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York Art Gallery

York's award-winning 'family-friendly' art gallery was built in 1879. It was extensively refurbished during 2013-15 at a cost of £8 million.

The building

The Grade II listed building that now houses York Art Gallery was designed by Edward Taylor and JB & W Atkinson to provide a venue for the second "Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition". Its construction was partly financed by the profits from the first exhibition (held between 24th July and 31st October 1866).

The site had previously been used for pasture land, gardens and orchards associated with St Mary's Abbey then, following the dissolution of the monasteries, the King's Manor.

The plans for the second exhibition venue included a permanent building (now York Art Gallery) and at least one (possibly two) adjoining temporary structures. The permanent building included an entrance hall, a lecture hall, picture galleries and a 'statuary', while the temporary structures provided additional covered space for the duration of the exhibition.

The foundation stone for the permanent building was laid by the Lord Mayor of York on the 22nd April 1878.

The new buildings opened to the public on May 7th, 1879 (the opening date for the second exhibition).

The building's main facade facing Exhibition Square (see Image 1) was intended to be a grand affair, so provision was made for a number adornments, including:

  • Four statues in niches. The niches were created (two of them are visible in Image 2), but the statues have never been commissioned due to a shortage of funds.
  • Four portrait roundels within the spandrels of the loggia (see Image 3). These contain the carved facial likeness (sculpted by George W. Milburn) of key local figures in the world of architecture and the arts, namely: the musician John Camidge, the sculptor John Flaxman, the artist / painter William Etty and the architect John Carr.
  • Two large square tiled decorative panels located towards the outer edges of the main facade at first-floor level:
    • The panel on the left represents the work of painters and it depicts the death of Leonardo da Vinci (see Image 4).
    • The panel on the right represents the work of sculptors and it depicts Michelangelo and his statue of Moses (see Image 5).
  • Five smaller rectangular panels and seven semi-circular panels on the building's main facade at first floor level (visible in Image 1). The artworks for these panels were never commissioned.
  • A row of stone urns to be placed along the top of the loggia. The urns were never commissioned.

During the construction works in 1879, a coin hoard consisting of 4,000 stycas was found on the site. Stycas are small coins that were minted by the Northumbrian Kings during the Anglo-Saxon period. They were the medieval version of small change, having a similar function to modern-day pennies. This hoard now forms part of the numismatics collection at the nearby Yorkshire Museum.

One of the temporary structures (known as the 'Great Hall') remained in use until 1909, when it was closed after being declared unsafe. It is uncertain whether the other temporary structure (referred to as "The Machinery Annex") was ever built.

The 'Great Hall' and parts of the permanent building (including the north gallery) were severely damaged during a German air raid on 29th April 1942. The 'Great Hall' was demolished shortly after the air raid and a series of huts were constructed in its place to provide urgently needed accommodation for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. During the post-war period, these military huts were used for a range of other purposes until they were themselves demolished in 2012.  The wartime damage to the permanent building (now known as York Art Gallery) was repaired circa 1949. The building was further restored and extended in 1952 and comprehensively renovated between 2013-15.

At the rear of the building, the area once occupied by the 'Great Hall' and the later wartime huts was transformed into the Artist's Garden as part of the 2013-15 rennovation works. Image 6 shows the rear elevation of the art gallery building shortly after the completion of these works.

The gallery

The gallery's permanent collection includes:

  • paintings by Etty, Lowry and Hockney,
  • the John Burton bequest of Victorian paintings,
  • the Evelyn collection of prints, drawings and watercolours depicting York,
  • the Green collection of Continental 'Old Master' paintings and
  • a wide range of other oil and watercolour paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, glassware and other 'fine art' items.

The newly refurbished gallery is also home to the 'Centre of Ceramic Art', which features a large collection of studio ceramics and associated archive material assembled by W. A. Ismay.

In addition to the permanent collection, the gallery hosts temporary exhibitions covering a wide-range of art-related disciplines.

Practical Information

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Location Information (Where is . . . ?)

York Art Gallery
Exhibition Square / St Leonard's Place

Latitude: 53.962918000000
Longitude: -1.086131000000

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Further information

Further information relating to the gallery building and the gallery's collections / exhibitions can be obtained via the links provided in the 'External Links' section below.