Charterhouse Chronicle Robert Whelan
• mongst the various anniver saries which have come and gone this year, one which has almost escaped notice has been the centenary of the Whitechapel Art Gallery (WAG). This rather lovely art nouveau building, standing in the unpromising architectural environment of Whitechapel High Street, represents a triumph for an important tradition of Victorian philanthropy which has been almost forgotten today: the movement to bring beauty into the lives of the poor.
When the Rev Samuel Barnett went to Whitechapel from prosperous Marylebone, he was confronted with levels of poverty which we would find almost unimaginable. The bishop had warned him that it was the worst parish in London, full of criminals and "corrupted by doles" — which we would call welfare dependency. Samuel Barnett was not deterred, as he felt called to work with the poorest and most degraded in society but, although he became famous for his efforts to relieve poverty, his eyes were always fixed on higher things. He insisted that he had come to the East End to save people, not from poverty, but from sin: their eternal salvation was more important than their earthly comfort. The social work projects — Toynbee Hall, country holidays for children, foreign tours for teachers in the new board schools — all were motivated by the urge to raise up the degraded so that they could enjoy the fullness of life. That is how the art exhibitions started.
In 1881 Samuel Barnett and his formidable wife Henrietta organised an exhibition of paintings in the schoolrooms attached to their church. Their approach was simple. They went to wealthy people and told them that the poor of the East End were starved of beauty and needed to look at fine things. Furthermore, they would only accept the finest paintings for their exhibitions: second-bests were not good enough for Whitechapel. Paintings were borrowed for two or three weeks, a committee organised volunteer stewards and round-the-clock guards, while Canon Barnett wrote the penny programme and personally took tours around whilst pointing out the uplifting moral messages. It seemed to work. Attendances rose from an impressive 10,000 in 1881 to a staggering 55,300 by 1886. The demand for beauty was there, as was the readiness to learn from the paintings. Henrietta has left an account of how two prostitutes left the exhibition after seeing a painting called Forever, in which a young man, who has been playing his lute to his dying beloved, appears to be telling her that their love will survive death. The two young women, for whom Henrietta suspected that love had been mainly a commercial transaction, were deeply impressed by such a notion. "What work is there nobler than that of the artist who, by his art, shows the degraded the lesson that Christ himself lived to teach?" she asked.
Eventually the exhibitions outgrew the schoolrooms, and it was decided to build a permanent art gallery "to widen the thoughts and pleasures of east Londoners through objects of art". The Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened in 1901 by Lord Rosebery, who explained that "if you offer this gallery as a place where a rough fellow who has nothing else to do can spend his time, you offer him an option which he had not had before and which, if he avails himself of it, cannot fail to have the most favourable results".
The gallery had no permanent collection: it was to depend entirely on loans and special exhibitions, Partly because of this, the gallery came to be associated with avant-garde movements in the arts, and in the 1930s Henrietta Barnett. by now a widow, was begging her fellow trustees not to appoint as director someone "who thinks that all the kinks and bunks of modern art movements are to be encouraged". Alas, the WAG has had more than its share of kinks and kranks. The centenary exhibition, which featured paintings exhibited over the course of the last hundred years, was mainly composed of those which had appeared in the last 20. They represented the usual sorry, pretentious and ugly mode of modem art. One, which consisted of two
sheets of greaseproof paper stuck on to the wail with sellotape, was typical of the school.
And what do the people of Whitechapel make of it all? Would Lord Rosebery's "rough fellow" who wandered in there now experience the "favourable results" of exposure to art? It would be difficult to say, because the sparse number of viewers who were there on the two occasions I visited looked as if they had made the journey from Islington. The poor of our inner cities have enough ugliness in their lives without looking at sheets of greaseproof paper.
But why single out Whitechapel? The decadence of our culture is a theme which would fill a book, and which has in fact filled several very good books in recent months. I have just finished reading Reality, a brilliant exposé of the hollowness and fraudulence of the modern movement in art. "What are we missing in the contemporary art world?" he asks. "Doubtless the list is a long one. But if one had to sum up volumes in a single word, a good candidate would be 'beauty."
Indeedy-doody, and that candidate is not a superficial one because, as the Pope put it in his Easter 1999 Letter to Artists, "beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical conchtion of beauty". He quoted the words of the Second Vatican Council: "This world needs beauty in order not to sink into despair." When we consider the farce of the Turner Prize and the horrors of the Royal Academy's summer exhibition, how can we escape the fear that our world is indeed sinking into despair? "Beauty is the battlefield on which God and the devil war for man's soul," wrote Dostoyevsky. For the time being, the devil seems to be winning. If you doubt it, take the District Line to Whitechapel.