The Whitworth Art Gallery was founded in 1889 as the Whitworth Institute and Park. Since then the building has gone through a number of extensions and reinventions, with the most recent being the galleries new modern extension by MUMA architecture firm, reconnecting the gallery to its surroundings. In this blog post Jacob takes a closer look at each of these iterations of the gallery throughout the decades.
The Foyer and Original Building
When you first arrive at the Whitworth you are greeted by a beautiful red terracotta building, this grand facade is in the Neo-Jacobean style. This architectural style became popular in the UK from the 1820s and was a revival of the ‘Jacobean’, otherwise known as ‘Jacobethean’, architecture style that originated in the English renaissance between 1550-1625- a classic example of this being Highclere Castle which is featured in the television show Downton Abbey. When you enter the gallery you are welcomed by our foyer, which is actually the oldest part of the gallery itself, built before the terracotta facade you now see (which was built in 1908), this building was originally called Grove House, with the main footprint of the gallery (which is now Gallery One) where the Standardisation and Deviation exhibition is currently situated. An interesting fact is when you are in this space you will see two stud walls on either side of the gallery (left and right) these contain a series of feldspar columns from the original build, you’ll see examples of these in the foyer at the entrance, however those in Gallery One were covered a number of years ago to house important electrical equipment.
Surprisingly the gallery wasn’t founded by Joseph Whitworth at all, in fact it’s known that Joseph wasn’t an art lover himself, he was more practically minded. It was upon his death in Monte Carlo in 1887 that he left a will of £1,227,781 and 9 cents (we know this because of how exact Joseph Whitworth was!) which in today’s money equates to £160,100,076.95- which was then split up across various people. This included Richard Copley Christie, who used his share to found the Christies Cancer Hospital in Didsbury. Another recipient of this will was a man named Robert Dukinfield Darbishire, who used his share of the will, along with the help of other prominent Mancunians, to buy Grosvenor house- which they renamed ‘The Whitworth Institute and Park’ in 1889. The idea was that the building would serve as a place to enlighten the local population about art and textiles as well as teach them about textile design, as working for Manchester textile manufacturers was most likely their future. Added to this, local philanthropists donated watercolours and textiles from all over the world, becoming the first iteration of the gallery to come with the first show taking place in 1891 with a series of watercolours by G.F Watts. The main gallery as you see now was completed in 1908, by which time it had ammassed two world class collections and became known hence as the Whitworth.
1960s Conversion/ 90s Extension
Moving further into the gallery from Gallery One, you can see that the gallery has a distinctly different feel from the first gallery and foyer, that’s because this section of the gallery was renovated in the 1960s. With Scandinavian architecture being in fashion at this time, it was decided to renovate this section in a ‘Scandi style’. In the 1960s Architect John Bickerdike designed a Scandinavian space within the centre of the gallery, with the aim of creating a calming and warm environment, lowering the ceilings and adding timber frames creating a warmer and more intimate atmosphere. In addition to this, Bickerdike added two new windows in the North and South galleries (the south window has since been closed). Bickerdike used wood which originated from Scandinavia in his design and as a result this section of the gallery is listed and has a number of restrictions on it. This is why the new extension of the gallery does not intrude into this section of the gallery.
The next stage in the gallery’s development took place in 1995, when ABK (Ahrends, Burton and Koralek) created a sculpture court within the centre of the gallery in place of an old disused courtyard. Thus the gallery now had a space specifically for sculpture, in which we have exhibited a large number of sculpture-based exhibitions. This gallery is now the home of our new School of Creativity!
In 2015 our gallery was re-opened with a brand new extension that cost in the region of £15 million. This was after a nationwide competition which included various architecture firms competing. In the end the firm McInnes Usher McKnight Architects (MUMA) won with their concept of “bringing the outside in”, which best fitted with the brief of re-engaging the gallery with the park and local area. The main focus of this redevelopment was to re-engage with the park, reconnecting the gallery to the Whitworth park as it once was.
For the design of the extension the architects wanted to create a series of “pictures” around the gallery, each with a view looking out onto the park- reconnecting the gallery with the park itself. Probably one of the most successful of these (in my opinion) is the feature window at the back of the gallery on our upper promenade, overlooking the art garden. For the best view, if you stand in the central gallery overlooking the park, stand in the centre near the new doors which are cut into the old back wall of the gallery; you will see a view of our Art Garden with a large tree stood in the centre and a sculpture placed below it just to the left. The tree itself is the very reason for this view; this tree was the first to be planted in the new park and was already an adult tree during planting which means this tree is almost 150 years old at least! During the construction of the gallery the tree was used as way to centre the building, for example; you can see that the tree sits in the dead centre of the gallery itself. The architects decided to make a focal point using the tree, so the new doors built into the old wall have been designed to perfectly frame the tree, almost creating an image or a ‘painting’.
Following on through these double doors you will come to our upper promenade; a beautiful space with floor to ceiling windows giving uninterrupted views of the art garden and park. Whilst here you will notice our reflective mullions placed in-between each window, further reflecting light from the garden and helping with the sense of ‘brining the outside in’. From this vantage point you can see small details on the outside walls of the new extension, especially around the Art Garden, for example; you may have noticed some of the bricks protrude from the walls in a pattern. There is a twofold reason for this: the bricks create a patterned textured look which is to reflect that the gallery is famous for our textile collection and the degree of which the bricks protrude from the gallery is the same angle used for the famous ‘Whitworth Screw’ or screw thread invented by Joseph Whitworth, without which there would probably be no Whitworth art gallery!
These features can also be found in the Alex Bernstein Garden, which you can access via our ‘second grand staircase’ made from Purbeck stone. It was built on the opposite side of the gallery to our ‘grand staircase’, which was built in the first iteration of the gallery, as the architects wanted to build something to balance the building and honour the grand staircase itself. Another feature you’ll find here is the colourful sculpture hanging from the ceiling, this is David Batchelor’s ‘Plato’s Disco’. Batchelor is a Turner Prize nominee who was commissioned to create this piece specifically for this space. In the autumn and spring, during the late afternoon, the sunlight comes through a window at the top of the sculpture- reflecting off the colour panels and filling the whole staircase with different colours, something I recommend trying to catch!
Down these stairs to the left-hand side you will come to our ‘Alex Bernstein Garden’, designed by Sarah Price- who also designed our Art Garden. The Bernstein Garden is named after Alex Bernstein, who was the son of the Founder of the Granada Group- which was one of the first donators to the gallery. Built during the remodel, this shaded fern garden on the North Side of the gallery looks like a little wilderness- a must see on your next visit!
Last of all, no trip to the Whitworth would be complete without visiting what is probably the most popular part of the modern extension… the ‘café in the trees’! This stunning glass space juts out into the park, offering clear views of the Art Garden and various sculptures that we have placed out in the park, again reconnecting the gallery to Whitworth Park itself.