Compared to other cultural centres in Harrogate, The Mercer Art Gallery is relatively new. Founded in 1991 and named after one of its benefactors, the Mercer family of Harrogate, the Gallery was set up in the shell of the once splendid Promenade Rooms, which form part of the town’s fascinating spa history. Until that date, the Harrogate Art Gallery had been housed in the Library building in Victoria Avenue. Opened in 1930 by the 6th Earl of Harewood, the Gallery amassed an art collection not dissimilar to others of its time, which included good Victorian pictures and acquisitions of local significance. George Byers, Assistant Librarian, was the first curator, followed by John Stuffins, who seems to have been a rather inspired collector. During the Second World War, he managed to keep his eye on developments in contemporary art. He brought to Harrogate some outstanding pictures, such as Walter Richard Sickert’s The New Bedford, c.1915, and Ivon Hitchens’ Tangled Pool, 1948.
In the immediate post-war years and into the 1950s, Harrogate Art Gallery hosted important exhibitions. Notably, in 1951, it shared with the Whitechapel Art Gallery a major show of the work of William Powell Frith. Frith was born near Ripon and spent his youth in Harrogate where his father ran the Green Dragon Inn. He went on to become one of the most popular and successful artists of the Victorian age, a painter of modern life whose major works chronicled the cultural diversity of Derby Day, Ramsgate Sands and London railway stations. He was also a leading portrait painter who recorded the images of endless Victorian worthies. A man of great vanity, he led his life according to the hypocritical male standards of the day, keeping one wife and official family whilst also supporting a mistress and an alternate brood of children. This makes his famous Harrogate picture Many Happy Returns of the Day, 1856, where the quintessential family is depicted celebrating the birthday of the youngest child, all the more fascinating. Frith used his own family as models, including himself as the pater familias and his own daughter Alice as the birthday girl.
Another interesting work by Frith is his study for L’adieu de Marie Stuart, c.1893. The subject of Mary Queen of Scot’s departure from France was inspired by the bestselling Victorian book Lives of the Queens of Scotland, 1852. The model was Arabella Eyre, and it was her granddaughter who donated the picture to the Gallery in 1992.
Other works in the Mercer Collection that rank with the Friths include two paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw, A Yorkshire Home, a gift to the Gallery in 1934, and Silver Moonlight. Leeds-born Grimshaw had tremendous success as a painter and in 1870 he was able to move with his wife to Knostrop Old Hall, the large seventeenth century manor house which he made his Yorkshire home.
Henry Guillaume Schlesinger’s Girl with Lovebirds, 1876, depicts a young woman dressed informally with wild flowers in her hair and embodies the Victorian notion of womanhood. The figure is presented as if alone in her boudoir with her private thoughts and the implication is that as she chides the squabbling lovebirds, she is thinking of her own love.
All regional collections contain works of art depicting local subjects. Harrogate is set in the middle of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, so there are many works in the collection depicting such famous picturesque sites as Fountains Abbey, Wharfedale, Nidderdale, and aspects of the built heritage in Harrogate, Ripon and Knaresborough. John Buxton Knight’s plein air view of a bend on the river at Knaresborough stands out amongst many painted views of the town. Harrogate’s spa town history has always provided artists with plenty of material, particularly in the days when ‘taking the waters’ was in vogue. In the 1930s, when health cures were highly fashionable, Harrogate became immensely popular and numerous large smart hotels flourished in the town to cater for its many visitors. The different types of visitors are celebrated in Anna Zinkeisen’s painting Valley Gardens with Sun Pavilion, c.1935, which conjures up a glamorous bygone world of moneyed leisure, peopled by uniformed nannies and chauffeurs, sporty couples and odd looking spinsters. Zinkeisen also worked on murals on the great liners, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, and as a medical artist at St Mary’s, Paddington, during the Second World War.
The Mercer Collection includes works by some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century. Christopher Wood, for example, is represented in the collection by two oils, The Harbour, 1926, and The Rainbow, 1927, both of which were donated by the Contemporary Art Society. He was widely influenced by the many trends in European contemporary art at the time, but developed his own unique naïve style, accentuated by strong colours and vigorous representations of boats, seascapes, landscapes and people. His life was cut tragically short when he fell under a train at Salisbury station aged only 29. Paul Nash is represented by his stark painting Cactus, 1928, and Edward Wadsworth by a picture painted ten years later, The First of the Ebb, the Sailor and the Sea. In the 1940s, Harrogate became one of the few British art collections to own works by Brazilian Modern artists, with the presentation of a group of paintings including The Scarecrow (The Half-Wit), 1940, by the great Brazilian Modern master, Candido Portinari.
In recent years, the Mercer Art Gallery has continued to expand its collection with both gifts and purchases of historical and contemporary art. In 2003, for example, Alan Davie’s painting Magician’s Mirror No.2, 2000, was acquired with the help of the Friends of The Mercer Art Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the National Art Collections Fund. Davie’s paintings relate to a wide range of interests, including primitive and ancient art, Zen Buddhism and music. The acquisition of one of his works for the Mercer reflects the richness and diversity of the art collections at Harrogate Museums and Arts.
Jane Sellars, Curator of Art
Text source: PCF / The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate
This description was originally written for a catalogue.