The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Whitworth Wallis

Whitworth Wallis

The son of George Wallis, curator of the Arts Department of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), Whitworth Wallis was appointed the first Director of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1885, at a time when Birmingham was the very centre of design and the applied arts in Britain.

Whitworth was in fact born in Birmingham in 1855, while his father was there as art master of the School of Design, though the family soon after moved to London. As a young man, he studied German in Hanover for two years, and French and art in Paris, returning to England in 1877. He was soon back on the Continent, however, where he was employed arranging and organizing collections and exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. In between, he was successively in charge of the Bethnal Green Museum and a special technical assistant at South Kensington. On 1 January 1885, he accepted the position of keeper of the new Birmingham Museum. An inveterate traveller, he made buying trips on behalf of the museum to Italy and up the Nile. His lectures on the ruins of Pompeii and the antiquities of Egypt, illustrated with his collection of magic lantern slides, were always well attended.

In 1886 he married Charlotte Mary White of Chislehurst in Kent, and the couple had three daughters. He received a knighthood in 1912 and died in 1927.

The following is his obituary from The Times (17 January 1927):

'We regret to announce that Sir Whitworth Wallis, Keeper of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, died suddenly yesterday at Stratford-on-Avon, at the age of 71.

'Sir Whitworth Wallis was born at Handsworth on June 23, 1855, his father being the late George Wallis, F.S.A., senior keeper of the South Kensington Museum; he thus had curatorship in his blood. After being educated privately in London, Paris, and Hanover, he was placed in charge of the Bethnal Green Museum in 1879, but soon afterwards he was given care of the famous Indian collections of art treasures formed by King Edward and kept at South Kensington, and in 1885 he was appointed curator of the then newly-formed Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This institution, which opened that year, had cost nearly £80,000 to build, and was notably enlarged twice during his term of office, once in 1912 and a second time in 1919. From first to last the galleries have owed a great deal to him; and when he received his knighthood in 1912 it was recognized that the honour was as well deserved as it was rare; for it was the first time that it had been bestowed upon a provincial municipal keeper.

'The museum and gallery were by no means Sir Whitworth Wallis's only public interests; he took part in many projects in Birmingham, where his special knowledge had scope; and he was a trustee of Shakespeare's Birthplace and a member of the Council of the National Art Collections Fund. But the success and growth of the galleries and of the treasures in it must be attributed in large measure to the admirable qualities of the curator. He edited special catalogues of certain artists in works by whom the museum is rich, such as the P.R.B., David Cox, and others, and he lectured much on English and ancient art. Outside this sphere many good causes found in him a valuable supporter. During the Great War he delivered special lectures to the troops in France.'

Photographed by John Colllier of Birmingham.


Code: 122139
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