British art museums developed along substantially different lines than those in Continental Europe. Rather than create a centrally supported or designed system of cultural provision, the British Parliament passed permissive legislation in the middle of the nineteenth century that allowed localities to choose to establish public libraries and museums. Cities thus founded art museums independently, at the instigation of committed local reformers and benefactors, while most national institutions proceeded by Parliamentary acts rather than through the nationalization of royal collections. A generation later, inspired by the works of John Ruskin and the new aesthetic of Pre-Raphaelitism, many men (and some women) pushed their cities to create art museums not primarily as a means to educate the public about art history, but to counteract the toxic effects of the moral and physical ugliness of industrial capitalism, and of industrial cities in particular. The resulting institutions formed a new kind of domesticated public space, bringing together ideas about the middle-class home as a refuge and about beauty as a means of “improving” the working classes. However, John Ruskin himself often criticized these efforts as too accommodating of industrial society.
How can we understand the broad range of events, ideas, and people that contributed to a movement as complex as the proliferation of museums across Britain and its dominions in the nineteenth century? Rather than seeing a single answer to this question—and a single cause for the Victorian museum movement—this essay will trace one way of answering that question by focusing on the origins of city art museums, understanding them as part of the wider reaction to industrial capitalism and of the reformist impulse that sought to ameliorate the often appalling conditions of industrial cities. Rather than treating a single event, the following discussion considers the history of this broad social and cultural movement as a series of interrelated events, including the passing of legislation that made museums possible, the publication of ideas and exhibition of art works that supported a new social role for art, the public debates over museum policies and funding, and the founding of the city art museums themselves. Because of the lack of central British cultural planning and support, art museums ultimately arose out of the synergy of multiple actors, who often held contradictory goals—for example, bringing art to the poor vs. improving the cultural profile and prestige of a city—which frequently resulted in institutions with contradictory or inconsistent rhetoric and policies. Despite this, there was also a remarkable convergence of the ideas and policies promoted by networks of reformers. The social use of art that they innovated was both very different from that of today and laid down significant cultural infrastructure and assumptions that carried forward into the twentieth century and beyond.
British art museums developed along substantially different lines than those in Continental Europe. Rather than create a centrally supported or designed national system for cultural provision, Parliament passed permissive legislation in the middle of the nineteenth century that allowed localities to choose to establish public libraries and museums. Cities thus founded institutions independently, at the instigation of committed local reformers and benefactors. In the case of art museums in particular, reformers often acted out from a specific inspiration: the works of John Ruskin and the new aesthetic of Pre-Raphaelitism. Reformers embraced a new vision of art, beauty, and the possibility for aesthetic experience as a powerful means of education, “improvement,” and escape. Men such as Jesse Collings, Whitworth Wallis, and John Henry Chamberlain in Birmingham; James Allanson Picton and Philip Rathbone in Liverpool; and Thomas Coglan Horsfall, Charles Rowley, and James Ernest Phythian in Manchester thus pushed their cities to create art museums not primarily as a means to educate the public about art history, but to counteract the toxic effects of the moral and physical ugliness of industrial capitalism, and of industrial cities in particular. The resulting institutions formed a new kind of domesticated public space, bringing together ideas about the middle-class home as a refuge and about beauty as a means of “improving” the working classes—by which reformers broadly meant educating workers, moralizing them, and generally bringing them into line with middle-class values and comportment. However, John Ruskin himself often criticized these efforts as too accommodating of industrial society (7: 130, 7: 142). The modernist turn in the twentieth century eclipsed for a long time the particular interpretive and social context of Victorian art, as well as its artistic value and complexity. Despite the radical change in aesthetics and the meaning and use of art since the Victorian period, debates over public support for art and over art’s social role continue today because they get at questions fundamental to wealth, justice, and power in capitalist society: what does art do, who should pay for it, and who is it for? What are the relationships between development, ugliness, art, labor, and leisure?
