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FIRST LOOK: Whitworth Art Gallery Re-opens

Jonathan Schofield adores a refurb job well done

Written by . Published on February 11th 2015.

FIRST LOOK: Whitworth Art Gallery Re-opens

THIS is good for Manchester. In the competition between Northern European cities a strong cultural life including excellent galleries and museums is part of the deal. 

“There is no artist in the world who wouldn’t want to work here and now there is nothing they can’t do here"

This £15m refurbishment by MUMA architects doubles the exhibition space, engages fully with the park outside, boosts the study areas and greatly enhances the catering and shop areas. It adds light, it adds subtlety, it opens the building out, it respects the qualities of the older buildings. Artworks have been placed in the grounds. 

Maria Balshaw, the Director of The Whitworth, talking to Confidential, is overjoyed about the results: “What I wanted from the architects is for somebody who knows nothing about art, to walk through Whitworth Park and see something strange and marvellous within the building that draws, forces them almost, to come in.”

She pauses and turns with a determined, confident, look.

“There is no artist in the world who wouldn’t want to work here and now there is nothing they can’t do here."

Maria Balshaw, Cornelia Parker and the latter's Rodin's Kiss %28with strings attached%29

Maria Balshaw (left), Cornelia Parker (right) and the latter's Rodin's Kiss 'with strings attached'

Manchester now has a contemporary gallery which can bring the best international artists to the city. The way Cornelia Parker, for instance, has utilised the new exhibition spaces is exemplary. In War Games 2015 she has filled one gallery with perforated paper negatives from the production run of British Legion Remembrance Day poppies. The scale is overwhelming, the content and pity of the subject deep, the feeling of restfulness visceral.

The works by Cai Qui-Chiang, by Sarah Lucas deliver the same pow-wow. 

Sarah Lucas at The Whitworth

Sarah Lucas at The Whitworth

This is one of several re-inventions for the gallery. The Whitworth was founded in 1885 through the will of Sir Joseph Whitworth, the archetypal Victorian entrepreneur. He is chiefly remembered as the father of precision engineering pioneering among other things, a universal screw gauge. He came from humble birth in Stockport and rose to international fame and a knighthood, never forgetting that it was the duty of those fortunate in life to spread their wealth.

The main terracotta facade of the Whitworth dates from the first years of the 20th century by JW Beaumont architects and while strong is never beautiful, the interior of the Whitworth marks a complete change of mood. First are the galleries re-modelled by Roger Bickerdike and is one of the great public areas from the 1960s to remain in the North West. It has everything Beaumont’s design lacked: light, open, welcoming and tuned to the display of art. MUMA's work has enhanced and built upon Bickerdike’s work.

The lovely '60s work

The lovely '60s work

It's not only contemporary art here either. The Whitworth Art Gallery, administered by the University of Manchester, has one of the chief collections of British watercolours, historic textiles, engravings, prints, wallpapers plus excellent work from more modern artists.

Individual artists represented include: Durer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Piranesi, Turner, Blake, Morris, Madox-Brown, Rossetti, Van Gogh, Picasso, Moore, Bacon, Lowry, Freud and Hockney. Sculptors of the calibre of Epstein and Paolozzi feature. 

This refurbishment is a triumph.

The cafe and restaurant led by Peter Booth - as Confidential revealed here - adds a further element, resting as it does above ground level amidst the trees of Whitworth Park. Open from 8am-10pm this is a test case for independent management of gallery catering in a national scene where most gallery cafes and restaurants are run poorly by operators such as Milburns. 

The floating restuarant

The floating restaurant

If you care about culture in the UK you have to get into the Whitworth as soon as you can.

The Whitworth Art Gallery is at the University of Manchester, Oxford Road, M15 6ER. Free to visit. The Whitworth opens to the public on Saturday 14 February. 

