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Contemporary Art Society: 
Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful 

— September 2013

Associated media

Humphrey Jennings, Spare Time, 1939, 35mm transferred to DVD, 15 min, BFI Stills

17 September – 1 December 2013

Gallery 7, Whitechapel Gallery, London

From the Pre-Raphaelites and L.S. Lowry, to exquisite Victorian glassware and Pilkington’s Lancastrian pots, ‘Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful’ celebrates works in public collections across the North West of England in the first in a series of displays in collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society.

Founded in 1910, the Contemporary Art Society has supported publicly-funded museums and galleries across the UK, through gifts, advocacy and advice. A year-long series of displays at the Whitechapel Gallery shows works drawn from these collections, brought together from across England for the first time. Focusing on the theme of art and philanthropy, they present the unique histories of regional collections.

Taking its title from the inscription on Manchester Art Gallery, built by Charles Barry in 1824, the first display looks at 19th-century industrialization and the making and patronage of art. Centering on the relationship between art and social reform between 1850 and 1950, it focuses on Thomas Horsfall’s Manchester Art Museum (1886–1953), Leeds Art Club (1903–23) and Mass Observation (1937–50). All three organizations simultaneously looked to art as a means to inform the working classes, and promote social progress. 

Highlights from the display include works on paper by Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown, and watercolours by John Ruskin and William Holman Hunt which were used to encourage a knowledge and love of art and beauty amongst workers. In contrast, Frank Brangwyn, Jacob Kramer and Edward Wadsworth present gritty depictions of working life showing factories and dense industrial landscapes. Photographs by Humphrey Spender and a film by Humphrey Jennings set the social and cultural context at the time, depicting everyday life, from children playing in the street to pub scenes.

This project is supported by a grant from Arts Council England that will create four curatorial fellowships, of which this is the first. It will also enable the displays to tour following their presentation at the Whitechapel Gallery. A series of talks and events will support each display, along with an accompanying publication. 

The displays are shown in the dedicated Collections Gallery and are part of the Gallery’s on-going programme of opening up public and private collections. 

‘Contemporary Art Society: Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful’ is conceived by Arts Council-funded Curatorial Fellow Anna Colin in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society. Following the first presentation, three further displays will focus on different regions in England, from 10 December 2013 – 9 March 2014, 19 March – 1 June 2014 and 11 June – 31 August 2014. The Whitechapel Gallery’s programme of collection displays is supported by specialist art insurer Hiscox.

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