The main part of the gallery building itself was designed by Joseph Hansom, with an imposing facade with 4 gargantuan columns. It was built in 1836. Inside, a variety of art, fossils, social history and modern exhibitions may be found, but the Victorian collection is extremely good.
The Corporation of Leicester first decided to have an art gallery in 1881, and from the beginning the idea was strongly supported by artists with links to the town - Alfred Paget, President of the School of Art there, James Orrock, previously resident in the town, and J. F. Fulleylove. An appeal for money to buy pictures raised about two and a half thousand pounds, and from 1884, annual funds of four hundred pounds came from the town council. With this rather modest funding, the gallery could not afford many of the most fashionable painters, but endeavoured to acquire an eclectic and wide ranging collection as opportunity offered. A local solicitor, William Billings, left five thousand pounds to the gallery, allowing for some more adventurous purchases, and among other benefactors we may mention G. F. Watts, who donated his important Orlando pursuing the Fata Morgana. The collection that has resulted includes a most interesting group of Victorian paintings.
The Classicists are represented by Leighton and Watts. Leighton's Perseus and Pegasus with the Head of Medusa is one of the principle pictures in the gallery, very bright, very large. He also has a excellent dark Head of an Arab, and a small bronze cast of The Sluggard. By Watts, as well as the Orlando pursuing Fata Morgana, is a small and excellent Woman with Child.
Also somewhat in classical mode is another of the key pictures of the gallery - Frank Dicksee's Foolish Virgins (1883), with one principle foreground figure dramatically lit, and obscurer ones behind (his father, Thomas Francis Dicksee, has a portrait of a girl with opera glasses, At the Opera). F. W. W. Topham has a large Roman Triumph somewhat losing dignity by gawpishness in the faces and expressions of the minor figures. Just squeezing into the near-Classical vein, we can mention two William Etty pictures, a Sabrina and the Nymphs in his best style, and a nude male Bowman.
Among the more familiar other Victorians, there is a small version of The Railway Station by Frith, a less grandoise than usual David Roberts, and work by Clarkson Stanfield, Augustus Egg, and R. P. Bonington. William Small has become obscure these days, and it is rare to find such a large picture by him as The Good Samaritan, showing a doctor attending to a gypsy family. The children are a bit sentimental, but the composition and other figures are good. Also made over-sweet with children are J. R. Reid's Little Cornish Fishermen and Thomas Faed's appallingly over-sweet Pot Luck. Other pictures to pick out are by Seymour Lucas, Alfred Woolmer, Henry Woods, George Morland, and an Etruscanish Italian Family by P. F. Poole.
The collection is strong on landscape. Pre-eminent stand two works by Peter Graham - an excellent sea-scape called The Inchcape Rock and his archetypical The Highland Pastures, showing Highland Cattle and excellent studies of wind-brown grass and lichen-covered rocks. Also to note are works by Henry Garland, B. W. Leader and cow pictures by T. S. Cooper.
Among the portraits, there is a good one by Sir Francis Grant PRA of his niece, the sculptor Mary Grant, and a feeble girlish boy by Sophie Anderson, mentionable only because it is so hard to see her works on the walls of the galleries.
Among the Victorian sculpture, apart from the Sluggard already mentioned, most interesting are two excellent small bronze groups by Alfred Stevens, a good bust by John Gibson, and an allegorical Peace by Onslow Ford.
The collection contains a few earlier British paintings, including by Joseph Wright of Derby, Francis Towne, Thomas Hudson, and best of all, The Wollaston Family, a group study of about 15 of them by Hogarth.
In the modern collection, there are representative works by Stanley Spencer, Bacon, Lowry, and Epstein, including the latter's Israfel (Sunita). We may also note works by the German Expressionists, and the porcelain collection, which includes a few pieces of Doulton ware, de Morgan ware and a rather good jug with dragons and snakes by the Martin Brothers.
A pleasant walk may be made round Leicester to look at architecture and some sculpture.
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Victorian art in Britain