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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of London’s Whitechapel Gallery

What is the Whitechapel Gallery?

The Whitechapel Gallery is a contemporary art gallery in the heart of the East End.

History of the Whitechapel Gallery

Since 1901 the Whitechapel Gallery has introduced the public to world-class artists, from modern masters like Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Mark Rothko to internationally acclaimed contemporary artists such as Sophie Calle, Paul Noble, Sarah Lucas and Mark Wallinger. The gallery plays a central role in London’s cultural landscape, and its rolling temporary exhibition programme is a touchstone for contemporary art both in the UK and internationally.

The gallery has a history of firsts. In 1939, Picasso’s Guernica was shown here, on its first and only visit to Britain. This intensely moving work, a violent carnival of stylised figures from Spanish mythology based on the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of the same name, was brought over as part of a touring exhibition to protest the Spanish Civil War and raise support for Republican forces. The show drew in quite a crowd, an unlikely mixture of art connoisseurs and trade unionists. The price of admission? A pair of boots to be sent to the Spanish front.

In 1958, the gallery hosted the first major exhibition of the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Just three years later it was the first British gallery to premiere the work of Mark Rothko. In 1970 and 71, it staged the first shows of David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Richard Long, each receiving great acclaim. A decade later, the gallery introduced the little-known Frida Kahlo to the British public. The turn of the millennium saw Liam Gillick and Nan Goldin mount their first major British shows here. In fact, for over a century now, the Whitechapel Gallery has been the British epicentre for modern and contemporary art, launching the careers of many of our most renowned artists.

The distinctive building, constructed in Arts and Crafts style (a movement which urged a return to craftsmanship and that rebelled against industrialisation), was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. In 2012, Rachel Whiteread was commissioned to design the decoration for the building’s façade. Her Tree of Life features clusters of leaves cast in bronze and plated in gold leaf. The entire exterior blazes with the shimmering foliage. The work was inspired by the frequency in Arts and Crafts art of the tree of life as a motif, but also by ‘Hackney weed’, the urban plants that grow on buildings in the area.

The gallery’s roots lie in philanthropy. In 1881, Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta, philanthropists and socialists, organised the first of what would become 20 years of free art exhibitions, with the hope that it would benefit the local population and encourage them away from pubs and other temptations. Whitechapel at this time was an extremely poor area of London, and as a consequence prostitution and criminality were rife. In 1887, Jack the Ripper was terrorising its streets. The success of their exhibitions led the couple to found the Whitechapel Gallery in 1901, with the specific aim of bringing great art permanently to the East End of London.

The gallery is also a not-for-profit education charity, and since 1901 has presented art alongside more directly didactic projects. The Whitechapel has pioneered artist-in-residence schemes in schools and other educational innovations that have been adopted across the UK and internationally.

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