Birmingham has had its own art gallery since 1867, housed in a room in the Free Library building. From 1877 the room was needed for other purposes and the exhibits were moved to a temporary home, first in Paradise Street and then to Aston Hall. Falling under the remit of the Free Libraries Committee, they were forced to consider the building of a permanent home in the town centre.
The importance of a permanent collection was advocated strongly by brothers George and Richard Tangye (from a prominent Quaker family) in a letter to John Thackray Bunce, then chairman of the Art Gallery Sub-Committee:
“In common with many others, we have long been sensible of the great loss the town sustains in the absence of an adequate Art Collection…We cannot but think if the town and the Council were duly impressed with the vast importance of such a Collection to the trades of the town, the present apathy on the subject would soon cease to exist. It is all very well for critics to exclaim against Birmingham manufacturers and artisans because of their inferiority to their foreign competitors in the matter of design and manufacturers ; but what chances have they of improving in these respects? South Kensington is practically as far away as Paris or Munich, while our competitors on the Continent, in almost every manufacturing town, have access to collections embracing the finest examples of Art, furnishing an endless variety of style and design… – if the Council will agree to make provisions for a permanent Art Gallery, on a scale really commensurate with the necessities of Birmingham, we shall have pleasure in handing over £5,000 to the Free Libraries Committee towards the purchase of Art for exhibition in the gallery….if the gift is met by adequate donations…we will give a further £5,000 for the above-named purpose, making £10,000 in all.”
The Tangye brothers went on to state that while they had brought significant trade to Birmingham, they had also benefited greatly from it and it was their desire to give something back to the town.
The letter was taken before the Council in July 1880 for consideration. As if by chance, the Gas Committee was also looking for new premises and an arrangement was agreed by the Council in August 1880 that, firstly, a site would be appropriated at the rear of the Council House, ‘fronting on the north to Edmund Street, on the west to Congreve Street and on the east to Eden Place, for the purposes of the Art Gallery’ and secondly, that the Gas Committee would have the ground floor of the site on the understanding that the Art Gallery would be above it. Plans for the buildings were submitted and approved by both the Gas Committee and the Free Libraries Committee and the foundation stone was laid on 19th July 1881 by Alderman Richard Chamberlain, Mayor.
Work on the new building began in earnest, and the City Council minutes are a wealth of information on its progress, recorded both in the Proceedings of the City Council (L34.4) and also in the Museum and School of Art Committee minutes (BCC/1/BA/1/1/1), which was established in 1884 to run the Museum and Art Gallery. On 1st January 1885, Whitworth Wallis was appointed the first Keeper of the Birmingham Corporation Museum and Art Gallery.On Friday, 27th November 1885, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales arrived in Birmingham through New Street Station. On Saturday, 28th November the Prince was escorted to the Town Hall where the Recorder read the Address of the Corporation. The Prince responded:
It affords me great satisfaction that an opportunity is granted me of opening your Museum and Art Gallery. I have always taken the warmest interest in the establishment and welfare of institutions of this nature, and I have, moreover, the strongest conviction that, as conducing to the moral improvement of the people, they are deserving of the greatest encouragement, especially in a city of such varied industries as Birmingham.
The Prince was then escorted through to the Museum and Art Gallery and as requested by the Mayor stated “I have great pleasure in declaring these Galleries open to the public”.
130 years on, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is still open to the public and sharing and inspiring everyone with the rich history of Birmingham. To see their anniversary exhibition, why not visit them – details can found on the BMAG website.
Happy Belated Birthday!