The first permissive legislation on museums and libraries came out of debates in the 1830s and 1840s about British taste and economic competitiveness, and out of the expansion, reform, and formalization of the role of local government. Indeed, museum legislation emerged from the same impulse that led to Parliamentary inquiries into the state of British design, the rise and prominence of design reformer Henry Cole, and ultimately to the Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations of 1851. (See Audrey Jaffe, “On the Great Exhibition.”) Using arguments that local museums would improve both morals and industrial design, Parliament passed the Museums Act of 1845, followed by the Public Libraries and Museums Acts of 1850 and 1855. The Parliamentary debates over the first bill of 1845 reveal some of the fundamental issues in Victorian museum development and in Victorian society at large. First, Members saw art museums in particular as multifunctional: they would improve artisans’ taste, provide refreshment and amusement, give fine examples to artists, and “soften the character” (Hansard 385). A new model of utility was certainly at work; in fact, Mr. Brotherton argued that “It was much better to cultivate a taste for the arts at the public expense than to raise a large amount of taxation for the prevention and punishment of crime” (Hansard 391). Second, while there was general agreement in the debate that museums were a worthy venture, Members disagreed over the extent to which local governments should be given, in the words of Mr. Wyse, “the power of imposing taxation for the physical wants of the community” (Hansard 384). Indeed, Prime Minister Robert Peel weighed in against using taxation to raise funds to build the museums; rather, he suggested, “the town-council should . . . call upon the public for subscriptions to establish the museum, and to say when it was established they would provide, by local taxation, for its maintenance” (Hansard 389). (Rather intriguingly, Peel cited the success of this method in building new churches.) The question of what local governments should provide for their communities included a debate on the merits of parks and playgrounds along with museums—clearly linked in Members’ minds (Hansard 386-87). This connection makes sense when we consider that advocates understood all of these leisure outlets as providing healthy recreation predicated on access to Nature and the wonder of God’s creation, thereby easing social tensions, preventing drunkenness, and acculturating the working classes into middle-class values. Finally, the 1845 debate raised the question of how to reach the working classes; however, while many Members advocated in general terms that the museums should be accessible to workers, only Mr. Sheil argued explicitly that museums should be open on Sundays (Hansard 394).
Parliament’s decision to support regional museums through permissive legislation that could only raise relatively small sums through property taxes—limited in the 1845 Museums of Art Act to a half-penny in the pound, or 0.2%, later doubled in the 1855 Public Libraries and Museums Act—designed a system that explicitly, and from the outset, relied on private initiative and support in addition to government maintenance and administration. Such relatively small sums could never support the development of a substantial collection of art or of natural history specimens, so that local benefactors had to contribute money, time, and objects, and museum committees had to find creative ways to develop their collections. Given the dominance of Liberalism at the time, comprehensive state support or royal patronage on the Continental model were not even considered. Rather, that Parliament put the burden onto private largesse shows us the role of educational and cultural provision as it was then understood: communities could choose to tax themselves a small sum if they wished, but it was left to the private individuals and groups to make the most substantial contributions, which usually (but not always) meant reliance on elite philanthropy. This approach did open up the possibility of wider community involvement; it is worth noting that this was not an entirely top-down process, as museums and libraries often received money or objects from workers and working-men’s associations. Despite workers’ gifts, however, this funding model exemplifies the political balance after the 1832 Reform Act, as it depended on and reinforced the leadership of a privileged elite to bestow benefits on the rest of the community. A potent model soon after the legislation passed was the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, organized as it was by a private committee to be a non-profit, paid-entry exhibition of privately owned works of art. And while the success of that venture led its organizers to attempt to establish a permanent city-run art museum in Manchester in 1860, the Cotton Famine of that time prevented it moving forward. Ultimately, as we will see below, when supporters started to use the mid-century permissive legislation to establish city art museums a generation later, in the economically depressed 1860s and 1870s, they had to be very creative in terms of finding the capital necessary for acquiring buildings and collections.Indeed, while the initial museums and libraries acts came out of concerns about British design and civil unrest (the “hungry forties,” Chartism, and later the revolutions of 1848), cities did not start taking advantage of these provisions until later in the century: of the 211 museums in Britain in 1888, for example, over half had been founded since 1872 (Hill 36). What happened in the meantime was a sea-change in the perception of art. Certainly, multiple voices connected art and morality in the late nineteenth century, deriving ideas from such figures as A. W. N. Pugin, Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, Prince Albert, and George Eliot, to name just a few. Yet the most consistently cited influence among museum supporters in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester was John Ruskin, the great critic of both art and society who connected aesthetics and ethics in new and profound ways. As the voice of a new generation of artists, critics, and buyers, and part of a larger market shift in collecting contemporary artists rather than Old Masters, Ruskin helped to redefine art as part of middle-class culture, associating specific artists (J. M. W. Turner in particular) and movements (Pre-Raphaelitism, in particular) with labor, Godliness, nature, and truth.
