History of the Collection

The story of nearly 200 years of art collecting in Manchester.

The Royal Manchester Institution

Othello, the Moor of Venice (detail) by James Northcote, 1827The 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

Greek amphora, made about 450 BCIn 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.

Lawrence Haward

Heidelberg: Sunset by JMW Turner, about 1842In 1914 Lawrence Haward (1878-1957) was appointed the first Director of the Art Gallery, a post he held until 1945. Haward was an influential and astute collector and, over a period of almost thirty years, transformed the gallery's collections. 

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 1920 Thomas Greg bequeathed his exceptional collection of English pottery, recording 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 Mary Greg gave her collections of Dolls and Dolls’ Houses and Handicrafts of Bygone Times, an extensive and eclectic collection of domestic objects, handicrafts, toys and dolls’ houses
  • In 1934 John Yates bequeathed jades, oriental ivories, enamels, antiquities and Victorian paintings

Edward VIII coronation mug designed by Eric Ravilious for Wedgwood, 1936Haward 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

Satin dress bodice made in Dorset, about 1650The Costume Collection was started in the 1920s with gifts of dresses and accessories from Mary Greg and a collection of embroideries from around the world bequeathed by 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 collections expanded rapidly under the first Keeper of Costume, Anne Buck, mainly through gifts from donors throughout Britain. Fifty years on, the collections are 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

A Storm off the Dutch Coast (detail) by Jacob Isaacksz Ruisdael, about 1660With 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

Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, about 1765The 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.

 

And now?

Glass chair by Thomas HeatherwickIn 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.