Whitechapel Gallery Celebrates Its 120th Year


To commemorate the occasion, the Gallery launches a twelve-month interactive campaign online, sharing rarely-seen material from its historic archives and inviting those with memories about the Gallery to get in touch.

Whitechapel Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Modern Pictures by Living Artists, Pre-Raphaelites and Old Masters, was presented in 1901 and attracted 260,000 visitors. It was rumoured the high numbers were because this was the first encounter with electric lights for many, but Gallery founders Samuel and Henrietta Barnett believed visitors were drawn in by the safe, welcoming space for creative innovation, something the East End had previously lacked. 
The Barnetts believed in the power of art – not only to educate, but also to unite communities who spoke myriad languages, held different religious beliefs and hailed from various backgrounds. Inspired by this idea they raised funds to construct a picture gallery as few inhabitants of the once-poverty stricken area could read or write. They settled on the Whitechapel High Street site, though looking around at London’s prestigious museums, Barnett noticed that they all resembled classical Parthenonesque temples, with grand steps leading up to an inner sanctum. He hired Britain’s most progressive architect, Charles Harrison Townsend, whose first instructions were to create an entrance on street level, providing direct and immediate access to the artwork inside.

The new Whitechapel Art Gallery brought international artists and audiences to the East End, holding such early exhibitions as Chinese Art in 1901, Japanese Art in 1902, Indian Art in 1903 and Muhammadan Art and Life (in Turkey, Persia, Egypt, Morocco and India) in 1908. 
The Gallery also dismantled the expectation that works by the great modern masters were to hang in stately homes, whilst in the same space sharing work by local artists and groups like the Women’s International Art Club. Founded to promote contacts between women artists of all nations, the Club exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery from 1921 until 1966 and counted among its members Eileen Agar (1899-1991), Gillian Ayres (1930-2018), Sonia Delauney (1885-1979), Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993), Gwen John (1876-1939) and Lee Krasner (1908-1984).

Installation view of Mark Rothko, 1961, Courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery
The history of Whitechapel Gallery has since its inception been a history of firsts. It has premiered a roll call of modern masters including Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), David Hockney (b. 1937), Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Cindy Sherman (b. 1954). In recent years artists have included Nan Goldin (b. 1953), Zarina Bhimji (b. 1963), Gillian Wearing (b. 1963), William Kentridge (b. 1955) and Elmgreen and Dragset (founded 1995). 

Installation view of Frida Kahlo, 1982, Courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery

Perhaps its most famous alumni debuted at the Gallery in 1939. The Stepney Trade Union hired the Gallery to show a young Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who aimed to raise consciousness about the Spanish Civil War.  He exhibited just one work – the greatest history painting of the 20th century, Guernica (1937). At Picasso’s request East Enders contributed their boots, leaving them under the painting to be sent to the freedom fighters in Spain. The momentous occasion was revisited in 2009 as Goshka Macuga (b. 1967) hung one of the three existing tapestry copies that were made of Picasso’s work in her commission, The Nature of the Beast. The exhibition took place in a newly reopened Gallery, having expanded into the neighbouring Passmore Edwards Library earlier the same year.

Installation view of Goshka Macuga The Nature of the Beast, 2009

120 years has seen dramatic changes in the East End, but the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibitions, education programmes and spirit of innovation remain constant.
Through The Decades: Whitechapel Gallery Exhibitions 
 To help the gallery live for another 120 years, you can make a donation here


Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter