Whitechapel Art Gallery

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An art gallery in Whitechapel High Street, in the East End of London, devoted to temporary exhibitions, mainly of modern art (there is no permanent collection). It had its origins in the activities of Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett, rector of St Jude's Whitechapel from 1873 to 1894; he was a noted social reformer who from 1881 organized art exhibitions as one of his means of bringing spiritual uplift to his parish, described by his bishop as ‘the worst in the diocese, inhabited mainly by a criminal population’. Private individuals who admired Barnett's work, notably the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, financed a permanent gallery, which was built in 1897–9. The architect was Charles Harrison Townsend, and the façade is one of the best examples of his free and vigorous Arts and Crafts style. The interiors are very simple, with top daylighting to the main gallery. The Whitechapel opened in 1900, with Charles Aitken as first director. In its early years it was a stimulus to several notable artists living in the East End, notably David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, and in 1914 Bomberg organized an exhibition there entitled ‘Twentieth Century Art—a Review of Modern Movements’. During the 1930s the gallery ran shows of local amateur art that contrasted with the elitism of West End exhibitions. Madge Gill (see Automatism) was one of the artists who took part in these shows. In 1938 it was the London venue for the international tour of Picasso's Guernica. The Whitechapel continues to be one of the country's leading venues for exhibitions of modern art. Of particular significance was the period between 1952 and 1969, when the director was Bryan Robertson (1925–2002). Major exhibitions of Jackson Pollock (1958), Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns (both 1964) were held, also the innovatory environmental ‘This is Tomorrow’ (1956), often credited with launching British Pop, and the *‘New Generation’ exhibitions which brought to public attention some of the most significant young British painters and sculptors of the 1960s. The gallery is an independent charitable trust and receives support from the Arts Council and other bodies. A major extension opened in 2009. See also Serota.

Further Reading

F. Borzello, Civilising Caliban (1987). This contains a fascinating, if polemical, account of the activities of Canon Barnett

Subjects: Art.

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