The Walker Art Gallery is an art gallery in Liverpool, which houses one of the largest art collections in England, outside London. Walker Art Gallery is home to a national collection of paintings, decorative art and sculpture from the 13th century to the present day. Originally developed for the people of the city, it now holds the best collection of historic art outside of London. For 130 years it has housed Liverpool’s most outstanding art collection. Many of the gallery’s most important works have been on display in the city for nearly 200 years.
One of the finest art galleries in Europe, the Walker Art Gallery is home to renaissance masterpieces, Tudor portraits and one of the best collections of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art in the country, also including European Renaissance paintings, masterpieces by Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt, Turner and Stubbs, Pre-Raphaelite artworks by Rossetti and Millais and Impressionist works by Monet and Degas. The Gallery’s ever growing collection of contemporary art means there is always something new to experience.
It is part of the National Museums Liverpool group, and is promoted as “the National Gallery of the North” because it is not a local or regional gallery but is part of the national museums and galleries administered directly from central government funds.
The Walker Art Gallery’s collection dates from 1819 when the Liverpool Royal Institution acquired 37 paintings from the collection of William Roscoe, who had to sell his collection following the failure of his banking business, though it was saved from being broken up by his friends and associates.
In 1843, the Royal Institution’s collection was displayed in a purpose-built gallery next to the Institution’s main premises. In 1850 negotiations by an association of citizens to take over the Institution’s collection, for display in a proposed art gallery, library and museum, came to nothing.
The collection grew over the following decades: in 1851 Liverpool Town Council bought Liverpool Academy’s diploma collection and further works were acquired from the Liverpool Society for the Fine Arts, founded in 1858. The competition between the Academy and Society eventually led to both collapsing.
William Brown Library and Museum opened in 1860, named after a Liverpool merchant whose generosity enabled the Town Council to act upon an 1852 Act of Parliament which allowed the establishment of a public library, museum and art gallery, and in 1871 the council organised the first Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, held at the new library and museum.
The success of the exhibition enabled the Library, Museum and Arts Committee to purchase works for the council’s permanent collection, buying around 150 works between 1871 and 1910.
Designed by local architects Cornelius Sherlock and H. H. Vale, the Walker Art Gallery was opened on 6 September 1877 by Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby. It is named after its founding benefactor, Sir Andrew Barclay Walker (1824–1893), a former mayor of Liverpool and wealthy brewer born in Ayrshire who expanded the family business to England and moved to live in Gateacre.
In 1893, the Liverpool Royal Institution placed its collection on long-term loan to the gallery and in 1948 presented William Roscoe’s collection and other works. This occurred during post-war reconstruction when the gallery was closed, re-opening in 1951. During the Second World War the gallery was taken over by the Ministry of Food and the collection was dispersed for safety.
Extensions to the gallery were opened in 1884 and 1933 (following a two-year closure) when the gallery re-opened with an exhibition including Picasso and Gauguin. In 2002 the gallery re-opened following a major refurbishment.
In 1986, the gallery achieved national status, as part of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.
The Walker’s collection includes Italian and Netherlandish paintings from 1300–1550, European art from 1550–1900, including works by Giambattista Pittoni, Rembrandt, Poussin and Degas, 18th and 19th-century British art, including a major collection of Victorian painting and many Pre-Raphaelite works, a wide collection of prints, drawings and watercolours, 20th-century works by artists such as Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Gilbert and George and a major sculpture collection. The select collection of minor or decorative arts covers a wide range, from Gothic ivories to British ceramics up to the present day.
Victorian Treasures brought together more than 60 outstanding Victorian paintings and watercolours from the art collections of National Museums Liverpool. The exhibition explored the work of leading 19th-century classical artists such as Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward John Poynter. It also showcased work from pioneering Pre-Raphaelite artists including John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.
The Victorian period marked an important change in the way people used and viewed art. Painters focused on the imagination of the spectator and began exploring new, challenging subjects. They explored the fundamentals of human existence and painted emotional scenes inspired by legend and mythology. Artists were also interested in classification, documentation, and enlightenment and freely experimented with new ways of representing the physical world.