We can in fact see Ruskin’s influence on the social use of art in a statement by one of his fiercest critics (and litigant), James McNeill Whistler. (See Nicholas Frankel, “On the Whistler-Ruskin Trial, 1878.″) In his 1885 “Ten O’Clock Lecture,” Whistler blamed the “Sage of the Universities,” the “Gentle priest of the Philistines” (20-21) for what he saw as the many errors of his time period’s ideas about art: “the people have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental, or moral state . . . Beauty is confounded with Virtue, and, before a work of Art, it is asked, ‘What good shall it do?’” (9). Like Whistler’s famous speech (although not sharing his disdain), this essay also argues for Ruskin’s importance to the people who helped make art public in the city museums of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. Ruskin gave reformers a way to think about art and its social role that allowed them to see it as a conduit for beauty, truth, and God even—or most crucially—in the midst of industrial cities.
It is remarkable the extent to which the reformers who wanted to make art public engaged with Ruskin’s work, and often with Ruskin personally, even when he himself disagreed with their attempts to put his ideas into practice. In fact, during the 1870s, largely through his publication Fors Clavigera, Ruskin emphasized that the entire system of Liberalism, free markets, and industrial capitalism, divided as it was into separate and unequal social classes, worked against his understanding of God and morality (7: 142). He tried to make his well-intentioned followers, correspondents, and students see the suffering around them and exhorted them to action: “children should have enough to eat, and their skins should be washed clean. It is not I who say that. Every mother’s heart under the sun says that, if she has one” (8: 63, emphasis in original). To put his ideas into practice, Ruskin began or participated in several projects, such as teaching at the Working Men’s College in London, building roads with Oxford undergraduates, or establishing the Guild of St. George—all of which combined art, education, and manual labor in varying degrees—enacting his particular criticisms of industrial society and his understanding of the close relationships between meaningful work, beauty, and morality (Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty 2-3).
Alongside these efforts, however, most of the many men and women inspired by Ruskin worked to do what they could to bring art, beauty, and nature to their own cities and towns and to address social problems through such means as libraries, museums, and parks. Of course, not surprisingly, most did so without supporting radical economic restructuring or even a fundamental change in Liberal assumptions. Art museum supporters in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester nearly all engaged with Ruskin personally on some level, only to receive similar exhortations to take on more radical social change. Even though Ruskin criticized their projects, however, his followers were deeply committed to enacting his ideas. (Indeed, Ruskin inspired a worldwide audience, as for example described in An Autobiography (1927) by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was one of the few people who did translate Ruskin’s ideas into radical social experimentation [264-69, 275-77]). Part of the larger, international Arts and Crafts movement, such reformers founded Ruskin Societies that presented lectures, produced pamphlets, and organized meetings; created paintings that attempted to achieve “truth to nature”; gave sermons to inspire individual and civic reform; began new communal housing and work ventures to alleviate poverty; designed buildings, furniture, and everyday objects with a new craft aesthetic and philosophy; and founded museums and wrote exhibition catalogues to redeem industrial capitalism using methods inspired by Ruskin’s art and social criticism. Collectively, these enthusiasts created a vision of art and meaningful labor as experiences necessary for counteracting the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism in general, and the ugliness of modern cities in particular. Thus, as Whistler perceived, the art museums in these industrial cities were not intended to teach viewers about art itself, either in terms of established modes of connoisseurship or as showcases for the history of art, in contrast, for example, to the National Gallery at the time, or to nearly all art museums today (Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty 3).
