A history of the collections
The story of nearly 200 years of art collecting in Manchester.
The Royal Manchester Institution
The first object acquired for Manchester’s collection was bought in 1827. James Northcote’s A Moor (a portrait of the celebrated black actor Ira Aldridge) was bought from the first exhibition of the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts.
The RMI was founded in 1823 and opened its galleries to the public ten years later. For over sixty years the RMI held public lectures and annual exhibitions, from which many paintings by artists such as William Etty and Frederick Pickersgill were bought for the permanent collection.
The RMI became Manchester Art Gallery in 1882 when the building and its collections were handed over to the City, on condition that £2000 per year would be spent on art for the next 20 years. The new Art Gallery Committee bought enthusiastically and by the end of the 19th century an impressive collection of fine art had been accumulated, added to by gifts and bequests from wealthy Manchester industrialists.
The Horsfall Museum
In 1918 the Manchester Art Museum was also taken over by the City. Thomas Horsfall, the son of a wealthy Manchester cotton merchant opened his pioneering museum in 1877 to educate and inspire the working classes. He moved it to the industrial area of Ancoats in 1886 and established one of the earliest loan schemes for schools.
The Horsfall collection was wide ranging, comprising paintings, engravings, photographs and reproductions, antiquities, ceramics, glass, metalwork, specimens of natural history and views of old Manchester. Most of these entered the gallery’s collections when the Manchester Art Museum closed in 1953.
In 1914 Lawrence Haward (1878-1957) was appointed Curator of the Art Gallery, succeeding William Stanfield, the Gallery’s first curator. He held the post for over 30 years until 1945. An influential and astute collector, he oversaw a transformative period in the Gallery’s history, during which five new branch galleries opened across the city and the collections tripled in size.
Haward was responsible for attracting many significant gifts and bequests to the gallery from wealthy people who lived in the city or had Manchester connections.
In 1917 James Blair bequeathed a collection of paintings and watercolours, including a magnificent group of Turner watercolours
In 1917 Leicester Collier left British and European porcelain, glass, paintings and old master prints
In 1922 Mary Greg gave her collections of Handicrafts of Bygone Times and Dolls and Dolls’ Houses, totalling nearly 2,000 objects of domestic life and childhood.
In 1923 the Greg Collection of English pottery, amassed by Mary Greg’s late husband Thomas Greg and on loan to the Gallery since 1904, was also given by his widow. This exceptional collection records the development of English ceramics from the Roman period to the early 19th century
In 1920 Dr David Lloyd Roberts left paintings, watercolours, prints, silver and glass
In 1934 John Yates bequeathed jades, oriental ivories, enamels, antiquities and Victorian paintings
Haward also continued to buy contemporary art and in 1925 Bradford collector Charles Rutherston presented his modern art collection to the Gallery in order to establish a unique loan service to art colleges.
In 1929 Haward set up the innovative Industrial Art Collection, a collection of contemporary everyday objects intended to inspire an appreciation of the principles of good design. Before his eventual retirement in 1945, Haward also acquired significant groups of artworks from both World Wars, creating one of the most important war art collections outside London.
The Costume collection
Costume collecting at Manchester Art Gallery began in the 1920s with gifts of dresses and accessories from Mary Greg and a collection of embroideries from around the world from Mrs Lewis F Day, widow of the Arts and Crafts designer. Mass produced furnishing and dress textiles, mainly manufactured in Manchester, were also collected during the 1930s as part of Haward’s Industrial Art Collection scheme.
In 1945 Haward mounted a fundraising campaign to purchase the extensive collection of costume historian Dr C Willett Cunnington, as a fitting reflection of the city’s textile heritage. The sale was completed in 1947, and Platt Hall Gallery of English Costume was opened in July of that year, the first museum in Britain instituted solely to collect and display items relating to the history of clothes and fashion.
The collection expanded rapidly under the first Keeper of Costume, Anne Buck, mainly through gifts from donors throughout Britain. Seventy years on, the collection is recognised as being nationally outstanding, not only for their size, but also for their exceptional range, encompassing the clothes and personal effects of most social classes
Collecting since the 1950s
With limited funds in the immediate postwar period the collections were shaped largely by gifts and bequests.
When George Beatson Blair, brother of James Blair, died in 1940 he left 40,000 objects from which the Art Gallery Committee could select for the collections. This was delayed until after the war and in the end fewer than 400 objects were acquired.
Since the 1950s there have been a number of other major bequests.
In 1958 Harold Raby, a retired local bank manager, bequeathed his entire collection of enamels and a selection of porcelain
In 1966 Professor Frank Tylecote, former President of the Royal Manchester Institution and Chairman of the Galleries Committee left his valuable collection of glass, silver and pottery
In 1979 Mr and Mrs Edgar Assheton-Bennett bequeathed a magnificent collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings and English 17th and 18th century silver
In 1993 Lord Bernstein, founder of Granada TV, bequeathed his fine art collection, including works by Lowry, Rowlandson, Daumier, Chagall and Modigliani
The creation of the Art Fund in the 1960s enabled the galleries to save sufficient funds and buy acquire high quality works. The first of these was Baccicio’s St John the Baptist purchased in 1968. This was followed by George Stubbs’ Cheetah and Stag purchased in 1970 with the aid of grants for what was then considered a staggering sum of £250,000.
Since then many major acquisitions have been made with the assistance of external grants and the Friends and the Patrons of Manchester City Galleries, established in the 1980s.
In the last decade there has been a renewed focus on contemporary collecting. Through collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society’s Special Collections Scheme, the Gallery has acquired an outstanding collection of contemporary furniture and lighting by internationally renowned designers including Tord Bontje, Ron Arad and Thomas Heatherwick, as well as sculpture and photography by major British and international artists such as Richard Deacon, Mona Hatoum and Juan Munoz.