Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street

1898-1901 art gallery extended 1985 and 2009 when neighbouring library incorporated

Whitechapel Gallery: pre-history and early history up to 1914
Contributed by Survey of London on July 5, 2016

Although it opened in 1901, the Whitechapel Gallery can date its effective foundation to 1881 when Samuel Barnett began an annual picture exhibition in three rooms at the St Jude’s schools behind St Jude’s church in Commercial Street. The exhibitions themselves grew, before the founding of Toynbee Hall, out of the Barnetts’ wider educational mission, more particularly the inspiration that art could bring in ‘the paralysing and degrading sights of our streets’ in Whitechapel.  The Barnetts had often conducted rather awkward parties where their impoverished neighbours could see ‘interesting and beautiful things’ in the drawing room of the vicarage. 1

Despite the rather dimly lit rooms, hemmed in by other buildings, the exhibition attracted 10,000 visitors. It included one room entirely filled with items from the South Kensington Museum, paintings lent by artists and collectors, including work by G.F. Watts and John Brett, middle eastern and western ceramics, including Staffordshire, Wedgwood and contemporary work by De Morgan and others, and art-needlework and Morris & Co other textiles. Costs were low with catalogues a penny and several days with free entry. By 1886, visitors had reached 46,000, and three rooms were added to the school to expand the shows.2

Barnett’s first idea for a site for the new gallery was the Baptist Chapel opposite St Jude’s. It was a convenient and spacious site, and had the potential, like the chapel building itself, for natural lighting on three sides. On several occasions over three years between 1893 and 1896, Barnett’s friend, Dr John Clifford, pastor of Westbourne Park chapel, approached the chapel's pastor on the Barnetts’ behalf. The pastor’s initial response in June 1893 was that he did not think the church ‘would be in the least disposed to sell’ the building. 3  Despite this discouragement, by the following month a draft scheme for a charitable trust had been prepared and by February 1894 Barnett had come up with an ambitious proposal for a large building combining picture gallery, art school and accommodation for the Whitechapel District Board. The Board had met in inadequate accommodation in Little Alie Street since its inception in 1888 and in 1890-1 a special committee had assessed costs and plans of various other local town halls as models. 4

In March 1894 the architect Charles Harrison Townsend had produced a grand outline scheme for the site. 5 Townsend was a long-term associate of the Barnetts, whom he had met at a party in 1877, the year that his sister Pauline began her 22 years of work for the Barnetts, setting up a Whitechapel branch of the Society for Befriending Young Servants. He had also been on the committee that organised the St Jude’s picture exhibitions since they began. He was then working on the Bishopsgate Institute for the educational reformer Revd William Rogers, with public library, hall and meeting rooms, and would soon be building the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill.

As well as the chapel, the scheme was to occupy the sites of seven houses to the rear in New Castle Place, ‘by its nature not likely to be expensive’. The building, known only from a letter to Barnett, would house not only a top-lit gallery, accessed by a wide staircase and lift, on the second floor, but an art school (on the first floor), 19 ‘vestry offices’ (in fact, offices for the Whitechapel District Board of Works) and a boardroom to seat 64 (on lower ground and first floors) and a vestry hall to seat 755 on the raised ground floor.  An additional house in New Castle Place could be adapted as a caretaker’s house. Townsend estimated the cost of this building at a highly optimistic £8,000 to £10,000. 6

C. Harrison Townsend, First design for Whitechapel Art Gallery,
1896

Charles Harrison Townsend, elevation of first design for Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1896 (from The Studio, 10 [1897], p. 131)

In the summer of 1896 Townsend exhibited a front elevation of the picture gallery at the Royal Academy. It was radically original, a symmetrical frontage in warm yellow flanked by square towers topped by ogee-capped cylindrical final stages. Between the towers the upper half of the frontage was set back and convex, its upper half entirely filled with a 65ft-long mosaic by Walter Crane of classical figures, probably the Muses, set against an arcade, the lower half a real arcade of five semi-circular windows. These sat behind a straight balustrade topping the lower half of the frontage, striped in grey-green Cipolino marble, above a pair of doors set under a giant semicircular arch of reddish-yellow and white marble. 7 Two years earlier Townsend’s art critic brother Horace had visited the radical American architect H. H. Richardson and had reported on this in the Magazine of Art in 1894. Harrison Townsend’s design, especially the rugged stonework of the battered ground level and the repeated bold semicircular arches, was one of the first expressions in the UK of Richardson’s influence.