There were two distinct foundational assumptions behind the new libraries, parks, and museums supported and run by local governments. The first was the cult of domesticity, or ideology of “separate spheres,” that celebrated the home as a moral and physical refuge from industrial capitalism. This topic has of course received a great deal of attention in recent years, from the history of the family, gender history, and social history. Writers have emphasized that the cult of domesticity arose in reaction to the physical and moral conditions of work in new conditions of production. New forms of public space such as museums, libraries, and parks took on the qualities associated with the domestic sphere: separate from industrial capitalism and offering refuge, beauty, and morality. For instance, longtime Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery curator Whitworth Wallis explained that his museum hoped to create a space outside of everyday experience: “Ruskin says that the word museum means ‘Belonging to the muses,’ and that all museums ought to be places of noble instruction, where, free from the distractions of the outside world, one can devote a portion of secluded and reverent life to the attainment of divine wisdom, which the Greeks supposed to be the gift of Apollo or of the sun, but which the Christian knows to be the gift of Christ” (“The Museum and Art Gallery” 491). Like a civic version of the ideal Victorian home—a place of moral refuge and repose, outside the hurly-burly of the marketplace—city art museums would provide a domesticated public space for beauty. Art museums could thus bring middle-class ideals to the center of industrial cities, part of the wider response to industrial capitalist society and its perceived ugliness (Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty 4-5). These kinds of associations became especially clear in debates over working-class access to the newly founded art museums, during which Sunday-opening supporters contrasted the “public house” with the “public home.”
A second idea behind the museum movement was that the beauty of nature (and nature through art) was a necessary counterpart to cities, particularly industrial cities. For example, in 1911 Professor of Education Michael Sadler gave a lecture in which he argued, “Those who live in Manchester have their sense sharpened for the beauty and refreshment of unspoiled landscape. We are hungry for it. Through separation from it, we understand what it means to us. And the pictures in the gallery reveal its delights and prepare us for a deeper delight in it” (6). This idea developed out of three related aspects of Victorian society and culture: first, the rapidity of urbanization, and the lucid memory, preserved in literature and art, of village life and country traditions; second, the resulting, often nostalgic, articulation of clear dichotomies in society and culture between the country and the city, even if these differences ignored continuities of exploitation and the model of rural urbanism; and third, the understanding that art acted as a window that could provide an experience of beauty within the ugliness of the city. Advocates linked the set of ideas associated with “home” and those connected to “nature,” both signifying opposition to industrial, commercial cities, in order to bolster their arguments for public art museums (Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty 5). All these reformers shared many assumptions about the role of art in reforming industrial society, but each city had its own politics and economies, and each found a different way of creating a new public space for art. Against the clichés of Cottonopolis or the hard-nosed industrialists who built it, we find the complexities and contradictions of people striving to better a system of profound structural inequality. Using the permissive legislation laid down earlier in the century, arts advocates found creative ways for their cities to acquire purpose-built galleries and the art to put in them.
In Birmingham, leaders embraced sermons on the sanctity of civic service and made culture central to their larger project of municipal reform, while the Society of Art listened to lectures by its President, William Morris, and his ideas made it into the art museum’s catalogues: if we strive to make our industrial products more beautiful, the curator wrote, “life will thus become more interesting both to the man who makes the article and to the one who uses it” (Wallis, Cooper and Co.’s Penny Guide 10). Influenced by John Ruskin, influential ministers such as George Dawson urged city leaders to combine civic and religious duty, using local government to create a beautiful and moral model society at the local level. The resulting Liberal, reform-minded town council first opened an art gallery in a room of the Birmingham and Midland Institute in 1867; its popularity led them eventually to use the profits of the municipalized gas works in combination with the land purchasing powers of the Public Libraries and Museums Act to build an art museum literally, physically connected to the Council House: the municipal utilities literally provided the foundation of the museum, with the gas (and later water) offices below and galleries above. The purpose-built, Italianate Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery opened 28 November 1885, and combined fine and applied arts with an innovative educational program that included Sunday opening and extensive illustrated lectures.
