Walker Art Gallery – the grand dame of the Liverpool art world?

Mike Pinnington

Is Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery merely a historic relic – or a vital part of the Liverpool art world?

The Walker Art Gallery is something of an unsung jewel in the crown amongst Liverpool’s younger, noisier and sometimes more attention-grabbing art spaces. But visitors – and locals alike – overlook this historic gallery at your peril.

Dating from 1819, its head of fine art Ann Bukantas points out, “[the Walker] boasts an outstanding collection that ranges from the Medieval and Renaissance period through to the present day, with iconic works by artists as diverse as Simone Martini, Nicolas Poussin, David Hockney, Peter Doig and Louise Bourgeois”.

On entering the gallery, as you turn to your right, you are confronted by a stunning room filled entirely with sculpture. Amongst around 120 pieces, John Gibson’s The Tinted Venus (1851-6) is considered a highlight. Head upstairs to the first floor and you will find a mixture of changing exhibitions and its lauded permanent collection.

Including pieces by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Sickert, Monet and Cezanne, taking in a bewildering number of movements along the way (Renaissance Italy, Dutch Masters, Romanticism and Impressionism to name a few), to wander the rooms of the Walker’s first floor is to take in work regarded as some of the finest ever committed to canvas. Almost as impressive, it has grown to be one of the largest permanent collections of art in the UK.

It is perhaps easy to imagine this as a gallery living, and reliant upon, the past

Complimenting beautifully the work it is so famous for, it would be remiss not to also mention the gallery’s architecture: housed in a neo-Classical building, the feast for the eyes begins even before you set foot through its grand doors. Located on William Brown Street (the only street in the UK populated entirely by museums, galleries and libraries), and opened in 1877, it all began with the acquisition of just 37 paintings from the writer, historian and slave trade abolitionist William Roscoe.

For all its heritage and unsurprising reputation for its priceless permanent collection, it is perhaps easy to imagine this as a gallery living, and reliant upon, the past. However, to draw such a conclusion would be incorrect. With regular showcasing of individual, contemporary artists, an annual exhibition devoted to the work of the previous years’ Liverpool Art Prize and its role as host to the bi-annual John Moores Painting Prize, the Walker Art Gallery, Bukantas says, “brings together works by a wide range of artists that reflect what is current today”.  And who are we to argue?

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