Charles Harrison Townsend, plans of first design for Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1896 (from The Builder, 30 May, 1896)

Although by the time it was exhibited in the summer of 1896 it was described merely as a design for the new picture gallery, the vast scale – it was around 110ft wide – can only mean it was designed for the site of the Baptist chapel and schools, that is the width of the seven houses in New Castle Place to the west that Townsend had mentioned to Barnett. It was evidently the site Barnett favoured, though Harrison’s design was more an aspiration than a serious suggestion for a building costing less than £10,000.

Barnett had apparently abandoned the idea of including the Board of Works hall and offices in his scheme, after a final approach to the Board in 1895. 8 The realities of financing the gallery were making themselves felt, more particularly the views of a significant potential benefactor. In 1894 the painter G.F. Watts, a long-term supporter of Barnett’s Toynbee exhibitions, had raised the possibility of a major donation for the new Whitechapel gallery with the Cornish philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, who had paid for the library and lecture hall at the South London Gallery. Edwards was a generous but controlling philanthropist, a position that was to dog the Whitechapel Gallery.

‘Your idea of municipal buildings, picture gallery etc for Whitechapel is too capacious and composite for me,’ he told Barnett. ‘What Mr Watts and I talked over was a very different thing, and was merely a picture gallery as an addition to Toynbee Hall, as the Lecture Hall and Library I paid for at Camberwell … was an addition to the South London Fine Art Gallery.’ 9 Most tellingly he added ‘I am surprisingly egotistic to do a thing in this way wholly or not at all. I can’t carry out your big scheme and must confine my attention to smaller ones.’

Until the summer of 1896 Barnett was still pursuing both the idea of an art school and the Baptist chapel site. He took soundings both on the advisability of including some kind of art school, perhaps in response to the closure of C.R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft at Essex House in Mile End Road the previous year. The consensus was that the proximity of the nascent Cass Institute and the Whitechapel Craft school (for training elementary teachers) made another art school superfluous : ‘If the Cass Inst. has an art school there will hardly be room for another so near and there is no local clientele to draw on for such a school… You would probably find that those who used the gallery were by no means the same people as came to the school, and that the latter came from a distance. 10 Another suggestion was that some kind of joint enterprise might be possible. At the same time Dr John Clifford continued to press for the Baptist Chapel site on Barnett’s behalf.

Passmore Edwards, however, was not keen on the art school idea, and also favoured a site on Whitechapel High Street, adjoining the Free Library for whose building he had paid in 1891-2. This consisted of 80a, 81 and 82 Whitechapel High Street. One of the gallery’s other benefactors, the banker Samuel Montagu, Baron Swaythling, reported to Barnett that ‘your architect is not sweet on the site’, which had a frontage of only 50ft, which included shops and the west side of the notorious slum Queen’s Place,.and referred to the ‘difficulties of Mr Passmore Edwards’ selection of that particular site’, one being the ‘high’ price. Originally only about a depth of 80ft had been considered but Townsend could not fit in a usable building (the Guildhall Picture Gallery at 5000sq ft was the model suggested by Barnett), More land was added which extended about 130ft to Warner’s Osborn Street iron foundry to the rear. The site enjoyed a High Street frontage, including the four shops, and the cost was £6000. However, the offer of £5,000 by Edwards to pay for the building itself was enough to decide the matter in the site’s favour. Townsend had begun considering the possibilities of the High Street site in May 1896, when he had already come up with the basic eventual components of two nave- like galleries one above the other, the lower wider to allow strips of rooflights at the edges. Townsend politely quashed Barnett’s notion of a further gallery beneath: ‘As this is a basement room I hardly see how to arrange this.’ 11

There followed an exhausting two years for Barnett while he clawed together the funds for the site, all the while mollifying the demanding Passmore Edwards, and the over-optimistic Townsend who admitted in February 1898 that his building was likely to cost £7000. William Blyth, secretary to the trustees, went to see Passmore Edwards who ‘thinks Townsend a very expensive architect & one who places too much importance upon artistic effect’. He told Blyth he thought ‘his’ architect, Maurice B. Adams, editor of the Building News, which Passmore Edwards owned, and designer of the St George in the East Free Library in Cable Street, for which Passmore Edwards had paid, could have put up a suitable building for £5000. 12

A further and trickier problem soon arose when Passmore Edwards made it plain that though he had offered a further £1200 it was dependent on the gallery being named the Passmore Edwards Gallery. Townsend tried manfully to squeeze the name Passmore Edwards Picture Gallery, ‘the Passmore Edwards… in a smaller font… [so as not to] make it the every eye and centre of the building as he wants’, on to the frontage, as he knew a lot of money depended on it. 13 Townsend later told Barnett that Passmore Edwards had offered to make him the architect of a building he was about to ‘present’ if Townsend succeeded in having the gallery named after him. As a sop, Barnett succeeded in getting the neighbouring Free Library renamed the Passmore Edwards Library, but was adamant that ‘Neither by word, or by letter have you asked or have I given a promise about the name of the gallery’, expressing ‘regret that you cared to blot with a name charity so noble as yours’, later apologising to the sensitive Passmore Edwards for the word ‘blot’. 14  Passmore Edwards was equally assertive about his ‘little weakness’ and withdrew the offer of the extra funds.