Painters also adapted to the expectations of the rising middle class. The new rich merchants and industrialists could afford to become art collectors. A commercial art world developed and painters began making work that would tempt and interest potential buyers.
Victorian Treasures was organised and selected in partnership with the exhibition agency Artis Inc and the art historian Christopher Newall. This hugely popular exhibition toured four major cities in Japan during 2015 and 2016 and was seen by over 150,000 visitors.
Highlights at the Walker Art Gallery:
The Walker Art Gallery is famous for the world-class quality and variety of its collections.
From Rossetti to Hockney, there is a diverse range of art on display including contemporary art and work from as far back as the 13th century.
One day is barely long enough to enjoy all the riches on offer, but we hope that these highlights will help give you a taste of the artistic treasures you will be able to see during your visit.
Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers:
This small display of 14 outfits, drawn from National Museums Liverpool’s costume collection, highlights and celebrates the work of some of the best-known fashion designers – all of whom were or are gay – including Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Dolce and Gabbana. In the past, some of them were forced to hide their sexuality in order to protect their careers.
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. Fifty years ago, in 1967, the Sexual Offences Act was passed. The Act made it legal for a man to have sex with another man, provided it was in private and they were both over the age of 21. Before then, it was illegal to be homosexual and gay men could be arrested and imprisoned.
Fashion Icons complements the Walker Art Gallery’s forthcoming major temporary exhibition, Coming Out, which features a diverse range of artists who have used their work to explore sexuality and gender identity since 1967.
The Pre-Raphaelite artworks that can be seen at National Museums Liverpool’s art galleries are among the best in the world. You can find Pre-Raphaelite art at the Walker Art Gallery, Lady Lever Art Gallery and Sudley House.
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was formed in London in 1848 by seven young artists dissatisfied with the standards prevailing in British Art. Its three chief members were William Holman Hunt (1829-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). They advocated an art of extreme ‘truth to nature’, which they understood in different ways. They painted in bright, hard colours with great attention to detail, and frequently chose high-minded moralistic subjects, loaded with symbolism. They called themselves Pre-Raphaelites because they admired the ‘primitive’ artists of the Italian renaissance, working before the period of Raphael.
Although their exhibited works, which include Millais’ ‘Isabella’, were reviled on their first public exhibition, the group rapidly became popular and influential. Liverpool particularly established itself as a notable source of support in the mid-1850s when its Academy repeatedly awarded its annual prize to Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Liverpool became the only provincial town to have its own school of Pre-Raphaelite artists (The Liverpool Academy). Meanwhile, merchants and industrialists in the area often added Pre-Raphaelite pictures to their own collections and several of these have, over the years, found their way into our collections.
The first John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize exhibition was held in 1957. Sponsored by Sir John Moores, founder of Littlewoods, the competition has been held every two years ever since and is the biggest painting prize in the UK.
There is a regular programme of temporary exhibitions which in 2009-10 has included Aubrey Williams, Bridget Riley, Sickert and Freud.
In 2004, the gallery staged The Stuckists Punk Victorian, the first national museum exhibition of the Stuckist art movement. The Gallery also takes part in the Liverpool Biennial.
The gallery is located on William Brown Street (the only street in the UK to consist of nothing other than museums, galleries and libraries) in a neo-Classical building.
The neighbouring area includes the William Brown Library, World Museum Liverpool, St. George’s Hall, Wellington’s Column, Lime Street Station and the entrance to the Queensway Tunnel. The other major art gallery in Liverpool is Tate Liverpool, at the Albert Dock, which houses modern art.
On 17 December 2011, the Walker Art Gallery got a new addition to its collection – a statue of a priest vandalised by Banksy. The renowned graffiti artist has sawn off the face of an 18th-century replica stone bust and glued on a selection of bathroom tiles. The resulting ‘pixellated’ portrait is entitled ‘Cardinal Sin’ and is believed to be a comment on the abuse scandal in the Church and its subsequent cover-up. This piece of art is displayed in Room three, which is one of the 17th-century Old Master galleries.
As of 2 July 2013, the La Masseuse sculpture by Edgar Degas, previously owned by Lucian Freud, found a permanent home at the Walker Art Gallery, thanks to the donation-in-payment system put in place by the Arts Council England.