A ‘30s interior, Contemporary Vision: The Walker Art Gallery

  • | Elgan Jones

The Walker Art Gallery is a Liverpool landmark recognisable by its grand Neoclassical façade with six Corinthian columns supporting the portico. The grade II* listed building stands amongst a cluster of important civic buildings on William Brown Street.

An evolving gallery fit for a cosmopolitan city

It was initially constructed in 1874-77 to reinforce Liverpool’s cosmopolitan status as the ‘gateway to the Empire’. The building was doubled in size in 1882-84, with further wings added in 1931-33 by Briggs and Thornley. Today, the gallery houses an internationally renowned collection of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts.

The 1930s wing, the focus of our recent work, was added to rival the rise in post-war popularity of ballrooms and cinemas, which offered vital and desired escapism alongside providing additional accommodation to display its collection. As such, its design reflected a more exuberant American-influenced interrelation of classicism, a symbol of modernism and new technologies. An essential aspect of its design was the use of new scientific principles, particularly heating and lighting.

This pioneering approach continued in the 1960s with the introduction of flat ceilings to conceal a labyrinth of services in the void above to improve the environmental performance of the spaces. In the 1980s, the galleries were traditionally represented with silk wall coverings to frame the collection.

A new home for drawings, prints and watercolours

Through careful collaboration with the client team, we sought to return the spaces to their original 1930s form, including restoring the ornate plastered ceilings and historic lay lights. Recent technological advances have allowed us to provide a mechanical and electrical strategy to renew services around the historic fabric and interiors whilst delivering the required new environmental controls. This enables the Walker to offer a dedicated gallery for its extraordinary collection of works on paper for the first time. The Walker holds a collection of
more than 8,350 drawings, prints and watercolours by British and international artists, many of which have never been shown before.

The project benefited greatly through the shared experiences of the Museum’s Estates, Collections, Interpretation and Exhibitions teams, which helped steer design principles to ensure cohesion across the repair and presentation of the interiors, the curatorial and exhibition displays.

New discoveries and a new approach

During the works, surprises were uncovered, such as the original metal heating pipes (like underfloor heating loops) embedded within the cast concrete ceilings, which had partly corroded and caused some plasterwork to crack.

The galleries feature fresh interpretation and research, sharing previously underrepresented and diverse stories, including Black, LGBTQ+ and women’s histories. Although centuries old, the subject matter these works explore are powerful themes – faith, family, diversity, migration – that remain relevant to audiences today. A striking intervention of the galleries is a bold new colour scheme. Whilst the ceilings have been unified with a single light colour, the walls are decorated in pigment-rich blues and purples, which contrast and amplify the vibrant colours of the gilding and Renaissance work.

Read the full 2023 Review here