The issue for Barnett was his incomprehension about personal vanity, which he lacked, and of fairness to the many other donors. His prominence as a social reformer meant these were varied in source and amount. Caroline Turner, Headmistress of the High School for Girls, Exeter, wrote to Barnett with a small subscription in October 1897: ‘During the Spring Term of this year, I gave some Literature Lessons to the elder girls on William Morris and his hopes and efforts for happier lives for the people. Soon after we saw a notice of your wish to get a permanent Picture Gallery for the East End, and the enclosed cheque represents a few subscriptions from those of my Literature Class who were able and willing to help.’ John Bullock, a Toynbee Hall resident, sent £5, which ‘he was ashamed to be enclosing’. But the bulk of the money came, directly or through their contacts, from the Anglo-Jewish community of City financiers with a long-standing interest in Barnett’s Whitechapel work. Samuel Montagu, who had offered £100 reward to help catch Jack the Ripper (because the murders had led to an upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks), gave £1000 and suggested finding another five similarly inclined donors. Chief among these was Barnett’s friend and fellow trustee, Edgar Speyer, future supporter of the Proms and the developer of the Tube network, who secured £700 from Schroeders, Hambros, Werhner Beit & Co. and L. Messel, and who gave more than £2,500 himself when the amount raised fell short. 15 Other major donors were the shipbuilder A.F. Yarrow, whose firm was based on the Isle of Dogs, and the Cornish landowner, horticulturist and secret philanthropist J.C. Williams of Caerhays Castle, who gave £1000 on condition of anonymity.16  Fundraising in 1897 had not been made easier by demands made on the charitable purse by two major campaigns that year for Indian famine relief and the Prince of Wales Hospital fund. Speyer also found that ‘the scheme is one that does not appeal to everybody’ 17

Whitechapel Art Gallery was established as a charity, its constitution finalised by the early 1899. Its trustee body and stated aims reflected the Barnetts’ 25-year mission to educate their parishioners and provide the spiritual balm of art. Trustees included among its co-opted Trustees, Henrietta Barnett and their long-term benefactor Speyer, and representatives of, inter alia, the neighbouring Free Library, the London Parochial charities, the Royal Academy, of Toynbee Hall and the Technical Education Board of the LCC. Its aims were to mount free loan exhibitions of ‘high-class modern pictures’, or those illustrating history, art and industry, and work by local people including schoolchildren. 18

Building work had commenced in November 1898 and was completed a year later, despite Passmore Edwards withdrawing £1200 of his offered £7200 when Barnett stood firm on naming the gallery after him. A.F. Yarrow, the shipbuilder donor made up half the shortfall with the observation that ‘This seems to me a very funny sort of demand [the name of the gallery], as his name is pretty well scattered all over England.’ The builder was John Outhwaite & Son of East Smithfield, a some-time Whitechapel District Board member. 19

Basement and ground plan of the Whitechapel Gallery as built, from the Architectural Review, 9 (May 1901), p. 129

The gallery’s plan was limited by the narrow deep site, slightly offset because of the ancient, meandering building line to the High Street. The squarish entrance hall was flanked by a small space intended for a lift and a square staircase hall to the right leading to the first and second floors. The entrance hall led through to a 100ft x 50ft lower gallery, a spare nave-like room its trabeated ceiling set between higher pitched glazed roofed aisles, its south end lit by a light well created against the neighbouring library. At the north west end of the main gallery was a smaller top-lit gallery separated from it by another staircase.

First- and second-floor plans of the Whitechapel Gallery as built, from the Architectural Review, 9 (May 1901), p. 130

The main stairs at the front led up to narrow first-floor gallery sitting over the central part of the lower gallery, with an exposed curved-brace top-lit roof. Over the entrance hall was a committee room across the front of the building, with store- and caretaker’s room above.

