Whitechapel Art Gallery: History Above Your Eyeline

John Passmore Edwards isn’t really a household name in London, but perhaps he should be.

Whitechapel Art Gallery History

Born in a small village in Cornwall 1823, the son of a carpenter, Passmore was his mother’s maiden name. He was an MP for Salisbury and Editor for London newspaper; The Echo. A paper he bought in 1876, before selling it to another famous philanthropist; Andrew Carnegie.

Passmore Edwrads shaped the cultural development of poorer areas of London with his generosity and over 14 years managed to fund 70 major buildings including hospitals and schools.

In the East End now it’s mainly libraries that might catch you eye, especially the old Whitechapel Library which opened in October 1892.

Whitechapel Art Gallery History

The gallery came later in 1901, with the aim to ‘bring great art to the people of East London’.

Throughout its history Whitechapel Art Gallery has been a trend setter; it displayed Picasso’s Guernica on its first and only visit to Britain (1939), it hosted the first major show of Jackson Pollack (1970) and presented the first shows of artists like Hockney and Gilbert & George.

Rachel whitehead was commissioned in 2012 to add to the large blank space on the gallery’s facade. It was originally thought to have had a mosaic across that space, but it was too costly.

Whitechapel Art Gallery History

The golden leaves depict the Tree of Life, and arts and crafts motif symbolising renewal. There’s also suggestions of Whiteread’s famous ‘solidified space’ technique, with the addition of inside-out casts of windows.

But when you’re next outside also pause to look up at the weathervane…

In 2003 the gallery expanded into next doors library which moved to the contemporary ‘Ideas Store’ down the road.

Whitechapel Art Gallery History

So it was only in 2009 that the specially commissioned weathervane by Rodney Graham appeared. It shows Desiderius Erasmus, humanist scholar from the 16th century, who is said to have written his most famous work The Praise Of Folly, on horseback from Italy to England.

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More Passmore Edwards in East London

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Passmore Edwards Library in Plashet Grove, Newham


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Detail of the former Passmore Edwards Library in Hoxton, since converted into office space and The Courtyard Theatre.

Former Passmore Edwards public library in Limehouse, now being converted into flats. I lvoe the white stone open books on top of each gable!

Any more near you that you can’t help but admire?

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Whitechapel Art Gallery History

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