Ever since the University received its first painting in 1885 (a portrait of John Deakin Heaton by John Pettie), the collection and display of art has played an important role on campus.
Over the years, the Art Collection grew from a handful of landscapes, seascapes and portraits to a varied array of paintings, sculptures, drawings, public art and ceramics. The collection reflects and supports the University’s scholarly and educational roles.
The Art Collection takes shape
The development of the Art Collection owes much to the vision and generosity of individuals and groups. They are united by a conviction that life is enriched by an understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts.
One of the most important gifts came in 1923 from Sir Michael Sadler, the Vice Chancellor of the time. Sadler devoted much energy to encouraging the arts in the city. He was an enthusiastic and creative collector and one of the earliest champions of modernism.
His gift comprised mostly paintings and drawings by early 20th century artists but also contained a few works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This gift set the precedent for what has become the collection's main strength: English modernism.
Creativity flourishes through the Gregory Fellowships
In the early 1940s, the Yorkshire businessman Eric Gregory offered to finance a scheme for fellowships in the creative arts. This imaginative act of patronage provided a setting for poets, artists and composers to work free from commercial pressures. It created a proactive atmosphere for the understanding and dissemination of modernist ideas. The Gregory Fellowships scheme got under way in 1949.
The Gregory Fellows were free-floating creatives. They tempered the academic atmosphere and introduced avant-garde ideas to students and the wider community.
With the establishment of the Gregory Fellowships, the University began to invest more in the arts, and expanded its Fine Art department. In 1954, the Art Treasures Committee allocated £100 per year to buy original art works.
For more than 20 years, painters, sculptors, poets and musicians were regarded as members of the University, while continuing to work independently.
When Eric Gregory died in 1959, the University was invited to choose artworks from his personal legacy. Maurice de Sausmarez, the first Head of Fine Art at Leeds, chose works by Matthew Smith, David Jones, Ceri Richards, Victor Pasmore, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore. These added new dimensions to the modern collections.
Quentin Bell builds up the Art Collection
Quentin Bell came to Leeds in 1959 as a Professor of Fine Art. Under his leadership, Leeds became one of the first universities to employ working artists in its Fine Art department, thereby integrating studio practice with the study of art history.
Bell was also an active collector, and was well connected. In the 1960s, he acquired many works by early 20th century British artists. Through his personal connections he gathered a large group of drawings and watercolours by members of the Bloomsbury and Camden Town groups.
Bell was also instrumental in developing a collection of contemporary prints. Some works were acquired through the generosity of the artists or their heirs; others with the support of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund. However, most of Bell’s purchases were possible through the support of Stanley and Audrey Burton.
The first art gallery opens
In 1970, the first University art gallery opened. The gallery was converted from two administrative offices at the south end of Parkinson Court. It was a collaborative effort between Professor of Fine Art Lawrence Gowing, the Vice Chancellor Sir Roger Stevens and Stanley Burton.
A third room, between the gallery and the porter’s lodge in the Parkinson foyer, was converted in 1974.
The Gallery was mainly a venue for temporary loan exhibitions for the first ten years of is existence. The gallery displays shifted in the early 1980s towards more in-house exhibitions, including those that featured different aspects of the University’s own collection.
Art appears around campus
Sir Michael Sadler commissioned a war memorial by Eric Gill in 1923, which was the University's first public artwork.
But it was through Stanley Burton’s support in the 1980s that campus art took off. In 1982, Quentin Bell created a large sculpture for the University. The sculpture took the form of a levitating figure made of fibreglass (Levitating Figure, known as ‘The Dreamer’). It now resides in the Clothworkers’ Court.
The project was entirely funded by Stanley Burton. Dr Gurdev Singh from the Department of Civil Engineering designed and constructed the sculpture’s internal steel armature.
In 1983 Stanley Burton bought another sculpture, now iconic on campus. The 20ft bronze, The Spirit of Enterprise (Hermes) (1958) by William Chattaway, was originally commissioned for the Midland Bank. It is now on the east wall of the Roger Stevens building.
The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery
In 1998, the University reconfigured the gallery rooms to give the University’s art collection a dedicated space for the first time.
In 2004, the University considered how the Gallery might develop as both an exhibition venue and a place for study. Audrey Burton’s interest and encouragement gave these initial proposals impetus and scope for development.
In 2007, with Audrey Burton’s support, architects Pringle Richards Sharratt developed a more prestigious design for the Gallery. Their design took full advantage of the Gallery’s position in the lively Parkinson Court. They enhanced its entrance and converted the three rooms into one large space to display the permanent collection.
The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery opened in March 2008.
The University’s treasures go on display
In 2016, our family of galleries grew again. The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery showcases historic books and manuscripts from the University’s world-renowned Special Collections.
The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery makes the Library’s collections more accessible to a wider audience.
Highlights from the collections include original material by the Brontës, stunning illuminated medieval manuscripts, and rare books from across the globe.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund supported the project, with a generous donation from the Brotherton-Ratcliffe family.