Photograph of tthe Whitechapel Gallery, 1901, from the Architectural Review, 9 (May 1901), p. 131

The frontage to Whitechapel in an austere 1890s free-style, is arresting, a simplified, sleeker version of Townsend’s Baptist Chapel site design. It is dominated by a giant semicircular arch over twin entrance doors, asymmetrically set beneath a strip of simple square windows lighting the first floor. The second floor rooms were originally lit only from the side and rear to allow for a giant panel set between tapering square towers, each topped by four small steeply gabled roofs, but not the caps Townsend hoped to add. This panel was intended for a mosaic, The Sphere and Message of Art by Walter Crane, in a sinuous fin-de-siècle manner, adorned with peacocks and lilies. Figures of Poesy, Truth, History etc pay homage to a seated figure of Art, gazing into her speculum naturae.

Walter Crane's unexecuted de

The money to pay for its execution was never forthcoming. The frontage was uniformly clad in buff terracotta tiles by Gibbs & Canning of Tamworth, the only decoration bracket voussoirs to the deep entrance arch, string courses and shallow-relief moulded trees in an art nouveau manner to the bases of the towers, and gilded Whitechapel Art Gallery lettering carved above the twin entrance doors by Daymond & Sons.

The walls were lined in red-dyed linen, from Liberty, with a framework of battens from which to hang pictures, with a similar treatment to the moveable wooden screens to augment the hanging space.

Ideas for a frieze in the entrance hall by Gerald Moira, then working on the frieze in the Bechstein (later Wigmore) Hall also came to nothing.20 Thrift determined the interior fittings – kamptulicon rubberised matting in the board room, coconut matting and woodblock in the galleries, a plain mosaic floor in the entrance vestibule.

The gallery was opened by Lord Rosebery, on 12 March 1901, twenty years after he opened the first of Barnett’s Whitechapel exhibitions. 21 By then Charles Aitken, a former schoolmaster, had been appointed director. He had experience lecturing on art at the Regent Street Polytechnic and the Social and Political Education League, and sported references from Charles Holroyd, director of the Tate Gallery, and Walter Crane, who described him as ‘a friend of ours… I believe he is a well-informed and cultivated man and would be well qualified for such a post.’ 22 At the end of the first year Barnett noted with satisfaction that the Trustees’ ‘aim has been to open to the people of East London a larger world than that in which they usually work, to draw them to a pleasure recreating to their minds, and to stir in them a human curiosity….[they] came in greater numbers than expected, they came both to enjoy and to question, they bought catalogues by the thousand, the attended lectures and they welcomed guidance.’

In the first decade Aitken implemented the Trustees’ stated policies, continuing the St Jude’s schools’ Easter exhibitions, augmented with two or sometimes three themed exhibitions a year. The spring exhibitions, usually a mixture of living artists (works often lent by the artists, or by philanthropic-minded collectors) and old masters (Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Constable, Turner), lent by the national galleries, regularly attracted more than 200,000 visitors. The exhibitions were free, as decreed by the Trust deed, and catalogues cost a penny. Among the themed exhibitions in the first decade were shows on Chinese art and Japanese art, and a pioneering exhibition in 1906 of ‘Jewish Art and Antiquities’, accompanied by lectures by the Chief Rabbi.23 The displays were (typically for the period) crowded, the mission still overtly pedagogic. Of the Chinese exhibition in 1901, Barnett wrote:

‘Objects [were] arranged so as to illustrate the life of the Chinese people… bays of the Gallery transformed into a temple, a shop a rich man’s sitting room and bed-room and a poor man’s room…. ‘The result of the interest was, probably, a more vivid conception of the common humanity of the people's underlying habits so unlike those familiar at home – an increase, therefore, of good will.’  24

The focus was not exclusively fine and decorative art: early exhibitions included one about shipping, complete with detailed ship models. 25 Aitken also set the exhibitions within a wider programme of cultural and educational enlightenment within the gallery, with regular lantern lectures, and concerts by the Ladies’ Aeolian Orchestra.

The upper gallery from the beginning was the focus for displaying the work of local schools, and not exclusively art work, but also ‘excellent displays of gym drill, singing, reciting, first aid and dressmaking.’ 26 A library of prints and photographs of works of art was open to children to borrow, a facility Henrietta Barnett thought ‘quite as important as lending books’. 27

Regular guided school visits were arranged, and Barnett noted with satisfaction in 1903 that it was a ‘common sight on a Sunday a child acting as guide to the family party’. 28

Barnett maintained his faith in the exhibitions as a universal social palliative: ‘A greater love of beauty means, for instance, greater care for cleanliness, a better choice of pleasures, and increased self-respect. The use of the powers of admiration reveals new interests which are not satisfied in a public house, but drives their possessors to do something both in their work and their play which adds to the joy of the earth. The sordid character of many national pleasures and the low artistic value of much of the national produce is due to the unused powers of admiration..’ 29

