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Historic Fine Art

Discover our historic works for yourself

Historic Fine Art

The historic art collections at the Whitworth have their origins in the Royal Jubilee Exhibition staged in Manchester in 1887, the year the then Whitworth Institute was established

Amongst the machinery and industrial design was a section devoted to watercolour painting in England, and the enthusiastic reviews in the Manchester press led directly to the establishment of the Whitworth’s collection of British watercolours and drawings.

Today, the collection is renowned across the world and includes major drawings and watercolours by 18th-century artists such as Paul Sandby, Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Jones, and outstanding 19th-century Romantic landscapes by J. M.W. Turner, Thomas Girtin and Samuel Palmer, together with an important group of Pre-Raphaelite works by Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones. 

The Whitworth received by far its largest gift of watercolours in 1892, from John Edward Taylor, the influential owner of the Manchester Guardian. It included some of the works for which the Whitworth is now famous, such as The Ancient of Days (c.1827), one of seven works by William Blake in the collection, along with 18 Turner watercolours and works by John Robert Cozens and Richard Parkes Bonington. After Taylor’s founding gift, other local collectors, who generally came from the industrial and commercial elite of Manchester, presented many of the Whitworth’s most coveted British watercolours. These included the Worthington (1904), Broadhurst (1924) and Haworth families (1937). Continental European historic art is also represented by smaller groups of old master drawings and 19th-century French drawings.

While many of our exhibitions are made up from works in our permanent collection, the Whitworth has nothing on permanent display. Discover our historic works for yourself. Search our collection, see what’s on at the gallery or find out more about the history of the Whitworth.

Samuel Palmer, detail of Calypso’s Island, Departure of Ulysses, or Farewell to Calypso, 1848-1849