Archives & Library

The Leicester Galleries and its Exhibition Catalogues

The Leicester Galleries was a commercial art gallery that operated in central London between 1902 and 1977. It was particularly known for exhibiting British and French artists’ work and for promoting the work of leading modernist painters and sculptors. The Centre’s Library holds one-third of the gallery’s entire output of 1,400 exhibition catalogues, donated by Peter and Renate Nahum in January 2020. The collection is fully catalogued and available for research. This spotlight feature highlights some of the key artists and themes promoted by the gallery and illustrates some of the catalogues in the Library’s holdings.

Historic overview

In summer 1902, Wilfred and Cecil Phillips opened a gallery in Leicester Square in central London.

The following year, they were joined by Ernest Brown, and soon after by his son, Oliver Brown. Oliver Brown is an important chronicler of the Leicester Galleries’ history, thanks to his book Exhibition, published in 1968.

The group of art dealers who ran the gallery traded under the name of Ernest Brown and Phillips throughout its history, and the company is still in existence. The archive of the gallery has been preserved.

The gallery moved to 4 Audley Square in 1963 and to 22 Cork Street in 1968. It closed its doors in 1975.

Features

This group of art dealers operated slightly differently to many other galleries in London at the time.

Originally, the gallery was not in an established art gallery location. Furthermore, it was fairly informal in character, and simply decorated, in contrast to more upmarket art galleries. The gallery had four rooms, which are often named in the catalogues, and they regularly had multiple exhibitions going on at once. Unusually, the gallery ran exhibitions all year round, each lasting 3–4 weeks, amounting to as many as twenty-five exhibitions a year. The exhibitions contained a combination of loans and items for sale.

The gallery had an admission charge and visitors entered through a turnstile, to discourage the ‘working girls’, who frequented Leicester Square. Its owners did not tend to buy outright from artists but made percentages on sales and admission income. The gallery sold art in various price ranges. During the 1930s, when times were tough for many art galleries, the admission charge gave the Leicester Galleries an advantage over those art dealers who simply sold pictures without holding exhibitions.

The gallery’s management were innovative in their methods, for example, adopting the early use of poster advertising on the Underground and pioneering a hire purchase scheme for works in the 1930s.

On 31 December 1934, the Evening Standard identified the Leicester Galleries, Tooths, and Alex Reid & Lefèvre as leading examples of the type of gallery that “lives by selling the works of contemporary or recently dead artists, and depends on its exhibitions to sell them”.

Exhibitions

The gallery’s exhibitions encompassed a wide range of artists, from quite traditional practitioners to cutting-edge modernists. It held numerous single-artist exhibitions, of both well-known and emerging figures. A number of these were the first occasion that the international artists had exhibited in England. There were also exhibitions of collections such as those of Sir Michael Sadler, Wilfrid Ariel Evill, and the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. There were also lots of group exhibitions, including those devoted to the Seven and Five Society in the 1930s. The gallery’s summer exhibitions, called “Artists of Fame and of Promise” and held between 1939 and 1962, together with their New Year exhibitions, held between 1941 and 1974, were a forum for emerging artists, many of whom, such as Jacob Epstein, William Roberts, and David Bomberg, ended up becoming very famous.