A first inkling of the Whitechapel’s engagement with the avant garde came in 1907 when members of the New English Art Club (though by then not quite the pioneers they had been when founded in 1886) were included in the Spring exhibition, with the more traditional popular exhibition to be held in the autumn. Much more overtly challenging were Twenty Years of British Art (1890-1910) held in 1910 and Twentieth Century Art: A Review, organised by Aitken, whose efforts at Whitechapel had secured him the directorship of the Tate Gallery, and his successor at Whitechapel, Gilbert Ramsey. Barnett had remained chairman of Trustees till his death in 1913, but Henrietta Barnett was made uneasy by the 1914 show, asking Ramsey ‘not to get too many examples of the extreme thought of this century, for we must never forget that the Whitechapel Gallery is intended for the Whitechapel people, who have to be delicately led and will not understand the Post-Impressionists’ or the Futurists’ methods of seeing and representing things’ 30


  1. Henrietta Barnett, Canon Barnett: His Life, Work, and Friends, 2 vols, London, 1918, vol. 1, pp. 151-3 

  2. ‘St Jude’s Loan exhibition’, London Daily News, 13 April 1881, p.2: The Graphic, 23 April 1881, p. 12: Barnett, op. cit., vol 1, pp. 151, 156] 

  3. Whitechapel Gallery Archives (WGA), WAG/EAR/1/5 

  4. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), L/WBW/5/5 

  5. WGA, WAG/EAR 1/1 (i); WAG/EAR/1/3] 

  6. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/4 

  7. The Studio, 10 (1897), pp. 130-1 

  8. THLHLA, L/WBW/10/12 

  9. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/2 

  10. WGA, WAG/EAR1/1 (i) 

  11. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/3 

  12. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/2 

  13. WGA, WAG/WAR/1/3 

  14. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/2 

  15. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/1 (i) 

  16. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/1 (ii) 

  17. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/1 (i) 

  18. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/0284 

  19. LMA, District Surveyor's Returns for Whitechapel (DSRs): WGA, WAG/EAR/1/3; WAG/EAR/1/8; WAG/EAR/1/9; WAG/EAR/1/10; WAG/EAR/1/11] 

  20. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/3 

  21. WGA, Annual Report, 1901, p. 7 

  22. WGA, WAG/EAR/1/11 

  23. WGA, Annual Report, 1906, p. 9: Sarah MacDougall, ‘ “Something is happening there”: early British Modernism, the Great War and the Whitechapel Boys’, in London, Modernism, and 1914, ed. Michael J.K. Walsh, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 122-47 

  24. WGA, Annual Report, 1901, p. 10 

  25. WGA, Annual Report, 1903, p. 5 

  26. WGA, Annual Report, 1902, p. 7 

  27. WGA, Annual Report, 1902, p. 15: ‘The Quasi-Autobiography of Dame Henrietta Barnett by her assistant Marion Paterson', LMA, LMA/4063/006 

  28. WGA, Annual Report, 1904, p. 3 

  29. WGA, Annual Report, 1906, p. 3 

  30. WGA, Annual Report, 1907, p. 6: MacDougall, op. cit., p. 131 

Whitechapel Gallery since 1914
Contributed by Survey of London on Jan. 25, 2017

The Gallery in war and peace, 1914-39

The shows were emblematic of an attempt to shift away from the over-arching pedagogic tone and paternalistic governance of the early years. After the First World War which claimed the lives of Gilbert Ramsay and his successor, Samuel Theed, though, the gallery was to be hampered on and off for more than 50 years by financial difficulties. As early as 1904 Barnett had succeeded in interesting the LCC in taking it over, a proposal that failed only when it became clear that in ceasing to be a charity, the gallery would lose £1000 a year of its funding from the London Parochial Charities and others. Instead, a grant from the LCC of £350 a year was agreed in 1908, for which the LCC was granted use of the upper gallery for exams and exhibitions illustrative of educational work three months of the year.1 This grant had been reduced to £250 by 1916, when the war curtailed the LCC’s work, and was discontinued entirely in 1922.2  The loss of this and the low ebb of donations meant that with an income under £1000 a year closure, at least for part of the year, was a possibility, though the London Parochial Foundation stepped in with an extra £500 in 1923, and the secretary/curator, J.N. Duddington, continued in a hand-to-mouth fashion throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, scraping together donations and bequests to sustain three exhibitions a year.

