Lancaster City Council holds paintings at Lancaster Town Hall, Morecambe Town Hall and the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park. These are in addition to its collections housed at Lancaster City Museums.
Lancaster Town Hall was officially opened on the 27th December 1909, by Lord Ashton – the local industrialist, James Williamson, Junior. It replaced the existing Town Hall, now the City Museum in Market Square, as the then Lancaster Corporation had outgrown its building. The new town hall complex – including a police station, fire station and large public hall – was another civic gift from the local multi-millionaire businessman. The family's wealth was centred on oil cloth and linoleum production.
Most of the works in the Town Hall are portraits of local politicians, industrialists and other well-known public figures. They include a portrait of the donor's father; James Williamson, Senior (Alderman Williamson) – founder of the family business – painted by an unknown artist after a formal cabinet photograph (probably posthumously). At the top of the main stairs is a portrait of James Williamson (1842–1930), Lord Ashton, DL himself, by Scottish artist Howard Somerville. It was, again, painted posthumously as Lord Ashton would not allow representations of himself inside the building, other than his heraldic coat of arms. It is modelled on a satirical sketch from Vanity Fair showing James Williamson giving a speech in Parliament under the title Philanthropy. Lady Ashton presented it to Lancaster in 1932.
Above the fireplace in the Mayor’s Parlour is a portrait of Lady Ashton, CBE, also by Howard Somerville. A prominent public figure, after her husband's death Lady Ashton became the first female Freeman of the Borough in 1932. There is also a striking portrait of James Mansergh, FRS, a Freeman of the Borough and renowned engineer responsible for the Lancaster Waterworks, painted by his son-in-law William Mainwaring Palin.
The collection includes five paintings by Lancaster-born artist James Lonsdale. Lonsdale first worked as a pattern designer at Margerison and Glover's print-works in Catterall. In 1799 he moved to London where he is reputed to have been, briefly, the pupil of the portrait artist George Romney. Lonsdale became portrait painter extraordinary to Queen Caroline. He exhibited 138 works at the Royal Academy and 87 at the Society of British Artists (where he was a founder member) between 1802 and 1838. Subjects represented at the Town Hall include a posthumous portrait of the national hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, presented to the town by the artist in 1806. The gift may have proved useful to the artist as the Corporation promptly commissioned a further portrait from him. In 1807 it received a companion portrait of The Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806), the country's youngest Prime Minister. It must also be seen as a memorial painting as the respected politician had died just months before Lonsdale's commission.
One of Lancaster’s most famous sons is the naturalist Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892). He was born a stone's throw from the Town Hall, although the building was demolished around 1950. The Town Hall houses a portrait of Owen by the Irish artist Henry Jones Thaddeus (1859–1929). It shows the man who gave dinosaurs their name, the first Director of the Natural History Museum in London – and bitter opponent of Charles Darwin and his evolutionist theories – in thoughtful old age.
Four miles away, overlooking the sea stands Morecambe Town Hall. This Grade II listed building was opened in June 1931. The paintings housed there reflect the distinctiveness of Morecambe as a seaside town and Heysham as a harbour town. Works include ‘Brier’ Coming into Harbour by local artist Arthur Knowles and Coastal Scene by the nineteenth-century artist Luke Gorst. Gorst is the only artist known to have painted a portrait of James Williamson/Lord Ashton in the sitter’s lifetime. The 1890 portrait bust is held within the City Museum collections and can only be described as not unduly flattering. Perhaps this is why the local industrialist and philanthropist shunned both photography and formal portraiture!
The Ashton Memorial is perched on the highest point of Williamson Park. Its distinctive dome is visible throughout the city and for all travelling north or south, past the city. It was commissioned by Lord Ashton in memory of members of his close family (his two wives and his daughter) and was completed in 1909. Described by Sir Nikolas Pevsner as 'the grandest monument', it marked the culmination of Lord Ashton's second phase of redevelopment of this park, that had largely been begun by his father, James Williamson, and that had transformed rough moorland and quarries into stunning parkland.
At the top of the building is a gallery which hosts exhibitions by local artists. Many of them have donated works which hang permanently on the walls of the curved staircase. These include a series of images of Williamson Park Lake in bold blocks of colour by R. Danks, and an impressionistic depiction of the Millennium Bridge by Graeme Atkinson.
Susan Ashworth, Collections Manager
Adrienne Wallman, Lancashire Coordinator, Public Catalogue Foundation
Text source: PCF / Lancaster City Council
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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