Margaret Pilkington: Artist, Philanthropist and Former Whitworth Director

For copyright reasons, I am unable to publish some images in this blog, but include links to the Whitworth collections catalogue web page, where they can be viewed. 

For women’s week, I would like to spend a little time looking at the life of a person whose biography reads, “wood-engraver and philanthropist”, which gives little indication as to the extent of her achievements, and particularly for us, her influence on The Whitworth Art Gallery. 

The Friends of the Whitworth commissioned this portrait in 1953 by Stanley Spencer as a tribute to her leadership as Honorary Director of the gallery from 1936 to 1958.  This portrait can also be seen in the Standardisation and Deviation exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery, until July 2022.

Margaret Pilkington eschewed the pursuits of many in her position in society, preferring to promote the interests of others over herself; among the numerous projects she supported are female welfare and education, humanitarian work, and the promotion of artists and craftspeople. She lived a life crammed with activity and purpose. 

She was a “first” in many areas of achievement; first woman President of the Manchester Luncheon Club (1963 to 1964) and of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1964 to 1965), as well as Honorary Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, being the first woman to hold such a post.  There are too many accomplishments to list them all, so I’m following a few threads that I hope will give a sense of her life.  

Margaret Pilkington, was born into one of the leading families of Manchester; her grandfather owned Pilkington Glass, and in the year of her birth (1891) her father and uncle started Pilkington’s Lancastrian Pottery and Tile Company, which became internationally famous for its lustre ware.  

Margaret and Dorothy Pilkington as children with their dog, about 1915.
Copyright of the University of Manchester

Margaret’s father, Lawrence Pilkington, married Mary (Mollie) Gavin Stevenson, daughter of the founder of Jarrow Chemical Works. Margaret’s maternal aunt May Margaret Stevenson attained a B.A. from Girton College, Cambridge, where she also studied science in a fourth year.  May travelled extensively and also spent much of her life taking part in charitable organisations for women and children.  During the 1914-18 war she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, where she became a principal officer. In 1917 May Margaret Stevenson became one of the first women to be awarded an O.B.E.  I mention this because it is clear that she had an influence on her nieces, providing an example of the sense of social responsibility revealed in Margaret Pilkington’s life. 

Margaret and Dorothy, her sister, were sent to a private school in South Croydon.  Here, Margaret’s artistic abilities were recognised and encouraged and she later studied painting at the Manchester College of Art.  Here, one of her teachers was Adolphe Valette, a French Impressionist artist who also taught L.S. Lowry.  Margaret and Dorothy remained close throughout their lives, sharing the responsibilities of running their father’s company after his death, and living in the family home in Alderley Edge. After World War Two, they arranged holidays for girls in various places, like one for 52 in Arnside. Dorothy and Margaret took part in the day-to-day running of these events, arranging the food, supplies and beds. 

Margaret challenged social convention and her parents’ wishes by enrolling at The Slade School of Fine Art, to study painting, later turning to wood-engraving at The Central School of Arts and Crafts.  She had the opportunity to study with some of leading craftspeople of the day, but it was, in Margaret’s opinion, Lucien Pissarro (eldest son of Impressionist artist Camille), who had the greatest influence on her style.  Margaret specialised in illustration, and made over 100 wood-engravings, as well as her beautifully executed watercolours and drawings.   

When he moved to England in 1890, Lucien set up Eragny Press, which was partly inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press but also in line with his socialist beliefs.  The Eragny Press published 32 illustrated books, to which Lucien contributed wood-engravings. 

Prospectus for Milton’s Areopagitica, Lucien and Esther Pissarro.
Copyright of the University of Manchester

Lucien, his wife Esther, and their daughter Orovida all worked at their printing press, and as a friend of the family, Margaret spent time at their house and as a studio assistant.  I like to think that this undated print by Margaret Pilkington, “Woman Working at a Press” relates to her time there.

Margaret’s studies at The Central School were cut short by the start of World War One, and she returned to her parents’ home at Alderley Edge.  Although she kept in touch with and frequently visited her former tutors and friends in London, Margaret put her artistic career in second place in order to concentrate on social and welfare duties.  Her younger sister, Dorothy, worked as a hospital orderly, and Margaret volunteered with the Soldiers and Sailors Welfare Association by distributing meals and visiting families in Ancoats, Manchester.  She then instigated art classes for the Ancoats Girls’ Club and in 1915 joined the organising committee of the Girls’ Institute in Mill St, Ancoats.  She was the honorary secretary of the Pioneer Club for business and professional girls and women from its opening in 1916, and President of Manchester and Salford Girls’ Clubs from 1929 to 1931.  Her concern for the wellbeing of others without her advantages, and the unfairness of that inequality remained with Margaret throughout her life. 

Presentation of a cup at the Pioneer Club (Margaret Pilkington is in the audience)
Copyright of the University of Manchester

Girls’ Clubs were common in many working class areas, and in a report from the Manchester Guardian of 1891, on the 25th anniversary of the Manchester Mill and Working Girls’ Society,  “the chief object has been the social, moral and religious improvement of the girls and young women engaged in our mills and factories…” they provided safe spaces for women and girls to socialise, improve their literacy and numeracy, learn household skills, get access to baths, laundry and cheap meals.   

By 1909, in another report from the Manchester Guardian, these efforts had resulted in the dedicated building of the Girls’ Institute at Mill Street, where “a host of classes and social meetings are held for the brightening and enriching of the lives of the Ancoats working girls…”.  There was a library, a gymnasium, a swimming club, choirs and a reading circle, among many other pursuits.    

