The Whitworth: Collections

Founded in 1889 as the first English gallery in a park, the Whitworth is part of the University of Manchester and is a place of research and academic collaboration. It has recently been transformed by a £15 million development and has seen visitor numbers climb spectacularly in the past five years. Contemporary exhibitions programmes have given new life to international collections, and whose risk-taking curatorial team has gained global attention.

The Whitworth’s extensive and eclectic collection of art and design is of international significance. It ranges from outstanding groups of works on paper to textiles and wallpapers made for the mass market, a unique collection of Outsider Art, and international contemporary works. Dynamic and changing, the Gallery continues to expand its collection through gifts and purchases, such as a recent major donation of works by the Karpidas Foundation.

While many of its exhibitions are made up from works in the  permanent collection, the Whitworth has nothing on permanent display.


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.

Modern & Contemporary Art – the collection provides an  overview of the main threads that have run through art from the modern art revolution of late 19th-century France through to the art of our own time. Expressed chronologically, it begins with a group of works by Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin and other Impressionists and Post-impressionists. Later major names of European Modernism can be added to this list – Picasso, Maholy-Nagy and Paul Klee – alongside British artists of the early and mid-20th century, notably Sickert, Epstein, Wadsworth, Piper, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore.

The Whitworth has major works by Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, artists who shaped new kinds of painting in 1950s London, and the gallery was also at the forefront of collecting British art in the 1960s and 1970s – when some of David Hockney and Bridget Riley’s earliest purchases by a public institution were made.

The Whitworth collects art actively, seeking to identify those new artists who will become significant and influential shapers of contemporary visual culture. It has a reputation for showing performance art and has steadily added it to the collection, for example, with works by Marina Abramovic (who stripped the Whitworth bare as part of MIF in 2009), Alistair MacLennan and Kira O’Reilly represented through video, and also vast drawings made by Nikhil Chopra.

In 2012, We Face Forward cemented the Whitworth’s growing relationship with West African artists, and work by Georges Adéagbo, Amadou Sanogo, Nii Obodai and others is well represented. Many of the great names of contemporary art are also strongly featured, such as Gustav Metzger, Cornelia Parker, Rachel Whiteread, Mary Kelly, Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Michael Craig-Martin, Jane and Louise Wilson and Wolfgang Tillmans, and art made by untrained artists is magnificently made present through the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection.

Textile Collection  – Textiles have been been a major part of the Whitworth’s collection since the gallery first opened. ~Its textile holdings are acknowledged as internationally important and their presence here reflect both Manchester’s significance in the history of world textiles and the gallery’s early industrial links. Today, as evidence of the global trade in textiles that built the city’s wealth and reputation during the Industrial Revolution, the Whitworth is home to around 20,000 dress and textile objects from across the world.  They range in date from the third century AD to the present.

Highlights include textile fragments and garments used and worn in first millennium Egypt (c. 300-900 AD), Mediterranean and Islamic embroideries, South Asian fabrics, French and Italian silks, the work of William Morris and other designers associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and artist-designed textiles.

The Whitworth has actively collected modern and contemporary textiles since the gallery first opened, acquiring both art and industrial design, with mass-produced printed and woven lengths complemented by a growing body of one-off art textiles – making visible the link between both the Whitworth’s fine art collections and historic world textiles.

Prints – The Whitworth holds the finest collection of artists’ prints in the north of England with works that stretch from the origins of European printmaking in the 15th century right through to the present day. Although the collection mainly focuses on British and Continental European works, its also includes smaller groups of Japanese and American prints. In the 1920s, it established a collection of Continental European prints that date from the mid-15th century to the late 18th century. Based on major acquisitions of Italian and Northern Renaissance works, this outstanding selection includes 70 engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer.

There are also strong groups of work by many leading German, Dutch, Italian, French and Spanish printmakers, including Lucas van Leyden, Schongauer, Rembrandt, Hollar, van Ostade, Mantegna and his circle, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Marcantonio Raimondi, Canaletto, Piranesi, Callot, and Goya.

British prints from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries are numerous and varied, many of them bequeathed by William Sharp Ogden, a local architect and collector, in 1926.  They include one of the finest and most comprehensive collections in the country of prints by William Hogarth. Major Continental European artists of the modern period are also represented with prints by Manet, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Gauguin, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Braque, Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Mirò, Chagall, Munch, Kandinsky, Dix, Ernst, and Kollwitz.

Wallpaper – Wallpaper collections are relatively rare. The Whitworth’s is made up of more than 5,000 examples,the bulk of which were given to the gallery in 1967 by The Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd., which had controlled most of the UK wallpaper industry since 1899. The Whitworth felt like a fitting home for the products of an industry whose mechanisation, like that of textiles, was pioneered in the North West. Since the 1970s, further donations and purchases have helped make the collection one of the most important in the country.

This is a diverse and highly eclectic collection whose range encompasses everything from elite hand-printed decorations to examples of industrial production for the popular market. It contains wallpapers and other wall coverings dating from the 17th century to the present, from simple patterns printed on small sheets of paper and 18th-century luxurious embossed and gilt leather hangings to numerous late 19th-century examples by designers such as William Morris and Walter Crane. The broad range of wallpapers from the 20th century demonstrate the skill of craftspeople, the inventiveness of early post-war design and the exuberance of the 1960s and 1970s. Modern and contemporary examples in our collection by artists such as Allen Jones, Robert Gober, Niki de Saint Phalle, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas reflect wallpaper’s move from backdrop to centre stage.

Sculpture – the sculpture collection at the Whitworth has grown significantly through recent purchases and generous gifts. Newly acquired works have been installed outside the gallery and in the Whitworth Park, with Bernard Schottlander’s red welded steel sculptures taking up position at the front of the gallery and Gustav Metzger’s Flailing Trees recently re-sited at the centre of the park. These join new commissions by Christine Borland, Nico Vascellari and Nate Lowman, alongside works by Simon Periton, Jacqueline Donachie and Cyprien Gaillard.

The contemplative space of the Alex Bernstein Garden is home to Emily Young’s Maremma Warrior Head V, while the gallery’s new park entrance is signaled by Nathan Coley’s illuminated Gathering of Strangers, installed above the door. Other recently acquired sculptures include those by Dorothy Cross, Nick Evans, Haroon Mirza, Brian Griffiths and Helen Marten. These new additions augment and respond to the gallery’s collection of mid-century British sculpture with important works by Epstein, Hepworth, Moore, Chadwick, Frink, Caro and Paolozzi.

While many of our exhibitions are made up from works in our permanent collection, the Whitworth has nothing on permanent display. Please see separate posts for information on individual exhibitions.


Further information:
  • Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 10.00 am-5.00 pm;  open until 9.00 pm on Thursdays
  • Location: The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER
  • Getting there: By foot: 20-30 minures from Manchester city centre; By Bike: Sheffield stands and lockers (£1 coin, refundable) both available at the gallery; By Bus: 15, 41, 42, 43, 140 – 143, 147 – ask for bus stop nearest MRI, Oxford Road; By Metrolink: St Peter’s Square (plus 10 minutes on the bus or 20 minutes on foot); Train: Oxford Road (plus 10 minutes on the bus or 20 minutes on foot); By Car: On-street parking (maximum stay, 2 hours) on Denmark Road. Nearest car park Cecil Street
  • Admission is free