The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has revealed details of a major development project now underway, which will transform its Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque rooms (Rooms 1-4).
Renaissance Rediscovered, costing in the region of £710,000, will transform around 600 square metres of gallery space. It presents the Gallery’s first opportunity to redevelop the rooms in more than three decades. The project is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tavolozza Foundation, Henry Moore Foundation and Art Friends Merseyside.
The Walker is renowned for its world-class collection of Western European art from the 13th to the 18th century. Highlights include Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple, Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII, and Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as a Young Man. Other iconic artists represented include Lavinia Fontana (1552-1642), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682).
Among these masterpieces will be a major new acquisition, made possible thanks to Art Fund. The Gallery will present Italian painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s Allegory of Painting and Music, depicting two women engaged in the arts. Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670) is perhaps best known as the father and teacher of the ground-breaking artist Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), whose work is represented in the Walker’s collection of Old Master drawings.
The new galleries, expected to open in 2023, will create beautiful, elegant spaces for the collection. They will also be designed with a contemporary audience in mind, sharing previously underrepresented and diverse histories, including Black, LGBTQ+ and women’s histories, as well as acknowledging the gaps and biases in the predominantly Western European collection.
Kate O’Donoghue, Curator of International Fine Art at National Museums Liverpool, said, “This major project has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to redisplay our outstanding Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque collections for a 21st-century audience.
“Many of the objects in these rooms are world-famous. However, some of them have challenging histories, particularly in relation to Liverpool’s role in transatlantic slavery and its contribution to the formation of these collections. We intend to confront these histories in the relaunched galleries.
“We will also introduce exciting new acquisitions, including Allegory of Painting and Music, the first painting by Giovanni Andrea Sirani to enter a public collection in the UK. Given the strong links between the Sirani family and the empowerment of women painters in the 17th century, the subject of this painting is particularly emblematic and compelling.”
The Sirani acquisition supports the Walker’s ambition to platform the rare work of women artists in the 17th century. Giovanni Andrea Sirani trained his three daughters as painters, at a time when many obstacles prevented women from becoming artists. Elisabetta Sirani was the most successful and took over the family workshop aged just 24. She worked with female apprentices and went on to establish the first professional art academy for women and girls in Europe.
Lots of paintings from this period were collected during a time of great change and artistic advancement, particularly the Renaissance works. Art at this time was dominated by the wealthy and powerful, notably royalty and religious institutions. Although centuries old, their subject matter often explored themes such as faith, family, diversity and migration, all of which remain relevant to society today.
Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said, “The Walker Art Gallery is an iconic Liverpool institution with a world-class Renaissance collection, which DCMS is delighted to support.
“With the addition of Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s stunning work and funding from the government, it’s brilliant to see how the gallery’s fantastic space will be transformed for thousands of visitors to enjoy.”
As well as redisplaying paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, Renaissance Rediscovered presents an opportunity for the Walker to establish a permanent works on paper display. The Gallery holds a collection of more than 8,350 works on paper (British and International), many of which have never been shown before.
The building work, which was delayed due to the impact of COVID-19, began in 2021. In order to safeguard the collection, substantial repair work has been carried out to the air-conditioning and the roof above the galleries, which were created as part of an extension to the original building in the 1930s.
Internally, the suspended ceiling has been removed, enabling visitors to appreciate the original architectural spaces and their beautiful decorative cornicing that was previously concealed. The work being carried out to the infrastructure of the building, combined with the interior fit-out, gives an overall project cost of around £4.5 million.
The new galleries will boast stunning redecorated spaces, new display cases and much improved lighting, ensuring that the collection is showcased in a way that is both enjoyable and accessible for all, for generations to come.
Image: Rebecca Kench, painting conservator, works on Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s Allegory of Painting and Music. c. Gareth Jones