the Bowes Museum and the Wallaces of the Wallace Collection, who bought in a quite different spirit and set up their own museums.

Where did patrons buy their works? Sometimes direct from the artist, like the hotelier Sir Merton Russell-Cotes who was always keen to find a bargain and a friend of a number of British artists. However, on the whole, they went to the art trade. The art market in London was highly developed by the last third of the 19th century, with many active commercial galleries. As the critic Harry Quilter wrote in 1892, "There is something almost maddening in the apparently unending range of the galleries, as well as in the gigantic size and interminable number of the pictures which they contain..."

On other hand, auction houses – such as Bonhams – played a smaller role than they do now, though by the end of the century auctions were achieving what were seen as astonishing sums for works of art, notably for 18th-century British portraits, bound for the United States. Easily the most influential art dealer was William Agnew, who exercised what was described as an 'Agnew-octopus embrace', supplying paintings and watercolors to many of the major collectors and was much involved in the new museums, notably Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery.

These galleries were remarkably popular. Many of them mounted temporary exhibitions that attracted large audiences, whether these were selling exhibitions of new work or objects borrowed from private collections. (It was considered the duty of owners to lend, and owners of old collections who refused to send to major events were sometimes named and shamed in the press). But it was not only exhibitions that scored: the steadily growing permanent collections attracted a great number of visitors. As a curator who recalled the early days of Nottingham Castle Museum wrote, 'They [the citizens] were looking at art for the first time and they were delighted. It was a completely new world for most of them... Art was something new, and swards of people climbed to the top of the Castle rock to see it...' These were not necessarily middle-class audiences: the accounts of curators and other observers make it clear that most visitors were working people, eager for this new blend of entertainment and instruction.

This was a new kind of art museum, in my opinion. Earlier museums had been created as a result of princely patronage, or as state enterprises, and contained what were regarded as the finest works of art created in the Western tradition – which, at least in Europe, did not generally include American art until late into the 20th century. The idea of a gallery created by local people for local people, and buying popular modern art, was a novelty, as was the style of vigorous educational activity.

It was a bold experiment which succeeded for some years. But by 1900, visitor figures began to decline under the pressure of the cinema and the charabanc, as well as a general unwillingness to be lectured to by earnest Liberals. Since then these regional galleries have suffered ups and downs, and at present they are looking at one of the blackest periods in their history, starved of funds in many cases and facing a wholly different future. But as they close or become increasingly business-driven organizations, it is worth remembering the spirit in which they were founded, a spirit of generous and extrovert enthusiasm which we could learn from today.

Giles Waterfield is an art historian, curator and novelist. His latest book is The People's Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain,1800-1914 (Yale).

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