Although most of her energy and time was devoted to humanitarian causes, Margaret continued to make drawings and prints (providing illustrations for four books) and in 1920 she exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers, and by 1924 she became Honorary Secretary, and served as chairman from 1952 to 1967.   She bought a second-hand press in 1915, establishing in the garage of her parents’ house.  By 1916 she was sending examples of her work to her former tutors Noel Rooke and Lucien Pissarro. 

Although most of her energy and time was devoted to humanitarian causes, Margaret continued to make drawings and prints (providing illustrations for four books) and in 1920 she exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers, and by 1924 she became Honorary Secretary, and served as chairman from 1952 to 1967.   She bought a second-hand press in 1915, establishing in the garage of her parents’ house.  By 1916 she was sending examples of her work to her former tutors Noel Rooke and Lucien Pissarro. 

Links to various prints made during this period; 


Cock and Hens 

Child with ducks 

Margaret was inspired by the ideals of William Morris, who considered that craftwork should be raised to the same level of appreciation as art, and in 1920 she organised an exhibition called “The Red Rose Guild of Arts and Crafts” at the Houldsworth Hall in Manchester.  The exhibition was a great success, and from it the Red Rose Guild of Craftworkers was born.

As a founder of the Red Rose Guild, her membership of the Society of Wood-engravers, and membership of the Manchester City Art Gallery, Margaret Pilkington had become a leading light in the Manchester art scene. Given her extensive experience of committees and organisational skills as well as her knowledge and expertise as an artist it is unsurprising that in 1925 she was invited onto the council of the Manchester Whitworth Institute (as the Whitworth Art Gallery was then known). 

At this point, the finances of the Whitworth were in a shaky state; there were unexpected expenses from the upkeep of the surrounding Whitworth Park (which in 1904 was handed to Manchester Corporation on a 999-year peppercorn lease), plus construction costs of the purpose-built gallery and extensive acquisition of artworks had all used the lion’s share of Joseph Whitworth’s legacy.  Projected funds from investments had not appeared, and the gallery had been running at a deficit since before the start of World War One. 

Even the most stringent economies hadn’t helped; since 1921 Mr. G. P. Dudley Wallace was the only curator, with a scant few assistants who undertook all duties including building maintenance and cleaning. Mr. Dudley Wallace resigned his post in 1935, after suffering a nervous breakdown.  At this point the duties of director were shared between Margaret Pilkington and another committee member, Professor T. B. L. Webster.  In 1936, Margaret Pilkington became Honorary Director, a post she held (unpaid) for 22 years. 

During this time some of the exhibitions she arranged were; The Red Rose Guild, The Society of Wood-engravers, the Manchester Society of Modern Painters, and two pageants of Historic Dress, the result of which was the beginning of Manchester City Art Gallery’s Historic Dress Collection.  She also oversaw acquisition of objects into the collections, many through gifts from the Friends of the Whitworth, which she had set up in 1930. It is still going strong today, not only gifting art objects, but also arranging events for its members and the public alike.

At the outbreak of World War Two, the gallery was closed to the public and collections moved to National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  The gallery basement was used as a shelter for people made homeless by air raids, with 500 people being present at Christmas 1940.  The gallery re-opened in 1946, and although the gallery’s financial situation and staffing level were not much improved, there were positive developments with cataloguing of the collections and regular exhibitions of interest, including several from the Arts Council, who waived their fee in exchange for the loan of storage space in the gallery basements.

At this point, the gallery building was in dire need of repair – the roof leaked and the heating system didn’t work, but as ever, money was in short supply and it was decided to approach the University of Manchester with the offer to present the entire gallery and its collections as a centre for the study of art for both the public and students; the building and its contents were transferred to the UoM on April 9th, 1958.  The new director of the gallery, John E. C. T. White, took up his post in conjunction with becoming Professor of Art History at UoM, a post made with an endowment from Margaret and Dorothy Pilkington.

Margaret then became Honorary Director of the governing committee of the Whitworth Gallery, a post she held until her death in 1974.

Margaret Pilkington with cap and gown, 1942
Copyright of the University of Manchester

In 1942, she was awarded an Honorary M.A. from the University of Manchester. In 1956 she was awarded an O.B.E.  During a speech given as President of the North West Federation of Museums and Art Galleries, she spoke of her regret that art was considered a prerogative of “the idle rich”, and she was active in encouraging young people into the gallery.  She oversaw the acquisition of many artworks to the Whitworth, helping to develop and consolidate its collections.

Her own collecting also benefitted the gallery; entering “Margaret Pilkington” as the search term on the gallery’s collection search engine, you will see 181 items gifted by her (including works by Edvard Munch, which can be viewed in the Still Parents exhibition until September 2022), and of course many of her own works.

It is worth noting that in conjunction with her other work, including Chairman of the Manchester High School for Girls between 1944-63, she and her sister Dorothy ran her father’s company after his death in 1942.  In 1943, the sisters gave 75% of the money needed to Purchase Alderley Woods to the National Trust, and in conclusion I include here a link to a drawing of Wizard Woods made by Margaret.


All University of Manchester (John Rylands Library) Images shared via  

Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 


Main articles used for this piece: 

Margaret Pilkington: A generous queen of arts 


240 years of Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society

Manchester Guardian archives in UoM Library 

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