The Whitworth Art Gallery

Cornelia Parker's War Games 2015Cornelia Parker's War Games 2015

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery

(Click here to add text)

FurtherCentral Exhibition Gallery

CloserCentral Exhibition Gallery

Closest with treesCentral Exhibition Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery

Maria Balshaw stalks her domainMaria Balshaw stalks her domain

Susan Lucas's Tits in space

Susan Lucas's Tits in space

William Morris' PomonaWilliam Morris' Pomona

Lucien Freud's self portraitLucien Freud's self portrait

Susie McMurray Caryatids

Susie McMurray Caryatids

The Whitworth Art GalleryRecent acquisitions: Dexter Delwoods Neverland, 1999

The Whitworth Art GalleryRecent acquisitons: Richard Aldrich Untitled 2, 2005

Whitworth Art Gallery new areaWhitworth Art Gallery new area

Study and educational areasStudy and educational areas

Down the north aisleDown the north aisle


Watercolour delightWatercolour delight

The south aisleThe south aisle

The long room over the art gardenThe long room over the art garden

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16 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousFebruary 11th 2015.

Looks wonderful - can't wait for the weekend!

AnonymousFebruary 11th 2015.


AnonymousFebruary 11th 2015.

Tits in Space is so thought-provoking.

Burt CodeineFebruary 11th 2015.

It all looks so special...proper architecture I'd say, and indeed something you'd usually only see in the larger capital cities. I want a Manchester shot 'Borgen', 'Bridge', 'Spiral' made and for a key scene or two to be shot in that long room. Beautiful. Garnering a lot of national praise too. Perhaps the condescenders have finally thrown the towel in.

Manci DoodleFebruary 11th 2015.

Can't wait to get back in there. That is a statement from both my eyes and my taste buds...

AnonymousFebruary 12th 2015.

Done by a local company as well - ISG based in Salford Quays

Bernadette BuckleyFebruary 12th 2015.

I have always loved this gallery since going there with school many, many too many to mention years ago and this looks amazing, can't wait to visit, we are so lucky in Manchester to have our free museums and art galleries and we should make the most if them.

Kur BryanFebruary 13th 2015.

Manchester is good from a performing arts and music perspective but been getting whupped by Liverpool from a visual arts/museums perspective for years. I do think this is a big gamechanger for that and looking forward to checking it out this weekend. MIF also this year, HOME later this year too - going to be a big year for publicly funded art in Manchester.

AnonymousFebruary 13th 2015.

I think Manchester's gallery offer does pretty well going up against the huge globally recognised Tate brand which I reckon is the only real edge Liverpool's got over us. (love you Liverpool *wink & finger guns*)

RoseFebruary 13th 2015.

can someone please tell me if the museum opens on sundays and also whether its appropriate to take younger children?

AnonymousFebruary 13th 2015.

All the museums and Art Galleries have their own websites which will give you opening hours and some indication of appeal for youngsters. If you have very young children you might want to avoid Whitworth Art Gallery this Sunday, as it will be packed.

LesleyFebruary 14th 2015.

We went last Saturday night 7/2, to the incredibly busy friends event. The atmosphere was brilliant and the gallery stunningly beautiful. The exhibitions were perfect for the opening of this world class gallery. Go see Cornelia Parkers "Shed" and the perfect setting for Qui Chiangs work. We are really lucky in Manchester to have this always great gallery.

Burt CodeineFebruary 15th 2015.

Went yesterday (with kids). Very busy, but absolutely stunning. Planning further trips already. Cafe was very busy however (being the opening weekend, that was expected)....

AnonymousFebruary 17th 2015.

"Recent acquisitions: Dexter Delwoods Neverland, 1999" - Dexter DALwood, not Delwood - son of the sculptor Hubert Dalwood

AnonymousFebruary 17th 2015.

Classy..Shows what WE CAN do...

Pin BallFebruary 17th 2015.

Was there at the reopening Saturday night and was very impressed. Some finishing touches still needed to the outside area, but, apart from the (somewhat predictable) use of the same boring white stone deployed outside the entrance area (they could have at least come up with something a bit more inspired), the interior looks really attractive and the extensions more than worthy of their positive reception from the public.

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