The origins of the collection, 1819-1871

Formal portrait of a seated man at his desk in a library

1819 - Liverpool Royal Institution acquired 37 paintings from the collection of William Roscoe. Roscoe was a prominent local figure. He was a successful lawyer, politician, historian and philanthropist. He was also a pioneer collector of early Italian and Netherlandish art. When his banking business failed Roscoe was forced to sell his collection. His friends and associates saved it from being broken up. They hoped that saving the collection would ‘contribute to the advancement of the fine arts in the town of Liverpool.’

1843 - A purpose-built art gallery was erected next to the Royal Institution’s main premises to display its collection. The building, on Colquitt Street, displayed paintings on the upper floor with casts and sculpture on the lower.

1850 - An association of citizens was formed to promote the establishment of an art gallery, library and museum in the town. Negotiations were held with the Royal Institution to take over their collection but came to nothing.

1851 - Liverpool Town Council bought Liverpool Academy’s diploma collection. Modelled on the Royal Academy in London, the Liverpool Academy had held annual exhibitions of paintings and sculpture for sale since 1810. It was a strong supporter of the new Pre-Raphaelite movement. Both Ford Maddox Brown and Millais were prize-winners.

1852 - An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the establishment of a public library, museum and art gallery.

1858 - The Liverpool Society for the Fine Arts was founded. It held annual exhibitions similar to the Liverpool Academy. It also built up a permanent collection from its exhibitors. The competition between Liverpool’s Academy and Society for the Fine Arts lead to both eventually collapsing. The last Liverpool Academy exhibition was held in 1867.

1860 - Begun three years earlier, the William Brown Library and Museum opened. William Brown was a Liverpool Merchant whose generosity had allowed the Town Council to act on the 1852 Act of Parliament.

1871 - The first Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, organised by the Town Council, was held at the William Brown Library and Museum. Based on the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions, it would exhibit contemporary painting and sculpture for sale. Admission was one shilling, six pence and three pence.

The exhibitions were very successful. With the profits the Library, Museum and Arts Committee were able to purchases works for the council’s permanent collection. This was the first systematic attempt by a British public body to buy contemporary works for display in a museum or art gallery. Between 1871 and 1910 around 150 works were bought.