Wolverhampton Art Gallery opened to the public in 1884. It was built on land that was donated by the local council, with funding from a Wolverhampton building merchant, Philip Horsmann who also bequeathed paintings in 1886. Initially the gallery was designed as a showcase for fine arts and crafts, housing temporary exhibitions, but several large bequests in the late nineteenth century formed the basis of a permanent collection of art. The most significant of these was the donation of over 200 works, valued at £17,000, by wealthy tin-toy manufacturer Sidney Cartwright.
Cartwright was an avid collector of the Cranbrook Colony of artists, a group based in the pretty market town of Cranbrook in Kent. Their scenes of idyllic country life contained a combination of escapism and nostalgia that provided a welcome antidote to the horrors of industrialisation witnessed by the inhabitants of the rapidly expanding towns of the Midlands and North. For this reason, their paintings were especially popular adorning the drawing rooms of wealthy manufacturers. There are few regional collections that do not have at least a few examples of such a genre and Wolverhampton Art Gallery is particularly strong in this area.
In the 1960s, the first professional curator was appointed and a collecting policy was put in place. Priority was given to acquiring contemporary art and many controversial acquisitions were made of work by the leading artists of the time including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake. This foresight has enabled the gallery to amass a significant collection on Pop Art, unusual for a regional gallery of its size. One legacy of the Pop Art collection was the continued focus, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, on work that addressed the social and political landscape of modern Britain. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, this inevitably included art based on ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland and the foundation was laid for a unique collection of work relating to the struggle for power in Ulster.
In 2000–2005, the Gallery was part of a national scheme funded through the Arts Council Lottery and administered by the Contemporary Art Society. This scheme has enabled the art collection to expand further and again focuses on issue-based work by leading contemporary artists (some who paint in oils) including David Rayson, Tom Hunter, Richard Billingham, Rut Blees Luxembourg, Breda Beban and many others.
We are grateful to the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the National Art Collections Fund for their financial support for acquisitions over the years. We have enjoyed a fruitful partnership with the Contemporary Art Society for a number of years and have benefited from their distribution scheme on many occasions. The Arts and Museums Service has an active Friends group who have played a vital role in finding those extra few pounds when all other funding possibilities have been exhausted. We continue to build on our collections and hope that they will be a valuable resource for visitors and researchers for years to come.
Marguerite Nugent, Head of Curatorial Services
Text source: PCF / Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage
This description was originally written for a catalogue.
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