History of the Sir Alfred East Art Gallery
Kettering is fortunate for a town of its size in having its own centrally-located art gallery housing a rich and varied collection of paintings, ranging from 19th -century landscapes and portraits to 20th-century modern art and work by contemporary artists.
The Permanent Collection in Kettering dates from 1905, the year after the new library building opened, but eight years before the Gallery was added to it. The gift of a library, by American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, to the town in 1904, created a strong stimulus for a public gallery to be built. Carnegie wanted to give the working man the opportunity for self-development and escape from factory life by unravelling the knowledge that could be gained from books in public libraries. Alfred East had similar ideas on how to enrich the lives of the workers of Kettering and wanted to make art accessible to them. The Collection was started when, The Connoisseur, a portrait by Walter Bonner Gash of a well-known antique dealer with a shop in the town centre, was purchased by local subscribers and presented to the town as a possible foundation for a permanent art collection.
In 1910, the Birthday Honours List included the name of Alfred East, who was awarded a knighthood. In Kettering, a banquet was held at the Royal Hotel to celebrate this achievement and East presented one of his own important works, Midland Meadows, to the town. In 1911, he offered Kettering a representative selection of his works (70 in total), to serve two purposes:
“…for the love I have for the old town, and also as an expression of gratitude for my recovery from a very serious illness …I should regard such a collection as a memorial, and as such, I should see that it was worthy of your acceptance and of my reputation.”
The offer of these works was conditional on the construction of a gallery to house the Collection and, within a remarkably short time, money for the project had been raised by public subscription. Kettering Urban District Council commissioned local architects, Gotch and Saunders, to design the new building. Construction was completed and Sir Alfred East instructed how his paintings were to be hung in time for the opening ceremony. The Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, the Earl Spencer, K.G., officially opened the Alfred East Art Gallery on 31st July 1913.
Sadly, Sir Alfred East was too ill to attend the opening ceremony and was, therefore, represented by his nephew, W. D’Este Emery FRCS, who acted as his uncle’s voice, sending out a message to the people of Kettering that he hoped they would:
“… find something in the Gallery to make their lives bigger, better and brighter, something to take their minds off their troubles in life and to enable them to enter into and realise something of the inspiration and consolation that is to be found in nature.”
Two months later, on 28th September 1913, East died, at the age of 69, at his home.
Within a year the Great War had started, and curator, W.T. Wright, had begun to arrange temporary exhibitions to raise money for the Red Cross. This was a milestone for the gallery and, after his death in 1917; new curator and librarian, Miss Kate Pierce, took over where Wright had left off. She introduced more temporary exhibitions, inviting local artists to show their work in what is now the East Gallery (formally known as the Small Gallery), and provided the town with a vibrant and exciting place to visit. East’s work remained on permanent display in the West Gallery (formally known as the Large Gallery), and, during the first forty years of the Gallery’s existence, the shadow of East dominated it. Whilst giving the Gallery a good reputation, it tended to prevent development of the Collection. No new additions were made and the Alfred East Art Gallery began to lose its attraction.
However, this was to change when John Burden took over the post when Miss Pierce retired. He brought a new energy to the Gallery, bringing ideas of what a provincial gallery should be doing. He created a new exhibition’s programme, resulting in Kettering becoming a well-known venue for national touring exhibitions and a new acquisitions policy, enabling the Gallery to buy new contemporary pieces as well as being selective about those works being donated to the Collection. Over the next twenty-five years, art advisors from London offered the Borough help in selecting interesting works for purchase. The result was an excellent modern art collection, balancing the works that Sir Alfred East left as a foundation for the Collection.
A major proportion of the Collection incorporates works with a local connection to Kettering and Northamptonshire. These works are either by local artists or works that depict local scenes and landscapes. As well as the significant collection of East’s, which comprises of 97 works, the Collection also boasts a significant number of works by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Other notable local artists, who feature in the Permanent Collection, include Ralph Hartley, Harry Dorr, George Harrison, John Nettleship, Wilfred Hawthorn and Walter Bonner Gash. A good proportion of these local artists were members of Kettering and District Art Society (KDAS), who regularly held annual exhibitions at the Gallery.
To complement the locally-associated works, the small collection of contemporary pieces, largely purchased in the period between the late 1950s and the 1970s, includes paintings and printmaking examples from artists such as Alan Davie, Joan Eardley, Howard Hodgkin, Terry Frost, John Hoyland, William Scott and Eduardo Paolozzi.
The Collection today consists of just over 900 pieces of work, encompassing a mixture of disciplines including oils, watercolours, etchings, printmaking, photography and sculpture, just to name a few.
Once the Collection is on display, it is clear to see how rich and varied it is and the mixture of works by local, regional and national artistic figures. The Alfred East Art Gallery is able to show a good proportion of works at any one time, and is now committed to regularly changing the display every eight to ten weeks, to capture the interest of visitors.
The Gallery strives to capture the diversity and quality of the Collection in each exhibition and, with the recent increase in new displays, the audience appreciates both the opportunity to view works by major artists, and local artistic talent. The Collection will continue to grow, thanks to the generosity and foresight of donors. We are always happy to consider new donations to this superb and often surprising Collection, which we can hopefully sustain for at least another hundred years.