The financial precariousness of the Gallery meant few changes to its structure beyond maintenance and decoration for many years. In 1918 two murals either side of the entrance hall by Elsie McNaught were created as a memorial to Samuel Barnett.3  In 1924 the lower galleries ‘which had become very depressing in appearance’, were whitewashed and the walls matchboarded and painted with cream Sanotex ‘which gives a good background to all works of art’. 4

A notable event in the 1930s, a decade when shows were aimed principally at a local audience once again, was the display in January 1939, in the final months of the Spanish Civil War, of Picasso’s Guernica, which attracted a large audience and raised funds for ‘Aid Spain’.

A shift in direction, 1945-76

During the war the building had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and the roof sustained some damage, repaired after the war by grant from the newly founded Arts Council of Great Britain. 5 The following 30 years saw a renewed negotiation between the needs of the gallery as a local resource in a period of constantly changing Whitechapel demographic and successive directors’ desire to develop an adventurous exhibitions’ programme. An editorial in the Burlington Magazine in 1951, ‘the Whitechapel Gallery can no longer draw the same crowds, nor serve quite the same purpose as before. In 1900 the East End had little in the way of entertainment except public houses, whereas now the Gallery has to compete with film, the wireless, television, football pools and greyhound racing….to-day residents of Whitechapel tend to travel to the West End for entertainment.’ 6 Visitor numbers had fallen to less than 13,000 a year by the time Hugh Scrutton was appointed director in 1947 but he succeeded, with renewed grant aid from the LCC, the local East London boroughs, the newly founded Arts Council, and private donations in raising this to 41,000 by 1953. The year before a new young Director, Bryan Robertson had been appointed and radically shifted the gallery’s focus in his 17-year tenure from the parochial to the international with a series of what would now be called blockbusters of contemporary art, including, one-person shows of Mark Rothko, Bridget Riley and Jackson Pollock, as well as This is Tomorrow in 1956, a collaboration between artists, sculptors and architects often cited as the founding of Pop Art in Britain as it included Richard Hamilton’s collage Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, So Appealing? 7

From 1949 to 1970 the upper gallery was rented by the LCC London Education Services (then, from the LCC’s demise in 1965, by the Inner London Education Authority) for exhibitions aimed at school parties (‘The Artist in the Theatre’, ‘A creative approach to printmaking’) and for classes in printmaking, pottery, etc. 8  But while these shows raised the gallery’s profile and visitor numbers, it did not connect with the local authorities, who cut their grants. Mark Glazebrook, Robertson’s successor in 1968, cemented this change in direction by taking back into gallery use in 1970 the upper gallery. He felt that the distinction between ‘education’ and ‘non- educational’ art was undesirable, and saw the upper gallery as ‘potentially one of the most desirable galleries in London. Cleared of its present screens and cubicles, so that one could see the architectural shell, and rejoined to the Lower Gallery, it would add up to being by far the finest set of galleries in London for certain exhibitions…. [and] could put the Whitechapel “back in business”’ 9

Glazebrook resigned in 1971, and there followed a difficult period when the gallery was dependent on a reluctant GLC (its Conservative Leader, Desmond Plummer, had observed in 1970 ‘I very much doubt the value of this Art Gallery and am dubious of its management’), the Arts Council and private donations via the Whitechapel Gallery Society had fallen to £68.

Whitechapel Gallery First extension, 1984-5

By the mid 1970s the Whitechapel Gallery was in poor condition: ‘The problem here is mostly one of maintenance. It is a strongly built building but expensive to keep up, and the architect did not consider this necessity in his design’ 10 ‘The gutters are asphalt with absurdly small outlets’, the windows were leaking and the terracotta frontage with dark with grime.’

It was Nicholas Serota, appointed director in 1976, who dealt comprehensively with the chronic financial shortage, both by securing commercial sponsorship and increasing grant aid, and with a change in the Gallery’s constitution allowing him to charge for exhibition entry. 11  This made possible much- needed improvements to the building. The first idea was to adapt the former George Yard Mission infants school of 1886 on the west side of the Gallery adjoining Angel Alley, a building first considered for acquisition in 1923. 12  A feasibility study by Colquhoun & Miller, architect, in September 1976, proposed extending the café then in what had been the small side gallery westwards on to the site of Shaftesbury House, Angel Alley, adding a new staircase accessing the school building. The school was to have a ground-floor bookshop and first-floor lecture theatre whose east windows looked down into the ground-floor gallery whose side rooflight were to be raised to create a lightwell between gallery and school. Two bridges linked school building and first floor gallery across this. The original staircase at the north end, reputedly so hard to locate that some visitors missed entirely the first-floor gallery, was to be opened into the gallery aisle. 13 A further scheme of December 1976 by A.J. Goddard Partnership, architects, proposed filling in the main lightwell next to the main front staircase, with a shop and store, and office above. 14 A final version of the Colquhoun & Miller scheme in January 1979 adopted this filling-in proposal and moved the staircase to beside the main entrance, with a new lift. 15

