Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Whitechapel Art Gallery with the Passmore Edwards Library, which is now a part of it. Listed Building. Gallery by Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928). Designed 1897, built 1898-9. Architectural faience cladding (glazed terracotta blocks), with some foliage-carving. Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX

The original Whitechapel Art Gallery was built in Townsend's "highly personal and distinctive style of Art Nouveau" (Cherry 76) — or, as he would probably have preferred to see it, in a late expression of Arts and Crafts ideals. The building has the same two-tower feature as the Bishopsgate Institute but with a wider frontage. Despite the extra width, it still seems a more organic growth than any of its urban neighbours. Note that the main doors to the Art Gallery go straight in at street level: as Sarah Sullivan has pointed out, the gallery was designed very much for the people. These doors are placed asymmetrically to one side, and the large semi-circular light above them takes the eye upwards and outwards into a huge, rounded, keyed arch. This seems like a defiant answer to the underground trains already running through the darkness here when the building was first opened. If the building's "lineage" indeed included railway stations (Escritt 31), then it may have done so deliberately: in contrast to a station's, its portal is bright and inviting, opening quickly into a space where the mind rather than the body might be transported, and its horizons widened. From here (still looking at the front elevation), an expanse of blank wall, originally intended to carry a mosaic designed by Walter Crane, leads up from the arch to a single run of small windows between two string courses, with some little blocks of foliage-patterning at each end. The latter motif is picked up again in two wide bands at the base of the towers. The tree forms as planned for here can be seen clearly in the Studio drawing. Like the large rounded portal, they seem to spring from the earth, and are typical of Townsend. The towers themselves are topped with the curved mouldings that Townsend also loved to use, suggesting the domes that he had originally planned. The turrets on each side are capped with rather jaunty, even playful, ridge-tiling. No wonder the government listing describes the gallery's frontage as "an imaginatively detailed and massed facade."

Left to right: (a) Earlier plan published in The Studio 1899, Vol. 16, p.197, showing the domes and mosaic that were never added. The latter was a casualty of disagreement between Henrietta Barnett and the gallery's main benefactor, John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911), who had wanted his name given to the building. (b) The Whitechapel Art Gallery. (

The Studio's correspondents found the plans for the new gallery "extremely original and striking," both "thoroughly architectural" and "monumental." They were particularly excited by the prospect of the mosaic, expecting it to be "the most important piece of exterior mosaic in the country" (196). Even though, or perhaps even because, it turned out to be more "austere" than originally intended (Escritt 18), Townsend's building contrasted dramatically with its more conventional red-brick neighbour. The Passmore Edwards Library, into which the gallery has now been extended, was designed by a firm called Potts, Son, and Hennings, and built in 1891-2 in the Queen Anne style — a style that had "strong associations with liberal philanthropy" (Hall). This was much more typically Victorian inside: compare the ironwork on the stairs with the railings outside the Horniman Museum, for instance. Yet the buildings were always united in a common purpose, to enrich the lives of the poor in what was then a particularly deprived part of the East End. As the original trustees of the gallery put it, the hope was "to open to the people of East London a larger world than that in which they usually work. To draw them to a pleasure recreating their minds, and to stir in them a human curiosity" (qtd. in Evans). The philanthropic newspaper editor Passmore Edwards not only gave generously to the gallery project, but funded the library as well; he built many other free libraries and institutions throughout London and beyond.

Left to right: (a) Scrolled and foliated iron balustrade on the stairs to the old children's library. (b) Door from the old children's library, setting off an archway.

A catalogue for an early exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquities here (see below), which ran for six weeks in 1906 and attracted over 150,000 people, reminds us that many Jewish people lived in this part of London. For more about the background of these buildings, see The New Whitechapel Art Gallery. The gallery particularly prides itself on having displayed Picasso's Guernica on its only showing in England.

Photographs, caption and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee, with helpful information from Sarah Sullivan of the Charles Harrison Townsend website. Click on the thumbnails for larger images. [You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one.]


Cherry, Bridget, et al. London: East, Vol. 5, The Buildings of England series. New Haven & London: Yale, 2005.

Escritt, Stephen. "Charles Harrison Townsend, The Whitechapel Gallery and the Enigma of English Art Nouveau." Rises in the East: A Gallery in Whitechapel, by Katrina Schwarz et al. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2009. 16-33.

Evans, Dean. "Whitechapel Gallery: History, p. 2" . Site on Passmore Evans. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

Exhibition of Jewish Arts and Antiquities: Catalogue, Nov 7 to Dec. 16. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1906. Internet Archive. 19 Dec. 2010.

Hall, Michael. Apollo Magazine, 27 Mar. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

"Studio-Talk." The Studio, Vol. 16 (1899): 192-210.Internet Archive. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

Sullivan, Sarah. "Charles Harrison Townsend, 1851-1928." Site created for the Arts & Crafts Movement in Surrey. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

Whitechapel Art Gallery. Listed Buildings Online. English Heritage. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.

Victorian Architecture Cambridge

Last modified 8 January 2024