As part of the Art History and Visual Studies seminar series, curator Dr Rebecca Wade visited the department to speak about ‘The Making and Remaking of Leeds Art Gallery: A Civic Collection in Context’. This talk focused on the recent closure of Leeds Art Gallery as effectively a starting point that encouraged the curators to delve into the past and prehistory of the gallery as a way to inform this unique refurbishment project. In thinking across historical, current and future perspectives, it was decided that the ‘new’ gallery would reposition itself today within the cultural fabric of the city in much the same way as it had done in 1868. The refurbishment project would aim to reconnect the gallery with its Victorian predecessor, and once again acknowledge its ‘collection of national importance’.

The history of Leeds Art Gallery is complex, and Rebecca covered in detail how the gallery was slowly established over the course of fifty years. Initially struggling to find a permanent location, the gallery began as temporary exhibitions held across the city during the 1810s and 20s. These early ‘Biennial-like’ manifestations utilised appropriated spaces and public buildings, such as the Albion Street Musical Hall. For Rebecca, exhibition making at this time, and in particular the case of Leeds, made apparent Britain’s desire to compete with France as leading manufacturer of the most exquisite decorative arts. In an attempt to showcase the beauty and power of manufacturing to the public, industrial steam engines were placed alongside more traditional examples of fine art, such as Turner’s watercolours.

Queens Gallery, Leeds, 1888
Queens Gallery, Leeds, 1888

However, in 1858, the election of Sir Peter Fairbairn as Lord Mayor aided the beginnings of a permanent art collection for the city, with Fairbairn ordering a small ‘gallery space’ to be set within Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall building. Fairbairn also commissioned the first sculpture to the art collection, a statue of Queen Victoria. Here, the monarchy was given a surrogate place to reside and aligned Leeds with the national narrative. Furthermore, the exhibition ‘National Exhibition of Works of Art’ proved to be pivotal in the display and reception of the city’s art collection. In 1868, Edmund Wormald set up a public subscription, (crowd funding as it is known today) to extend an old infirmary building. An excited committee, including John Ruskin, turned to the most innovative architects, designers and artists to help raise the profile of Leeds Art Gallery from provincial gallery to an institution operating on a grand European stage.

Yet, this major cultural endeavour needed a legacy, and Colonel Thomas Walter Harding offered the gallery the promise of a place to call home. In 1887 architect W.H. Thorpe extended an existing civic building into a fitting national gallery, showcasing the city’s plaster cast collection of European classical sculpture, British art, works on paper and ceramics. This is where the gallery resides today, and the location which will bear witness to the next chapter for Leeds Art Gallery.

Ziff Gallery 1900
Ziff Gallery, Leeds, 1900

From mid-October 2017, the public will see the collection recontextualised, and key works on display, such as Edward Armitage’s huge canvas ‘Retribution’, presented to Leeds Town Hall by the artist in 1858, and Alfred Drury’s masterpiece ‘Circe’ (1894). A major highlight is the barrel vaulted glazed ceiling, never before seen in living memory. This will be opened back up to the sky, surrounding city scape and visitors alike. What culture means to Leeds is an argument not far from people’s minds, and the re-opening falls alongside the city’s bid for Capital of Culture (2023). Rebecca Wade spoke lucidly, enthusiastically and with academic flair. I personally, cannot wait to see what she described as a new vision and aesthetic for Leeds Art Gallery.