In the event only minimal adaptation of the school as a lecture theatre and bookshop was carried out , and further funds were secured over the next three years for a new wing on its site to a design of 1982-3 also by Colquhoun & Miller (job architect: R.J. Brearley). 16 This was built by R. Mansell (City) Ltd in 1984-5, necessitating closure of the gallery for a year, at a cost of £1.6m. 17

The final design followed the broad principle established in 1976 but the school and former side gallery and main staircase were replaced by a new T-plan building, wider than the school building. This housed, on the school site, a lecture theatre to the ground floor, with café, education room and offices on three floors above. Adjoining to the north on the site of the old main staircase, side gallery and part of the Shaftesbury House site were four stories with ground-floor storage/loading bay, first-floor meeting and audio- visual room and second-floor top-lot gallery. The two parts of the plan were linked by a new straight east-west staircase rising east to west, made monumental by a slight narrowing along its length, its bottom steps spilling into the main gallery to signify its presence. The idea of shifting the Gallery’s main front staircase to the lightwell was implemented, the space at the front taken up with a bookshop to ground floor and workshop and mechanical services above. The manner was 1980s Postmodern, the exterior to Angel Alley clad in yellow brick with bands of red broadly reflecting the floor levels, and quasi-classical oriels, that to the south front of the extension a tall, narrow semi-cylinder, that to the west front a huge shallow bay lighting the café. Inside small-paned semi-circular lunettes over internal doors both referenced Harrison Townsend’s window manner, but also had a fashionable hint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

A doubling in size since 2001: the incorporation of the Passmore Edwards Library

If the 1980s represented a rejuvenation for the Whitechapel Gallery through commercial links, then the 2000s was the age of the Heritage Lottery Fund. Although the 1984-5 extension had improved the physical environment of the gallery and its circulation, lack of space meant it had to close for 10 weeks a year to allow exhibitions to be installed. 18 An opportunity to expand arose in 2003 with the Passmore Edwards library adjoining the gallery to the east, scheduled to close in 2005 with the opening of the new Idea Store on Whitechapel Road and the possibility for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund established in 1994. A further £2.8m was raised in 2006 by a sale of work donated by, inter alios, Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and Julian Schabel. 19

Iwona Blazwick, who had become director in 2001, agreed to buy the library building and a shortlist of architects was invited to submit ideas, with Foreign Office Architects, Caruso St John, Patel Taylor, dRMM, Lacaton and Vassal and Robbrecht en Daem submitting. 20 The Belgian partnership of Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem were chosen, with the help of a panel including the artists Michael Craig-Martin and Rachel Whiteread, on the strength of their experience in adapting existing buildings, such as the Katoen Natie cultural centre in Antwerp, and because, as Blazwick put it, they were the only firm not to suggest ‘bringing the street into the gallery’; she preferred that it be a ‘refuge’, as both it and the library had been since for the people of Whitechapel they were built. 21

The new layout integrated the two buildings by removing the Gallery’s 1980s staircase, and knocking through to the entrance hall of the former library, whose slightly higher level was maintained. This distinction of the separateness of the buildings was underlined by the varying treatment of the spaces, the original gallery’s architectural character generally respected (although the entrance wall of the main gallery and its 1980s doors were removed to increase its size), the library treated in a more interventionist manner. This is evident in the stripping away in the former library reading room, the main room at the rear of the ground floor, to reveal bare brick, only the vaguely Tudoresque pilasters and columns retained. In this room large corner pyramidal rooflights were inserted, that to the northeast corner inverted, a Mannerist conceit, but one intended to respect the rights to light of buildings on Osborn Street. This room became the Commissions Gallery, to display changing installations created especially for the space. Office spaces either side of the library’s entrance became a café, the 1980s café overlooking Angel Alley becoming more gallery space.

The library’s existing staircase became the main access to the first floor, with the former reference library across the front of the first floor turned into an archive study room and archive gallery separated by a glazed wall: one condition of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant was that the redevelopment should include space for studying and displaying the Gallery’s archive. [Hall, op. cit.] should make use of its archive and new access from a first floor landing through to the original Whitechapel Gallery’s upper gallery and the library’s former museum space, its queen-post roof with curved braces exposed. This is the Collections Gallery, to display work from private and public collections lacking exhibition space of their own. The most substantial changes was a new study space added to the top floor of the library, behind the shaped gable of the original building, made a feature hard up against the room’s south window. This apparent retention of original fabric is in fact a reinstatement of the gable which had been taken down in the 1970s. Large windows opposite look across the complex roofscape of the building towards Spitalfields. Further access to this and all floors is provided by a service stair and lift behind the two café rooms. A further lift was added off the 1980s staircase to the rear of the original gallery. The building was topped off by a copper and steel weathervane by the Canadian artist Rodney Graham depicting Erasmus riding backward on a horse, reading his The Praise of Folly. 22

