Oldham Library and Art Gallery opened in 1883. The majority of the fine art collection was built up from the late 1800s to the 1930s, with an emphasis on British painting. Of particular interest is the Charles Lees collection of Victorian works, presented in 1888, which includes oil paintings and watercolours by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. Additions were made by Charles Lees in the 1890s and by his daughter, Marjorie Lees, in 1952 and 1970.
Since the 1930s, the Collection has benefited from gifts from the Contemporary Art Society as well as from numerous purchases and donations.
The Collection consists of over 550 oil paintings, ranging from works of the Pre-Raphaelite era, British Realism and late Victorian genre to post-war paintings, including Pop and abstract art.
Gallery Oldham, a new gallery designed by Pringle, Richards and Sharatt, opened in 2002 and not only houses the borough’s collections of fine and decorative art but also displays one of the best collections of natural history in the North West, and holds extensive social history collections.
A key work from the collection of Victorian paintings is John William Waterhouse’s Circe. Waterhouse is famous for his paintings of female figures from classical mythology. His image of the goddess Circe offering a poisoned drink to Odysseus is one of his most accomplished works. In a similar vein, John Collier’s The Death of Cleopatra has captured our visitors’ attention since it was first displayed here in 1891. Ernest Normand’s sensual depiction of Vashti Deposed, whose story is told in the Old Testament, is another important and popular painting.
Two Lancashire artists’ work also appears in the Collection. The group of paintings by William Stott of Oldham is outstanding and works by Edward William Stott of Rochdale are also represented.
From the late nineteenth century through to the 1930s, Oldham began to acquire major paintings from the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club and the Gallery became a significant patron of modern art. John Keating’s fascinating Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out, painted from 1928 to 1929, illustrates the building of an hydroelectric power station in Ireland. It also uses the huge public investment by the new Irish Free State as an allegory to chart the birth of an independent nation. From the same date, David Bomberg’s Toledo, Spain, is a much more personally expressive work. Bomberg uses dynamic, energetic brushstrokes and raw unblended colours to give a powerfully physical sense of the landscape. This is an outstanding painting and like many of the more adventurous works in Oldham’s collection was given by the Contemporary Art Society.
As you might expect, Gallery Oldham has a fine collection of work by Northern artists, including a painting by L. S. Lowry bought for just £16 in 1934. Titled The Procession, it shows a typical Whit Walk scene – a most appropriate and evocative image for Oldham. More recently the Gallery has acquired paintings by the popular Oldham artist Helen Bradley and Lowry’s contemporary Theodore Major.
At the core of Oldham’s fine art collection are a number of paintings of the Newlyn and St Ives Schools. These include Stanhope Alexander Forbes’ The Drinking Place, an idyllic image of a scene in the Lamorna valley, Cornwall; Albert Julius Olsson’s seascapes as well as A Theatre Dressing Room by Laura Knight, and other important British Impressionist works by Alfred James Munnings and William Orpen.
In the 1950s, Oldham acquired works through the Contemporary Art Society by Carel Victor Morlais Weight, Stanley Spencer and John Craxton. For a brief time during the 1960s the Gallery was able to make some very adventurous acquisitions of more avant-garde art. These included the large scale Pop Art painting Gravy for the Navy by Peter Phillips, abstract works by Sandra Blow, Patrick Heron and Howard Hodgkin, and sculpture by F. E. McWilliam, Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink.
Since the 1980s, Oldham has again begun to collect modern art, adding important paintings, mixed media and photographic work by Estelle Thompson, Susan Hiller, Andy Goldsworthy, Laura Ford and Yasumasa Morimura. We have also explored ways of reflecting the ethnic diversity of the borough through exhibitions and acquisitions. There has been an increased focus on photography, mainly by young British artists, and a large number of paintings and sculpture from contemporary Bangladeshi artists has been acquired, creating one of the largest such collections in Britain.
While most of the more significant contemporary works have been acquired through the Contemporary Art Society, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund have also allowed us to fill important gaps in the permanent collection. We are also extending our collection of twentieth-century studio ceramics with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Gallery Oldham has benefitted from many gifts from individual artists and donors, to whom we extend our thanks. They have all helped to build our distinctive museum and gallery collections.
Stephen Whittle, Museum Manager
Text source: PCF / Gallery Oldham
This description was originally written for a catalogue.