In Liverpool, meanwhile, class divisions and a parsimonious City Council forced art museum supporters to be creative, under the guidance of a city councilor who sought Ruskin’s approval of an aesthete determined to, among other things, bring nude sculptures and paintings to the people. Reformers such as James Allanson Picton and Philip Henry Rathbone worked to establish municipal cultural institutions despite a lack of widespread support and general mistrust of government action. Failing to convince their Conservative colleagues on the Liverpool City Council, in 1871 they instituted municipally run Annual Autumn Exhibitions of works for sale to increase local interest in art. When that succeeded, the Council eventually voted to establish a city art museum, but was saved from the expense of building it by newly elected Mayor, the conservative brewer Andrew Barclay Walker, and the new, purpose-built Walker Art Gallery opened on 6 September 1877. The resulting museum—dependent on the Autumn Exhibition profits for acquisition funds—heavily emphasized works purchased from those exhibitions, and the free-entry permanent collection was frequently displaced. The origins of the museum structured the resulting institution for many years.
In Manchester, ambitious and radical reformers oversaw the gifting of the Royal Manchester Institution (RMI) to the city, but, as reformer Charles Rowley would complain, he was “constantly outvoted because we wanted to teach, and show Art and not to let the Institution be drawn into a merely popular course” (547). At the same time, a group of Manchester enthusiasts set up the first Ruskin Society, founded an art gallery in a slum, and led the movement to gift the RMI to the city to become the Manchester City Art Gallery. Thomas Coglan Horsfall and James Ernest Phythian in particular corresponded with John Ruskin and received advice, encouragement, and correction from him, and worked to create and run the new city art museum (Woodson-Boulton, “John Ruskin” 61-62). As it developed, the Manchester City Art Gallery became an important arts venue, particularly for showing the works of the Royal Academy (a source of disappointment to local artists and reformers alike), but it did not become the source of cultural transformation that many of its more ardent supporters had envisioned.
In all three cities, eager Ruskinians tried to put his ideas about the beauty of art and of nature—that is, that the best art evinces truth to nature and thus shows the wonder of God’s creation—into action in order to transform their cities. Yet Ruskin consistently corrected them, urging them to provide clean water, air, and housing before attempting to make their cities beautiful or to bring beauty and art to the people. For example, in the summer of 1877, Ruskin in fact came to Birmingham to meet with a group of the leading municipal reformers at the home of the next mayor, and member of Ruskin’s Guild of St. George, George Baker (Hilton, xix-xx, 639-40). This moment highlights all of the tensions between Ruskin, with his Cassandra-like calls to arms against the ills of his time, and the men earnestly attempting to follow his advice. After this meeting, Ruskin admitted in Fors Clavigera that he felt like a “good ship . . . struck by a heavy sea,” but that he was “most clearly impressed by . . . the right-mindedness of these men, so far as they see what they are doing . . . nor, under the conditions apparent to them, [did he] believe it is possible for them to act more wisely or faithfully” (7: 142). He then succinctly described his disagreement with those who sought to improve their industrial cities, even when they had been inspired to do so by his own work:
All they showed me, and told me, of good, involved yet the main British modern idea that the master and his men should belong to two entirely different classes; perhaps loyally related to and assisting each other; but yet,—the one, on the whole, living in hardship—the other in ease;—the one uncomfortable—the other in comfort; the one supported in its dishonourable condition by the hope of labouring through it to the higher one,—the other honourably distinguished by their success, and rejoicing in their escape from a life which must nevertheless be always (as they suppose,) led by a thousand to one of the British people. (7: 142)
Fundamentally at odds were the reformers’ Liberal attempts to make industrial capitalism work, through government intervention, and his rejection of this same system, although he—like many others, before and since—could never articulate a clear alternative vision.
