As York Art Gallery enters its second year closed due to its major redevelopment, it may be interesting to look back to the last time the gallery was closed for a considerable period of time to also reopen after a major facelift: during and after World War II.
Space can only permit a mere glimpse at the gallery during the war and its reopening, though I am sure a more generous look would be of interest. The information largely comes from the York Corporation’s official printed minutes and they certainly offer a very rich source of information on York Art Gallery.
The Corporation minutes state that on 1 September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the ‘military authorities commandeered the Exhibition building’ and thus the gallery remained closed until it was partly reopened on 15 January 1948.
The ‘military authorities’ seem to have only used the buildings as and when they needed as the minutes of 7 May 1941 say that the military authorities ‘formally gave up possession of the main hall’, but by September the Art Gallery Committee are recommending that the Council accept an offer by the military to rent the buildings.
In May 1942 the military again partly moved out and in June it was noted that the Housing Committee were using these areas in connection with ‘war damage repairs’, whilst other areas were being rented by a furniture company for storage.
One interesting nugget from the war years comes from the minutes of June 1943, a recommendation from the Art Gallery Committee that the gallery be renamed the ‘YorkshireArtGallery’ – possibly to align itself to the nearby YorkshireMuseum? This recommendation was indeed adopted by the Council, but it seems that this decision was then simply forgotten.
By September 1944 it was agreed that the military would leave the buildings no more than 6 months from the end of the war, and indeed by October 1945 it was noted that they would be gone by the end of the year, and that paintings stored elsewhere (including a ‘Hall, outside York’) be returned to the gallery when room is available, and that plans to make the gallery weather proof, to decorate, and add heating and lighting to the gallery were underway.
Plans to reopen the gallery after 5 years are clearly being undertaken.
A major part of this process, and a catalyst for much that was to follow, was the appointment of a new curator.
Albert Finney was appointed temporary curator of the art gallery and Castle Museum in April 1943 (in effect having three jobs as he was also the City Librarian), and he retired in March 1947 when it was recommended that a full time curator of ‘the art collection and gallery be appointed’ and one whose duties were separate from the Castle Museum.
By July the committee were happy to recommend that ‘Mr Hans Hess of Leicester’ be appointed, and by September it was noted that the committee were considering a report by Hess on ‘the reconstruction and development of the gallery and recommend that suggestions contained therein be carried out and that application be made to the appropriate Government Dept. for sanction to borrow £5,000, the estimate cost of the recommendations so far as they concern structural works’.
In November it was agreed that the gallery be partly reopened in January 1948, which indeed it did, but this was in fact only the entrance hall, ‘sufficient to arrange small exhibitions and just enough to let the public know that the York Art Gallery has come to life again’ as the Art Gallery Committee Chairman JB Morrell stated in the first issue of Preview, a newsletter on the gallery published by the Corporation. The first exhibition focused on the paintings of William Etty.
The Yorkshire Gazette reported the reopening, noting Hess as saying that the role of a municipal art gallery was two-fold, ‘to present the art of the city to the world’ and to ‘bring the art of the world to York’, quoting Hess as saying that ‘it should not be necessary to go to Rome, Venice and Paris to see what has been painted in the past; it should be accessible here’.
What fine words, and ones that were vindicated through Hess’ direction and collection policy, culminating in the Lycett-Green bequest in 1955.
Hess went on to say that the gallery would be a lively place with lectures, concerts and other social activities, Morrell adding that Hess’ aim was to make the gallery as ‘outstanding among galleries as the Castle Museum was among museums’. By 1951 the whole of the gallery as we have until recently known it was open to the public, and Hess’ aims seem to have been realised as recorded in Preview.
One of Hess’ ideas was of course the instigation of a York Art Collection Society, and indeed this institution was in place by the time of the gallery’s reopening, and had 170 members by the end that year.
The first report of the renamed Friends of York Art Gallery, published in 1956, details their activities and the purchases made by them for the collection. By this time no less a renowned figure as Herbert Read was the President of the Friends, and he noted in his preface to the report that York Art Gallery had by 1956 become ‘one of the most rapidly expanding and most lively institutions of its kind in the country’.
Jonathan Peters completed a MA dissertation on the history of York Art Gallery in 2003.