Bolton began to acquire art works from 1853 when the Council first established a combined library and museum. However, very few art works were collected before the establishment of a separate art gallery at Mere Hall in 1890. The Mere Hall displays consisted largely of 19th century oil paintings; mainly landscapes, portraits and genre works. A handful of older works were also acquired, including Noah Leaving the Ark by Adam Colonia. From 1897 the Council began to buy a small number of works by contemporary British artists (often from the North West), usually from annual summer exhibitions of “modern painting” held at Mere Hall. This included significant Bolton artists such as Fred Balshaw, Alfred Heaton Cooper and Samuel Towers.
In 1938, the collections of Mere Hall were transferred to a purpose-built gallery within Bolton’s new Civic Centre (now known as Le Mans Crescent). Relatively few of these Mere Hall-era works now survive in the collection as many were disposed of in and before 1948 in order to create space for new acquisitions.
The basis of this new collecting was a bequest in 1940 of forty paintings, sculptures and drawings from Frank Hindley Smith, a Bolton mill owner. Guided by his friend Roger Fry, Smith had gathered an extensive personal collection of British and Continental art which on his death was divided amongst various art galleries including the Tate. The works left to Bolton had a regional bias, representing local artists such as Edward Stott as well as British artists of national importance such as Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and two works by Roger Fry himself.
After the war, the Bolton Library & Museum Committee sought advice from the director of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool on how to expand the art collection into one of regional significance. The recommendations were that Bolton should collect:
- British oil paintings – more recently this policy has been refined to concentrate upon British oil paintings, drawings and prints from after the Second World War.
- Portraits of local personalities, local topographical views and examples of the work of significant artists associated with Bolton.
- English watercolours
- British sculpture
The collection has been built up by subsequent curators broadly in accordance with this master plan and is now a rich cultural resource for the education and enjoyment of the people of Bolton. Artists of local, national and international significance are represented with very good examples by important painters such as J.M.W. Turner, Giordano, John Bratby, Edward Burra, Elizabeth Blackadder and Laura Knight.
Of specific importance is the work of Bolton-born American artist Thomas Moran. The most significant oil paintings are Sunset, Pueblo del Walpe, Arizona; The Coast of Florida and Nearing Camp, Evening on the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming. Many examples of prints produced by Thomas Moran and his family have also been collected as a part of a specific and directed drive.
Supporting the painting collection are over 1000 prints, the majority of which are by 20th century British artists. Of particular importance is the Sycamore Collection which is broadly representative of British printmaking from 1900 to 1960 and provides an excellent resource for both reference and display.
The sculpture collection consists of around 50 works, the majority of which are bronzes by mid-20th century British artists. Several internationally celebrated artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein (who had particular connections to Bolton) are represented. This small but outstanding collection provides an extraordinary resource, allowing people from the local area to see and study sculpture by world renowned artists without having to travel to a national museum or gallery.