The histories of the city art museums in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester show the extent to which they owed their founding to several (sometimes overlapping) groups: highly motivated reformers convinced of art’s efficacy and of industrial society’s glaring deficiencies; others who felt that museums would provide excellent models for both working-class behavior and industrial design; and the many citizens who enjoyed art museums’ prestige and cultural capital. Indeed, in this historical moment, “art” as a concept meant many things to many people, and could fill many different social roles; this is ultimately why cities built art museums. Reformers believed that art could effect social healing, promote moral and cultural regeneration, and train workers to become alive to beauty in the world and in design. Even those who did not accept art’s reforming potential, however, felt that art had a particular ability to raise the civic profile and provide a key arena for genteel sociability. Most supporters associated the resulting public spaces with the domestic sphere, set apart from the corrosive effects of industrial society, and emphasized the importance of art for the experience it offered of beauty, morality, and narrative. Yet these new public collections, like the homes they emulated, depended on the wealth generated from the same rampant commercialism they sought to beautify and soften (Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty 19-20). Although our uses of art have shifted after the modernist revolution in aesthetics, we still live with this fundamental contradiction at the heart of culture, and at the crux of the divide between mass culture and high art.
published November 2012
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
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RELATED BRANCH ARTICLES
Pamela Fletcher, “On the Rise of the Commercial Art Gallery in London”
Nicholas Frankel, “On the Whistler-Ruskin Trial, 1878″
Anne Helmreich, “On the Opening of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854″
Audrey Jaffe, “On the Great Exhibition”
Aviva Briefel, “On the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition”
 This following account relies heavily on my previously published work. See Woodson-Boulton, “A Window onto Nature,” “Victorian Museums and Victorian Society,” “John Ruskin,” and Transformative Beauty. Portions of pages 2-5 of the latter are reproduced with permission of Stanford University Press. This essay does not consider the national museums in London, Edinburgh, or Dublin, although some similar issues were at stake. The founding of the National Gallery of British of Art (the Tate Gallery) in 1897 followed many of the patterns and policies of the regional city art museums.
 See Kriegel for a good discussion of these debates.
 The following paragraph is largely taken from Woodson-Boulton, “Victorian Museums and Victorian Society” 119-20.
 Benefactors could include bigwigs donating large sums of money (for example, Sir Andrew Barclay Walker paid the complete cost of building the eponymous Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1877) as well as individuals offering objects to the museum, from dead octopi to substantial collections.
 See, for example, Wallis, “The Museum and Art Gallery” 503; Borough of Birmingham, Proceedings of the Council, 1882 481, Proceedings of the Council, 1883 315.
 See, for example, a meeting between Ruskin and Birmingham reformers, described in Fors Clavigera 7: 142; correspondence between Liverpool art museum committee chairman James Allanson Picton and Ruskin, published in Picton 375; correspondence between Manchester reformer Thomas Coglan Horsfall and Ruskin, published in Fors Clavigera 7: 130. I discuss these in greater detail in Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty, Chapter 1 and in “John Ruskin.”
 On the St. George’s Museum in Sheffield, see Swan. Tim Hilton discusses the Guild in John Ruskin, 588-91.
 See, for example, John Tosh’s excellent discussion of domesticity in A Man’s Place, especially 4.
 Compare Susan Pearce in On Collecting: “The moral centres of museum collections and of femininity are clearly the same: endorsing market values while remaining apart from the market, and enabling the broadly capitalist modern economic discourse to proceed but pretending not to be by keeping the eyes closed while it all happens” (409).
 See Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty, Chapter 2, “The Public House Versus the Public Home.”
 See Woodson-Boulton, Transformative Beauty, Chapter 1, “Ruskin, Ruskinians, and City Art Galleries.”