18 February 2020

A gallery and library that
brought literature and arts
to the heart of the East End

Whitechapel Gallery … inviting the people of the East End to go straight in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many buildings I regret not visiting while I was walking around the East End last month is the Whitechapel Gallery on Whitechapel High Street, built around Aldgate East underground station.

The gallery was established by Canon Samuel Barnett (1844-1913), Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, and his wife, the heiress and social reformer Henrietta Octavia Weston Rowland (1851-1936), ‘to bring great art to the people of the East End of London.’

The gallery was designed by the architect Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928) in 1897, it was built in 1898-1899 and it opened in 1901 as one of the first publicly funded galleries for temporary exhibitions in London.

Charles Harrison Townsend was born in Birkenhead on 13 May 1851. He attended Birkenhead School and was then articled to the Liverpool architect Walter Scott in 1870. He moved to London with his family in 1880 and entered partnership with the London architect Thomas Lewis Banks in 1884.

Townsend became a member of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1888 and in the same year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He remained an active member of both organisations throughout his career and was elected Master of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1903. He died on 26 December 1928.

The Whitechapel Art Gallery was designed by Townsend in his own highly personal and distinctive style of Art Nouveau, or his personal, late expression of Arts and Crafts ideals. The building has the same two-tower feature as his Bishopsgate Institute but with a wider frontage.

Townsend had the people very much in his mind when he designed the gallery, and the main doors invite people to go straight in at street level. These doors are placed asymmetrically to one side, and the large semi-circular light above them takes the eye upwards and outwards into a large, rounded, keyed arch.

Perhaps this is a defiant answer to the underground trains already running through the darkness here when the gallery was first opened. In contrast to a station’s, the gallery’s portal is bright and inviting, opening quickly into a space where the mind rather than the body might be transported, and its horizons widened.

An expanse of blank wall, originally intended to carry a mosaic by Walter Crane, leads up from the arch to a single run of small windows between two string courses, with some little blocks of foliage-patterning at each end.

The latter motif is picked up again in two wide bands at the base of the towers. The tree forms as planned for here can be seen clearly in the Studio drawing. Like the large rounded portal, they seem to spring from the earth, and are typical of Townsend.

The towers are topped with the curved mouldings that Townsend also loved to use, suggesting the domes that he had originally planned. The turrets on each side are capped with rather jaunty, even playful, ridge-tiling. The government listing describes the gallery’s frontage as ‘an imaginatively detailed and massed façade.’

The gallery has a long track record of education and outreach projects, focused on local people. It exhibits the work of contemporary artists, as well as organising retrospective exhibitions and shows that are of interest to the local community.

Next door, Whitechapel Library also opened on the initiative of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, and was funded by John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). It was the first free library in Whitechapel. It opened on Sundays to serve the Jewish community of the East End. Early readers included the poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), who is commemorated as war poet from World War I in Westminster Abbey and commemorated here by a plaque.

Whitechapel gallery opened on Sunday afternoons to allow local Jewish residents to visit, and it gained a reputation for launching the careers of many 20th century artists. Those from the Jewish End, later known as the Whitechapel Boys – six men and one woman – included David Bomberg, John Rodker and Mark Gertler.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) was born in Spitalfields. He was nurtured by Lady Ottoline Morrell and was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Set. Many of his paintings depict memories of East End life.

The Whitechapel Gallery exhibited Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in 1938 as part of a touring exhibition organised by Roland Penrose to protest against the Spanish Civil War.

The Whitechapel Gallery played an important part in the history of post-war British art, with several important exhibitions at the gallery, including the first British exhibition by Mark Rothko in 1961, and works by John Hoyland, Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield among others in 1964. That exhibition brought Pop Art to the general public and introduces some of the artists, concepts, designers and photographers that would define the ‘Swinging ’60s’.

However, these open shows became less relevant as emerging artists moved to other areas and newer venues, such as the Hayward Gallery.

The Whitechapel Gallery had a major refurbishment in 1986 and in 2009 completed a two-year programme incorporating the former Passmore Edwards Library building next door. This has doubled the size of the Gallery and almost tripled the available exhibition space, allowing the Whitechapel Gallery to remain open to the public all year round.

A plaque at Whitechapel Library commemorating the war poet Isaac Rosenberg (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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