The People’s Galleries: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Giles Waterfield’s The People’s Galleries is a wide-ranging examination of the phenomenon of the art museum in Britain, from its early days in 1800 when the British Museum was Britain’s only public museum, to the onset of the First World War. Paying particular attention to museums outside London, Waterfield argues that these new museums – and especially the art museums – represented a different type of institution that had not previously existed in Britain, or internationally.

To mark the release of this publication we are sharing a three-part series of extracts from The People’s Galleries that explore the origins of these museums, many of which still exist today and are as popular as ever. The first in the series looks at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

From The People’s Galleries

by Giles Waterfield

The purchasing policies of an art museum might be multi-faceted. At the Walker, Councillor Philip Rathbone exercised a dual acquisitions policy: to buy relatively innovative nineteenth-century painting and sculpture, and also works that would be pleasing to the public. As Charles Dyall wrote in 1888 of the previous decade, it had not been ‘lost sight of that the public, for whose edification and instruction the institution in a great measure exists, delight in subjects of a popular character, and with this end in view pictures have from time to time been added which, by appealing to common feelings and sentiments of our daily life, have afforded a fine moral lesson, and given great pleasure to the numerous visitors to the gallery who are uninitiated in the higher forms of art.’ In a later report he identified these pictures as ones that ‘appeal to our common sympathies, . . . delineating domestic scenes, and every-day incidents of life’. Such pictures encouraged the working classes to ‘carry with them to their homes vivid impressions of a refining and elevating character’. This approach was reflected in the comments of Thomas Greenwood, who supported the idea that easily enjoyable paintings were appropriate for an uneducated audience: ‘The “Village Wedding” of Luke Fildes, is worth more to them than all the works of Rubens in the National Gallery.’ Catering for a popular taste was a policy intended to address the moment rather than perpetuity, but it was a taste shared by many donors who ‘brought to their judgement of a painting, not Lemprière’s classical dictionary and the academic rules, but their own experience’. This was a strikingly original policy, hardly paralleled in France, Germany or Italy.

Easy though it is to sneer at the acquisition policies of these galleries, what they were achieving was a form of folk art collection. Not folk art in the sense that its makers were uneducated or nameless, or that the works were not produced by professional artists, but in the sense that these acquisitions represented an attempt to create a collection that would be enjoyed by the broadest of audiences. It was a short-lived approach. Such a form of collecting has been denounced by critics and curators since at least 1900, and such dismissiveness persists. When the decision was made in the late 1990s to display a contemporary collection directed at a popular audience in the new Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow it met with catcalls by the art establishment, but it may be recalled that when after considerable hesitation the National Gallery of Art in Washington was persuaded in 1997 to show The Victorians: British Painting, 1837–1901, the result attracted almost a quarter of a million visitors, who could be observed enjoyably discussing the stories in the way that visitors to Victorian galleries had done. Given the nature of the public in Victorian cities, and the way in which these galleries were visited, this was, and remains, an alternative canon.

The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914 by Giles Waterfield is available from Yale University Press.

For an article written by the author, please click here. 

The People's Galleries

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