Construction began in the summer of 2007, with Witherford Watson Mann architects as executive partners, and Wallis Special Projects as main contractor. 23 The total cost of the project was £13.5m. 24

Rachel Whiteread's Tree of Life sculpture on Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. © Copyright Roger Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Since the Gallery reopened on 5 April 2009 the only substantial intervention has been the Rachel Whiteread ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture added to the frontage as part of the London 2012 embellishments of Whitechapel High Street for the London Olympics. The work elaborates Townsend’s original decoration of stylised trees, gilding some his terracotta leaves and adding gilded bronze leaves (made in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) cast from Townsend’s leaves, in loose bunches (a scheme partly inspired, according to Whiteread by the ‘Hackney weed’, buddleia), breaking free from his regimented ranks of tree to scatter across the towers and the blank panel intended for the Crane mosaic. That panel is further embellished with four casts of the small first-floor windows in relief, the play of negative/positive space a Whiteread signature motif. 25


  1. London Metropolitan Archives [LMA], GLC/AR/HB/01/340 

  2. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/285 

  3. ibid 

  4. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/286 

  5. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/287 

  6. Burlington Magazine, 93/574 Jan 1951, pp. 3-4 

  7. Marco Livingstone, 'Reshaping the Whitechapel: Installations from Tomorrow to Today’, The Whitechapel Art Gallery Centenary Review, 2001, pp. 32-6 

  8. LMA, GLC/DG/AR/07/060; GLC/AR/EOM/15/016 

  9. LMA, GLC/DG/AR/07/060 

  10. Architect's report by Dr R.D.H. Gem, inspector, to the Historic Buildings Council for England, 5 June 1975, HEA, historians’ file TH192 

  11. Janeen Haythornthwaite, ‘Roller-Coasters and helter-skelters, missionaries and philanthropists. A history of patronage and funding at the Whitechapel Art Gallery’, The Whitechapel Art Gallery Centenary Review, 2001, pp. 18-22 

  12. Whitechapel Gallery Archives [WGA], uncatalogued architectural drawings 

  13. WGA, uncatalogued architectural plans, d. 19 Sept 1976: Jonathan Glancey, ‘Whitechapel Communities’, RIBA Journal, March 1986, pp. 29-33 

  14. WGA, uncatalogued architectural drawings 

  15. ibid 

  16. WGA, uncatalogued architectural drawings: ‘Gallery extension, Whitechapel, Architectural Review, Jan 1984, p. 23 

  17. ‘Extending an artistic tradition: The Whitechapel Gallery’, Architects' Journal, 23 Oct 1985, pp. 35-50 

  18. Rob Sharp, ‘Whitechapel set to grow’, Architects' Journal, 4 May 2006, p. 14 

  19. Michael Hall, ‘The New Whitechapel: A Lantern & Refuge’, Apollo, April 2009, pp. 20-24 

  20. Kester Rattenbury, ‘Vanishing trick’, Architects' Journal, 26 March 2009, pp. 30-39: Andrew Mead, ‘Belgian stars to light up London’, Architects' Journal, 20 Sept 2007, pp. 14-15: ‘Who is Lacaton & Vassal’, RIBA Journal, Oct 2003, p. 9 

  21. Hall, op. cit. 

  22. ‘White Space’, RIBA Journal, April 2009, pp. 50-56: Hall, op. cit. 

  23. Rattenbury, op. cit. 

  24. Hall, op. cit. 

  25. ‘Whiteread at Whitechapel’, RIBA Journal, March 2012, p. 11: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-18432744 

The Gallery in the early 1960s
Contributed by patricia on July 5, 2017

Close to Blooms was the Whitechapel Art Gallery, where we would go, as they had programmes for kids. I think this is where my brother picked up his love of art, as later on he went to art school and a career in advertising.

Whitechapel Gallery, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Short Whitechapel Gallery film about its own history

Contributed by Aileen Reid on July 5, 2016

Pathé newsreel about This is Tomorrow exhibition, 1956

Contributed by Aileen Reid on July 5, 2016

Newsreel about teenagers making art at the Whitechapel Gallery, 1963

Short British Movietone film shows local teenagers making art on Saturday mornings in the Whitechapel Gallery

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Aug. 11, 2016