Wrexham Art Treasures and Industrial Exhibition 1876

by Annette Edwards.

In January 1876 the Duke of Westminster promised to become a guarantor for the sum of £100 for the Wrexham Art Exhibition which was to take place in August, and in March the same year at the closing ceremony of the Rhyl Eisteddfod the President stated that he was very pleased to know that in Wrexham, there was to be an Arts and Treasures Exhibition, to be held in connection with the Wrexham Eisteddfod.

By April, notices were placed in newspapers stating that “Applications for space in the Industrial Department for exhibiting Works of Modern Art and Inventions of a Scientific and Domestic nature (if practicable in operation) are requested as early as possible, and tenders were invited to supply refreshments of a superior kind for a period of three months. The exhibition was due to open on July 15th 1876.

In May, a meeting of the Executive Committee was held in London, those present were Major Cornwallis West, Chairman; Mr Charles Bowyer; Mr John Thomas, musical director; and Mr W Chaffers, general superintendent of the South Kensington Museum.

Musical arrangements were discussed and it was decided that Messrs. Gray and Davidson should erect “a fine and powerful” organ in the orchestra to give fine effect to the grand music of Handel, Hayden, Mozart etc, aided by choirs from Wales and the border counties. 

Mr Chaffers told the committee that he had acquired a most important collection of over 2,400 engraved gems formed by a gentleman who had spent over 40 years in the pursuit of his craft, and that he was also was cataloguing a collection of gothic iron work, which was made in Italy and France and illustrated the art of the iron workers from the 11th to the 17th century.

Many other collections had been secured,  paintings from many important collections including Gainsborough, Turner, Wilson, Van Dyke, bronzes, English and foreign china, prehistoric flint weapons, Wedgewood  jasper ware and much more .

A report on the construction stated that 50 men are constantly employed in the erection of the large structure in which is to be held the forthcoming Art Treasures and Industrial Exhibition. The building of which  Mr Kennedy is the architect and Mr W E Samuel is the builder is approached by a main entrance from Hope St. Mr Low`s new premises forming a frontage to the pavilion. On either side of the entrance is the museum which will occupy the whole of Mr Low`s new premises with a covered way 78 ft long, leading into the entrance hall, thence into the art gallery which is 130 ft x 70 ft , the whole area being 10.380 ft.

The bottom end of the art gallery where the organ and orchestra was situated was 33 ft high, with a zinc roof with 25 dormer lights in addition to skylights.

There was also a reading room, retiring room with a lavatory, a second class refreshment room and buffet, and another room led to a first class refreshment room.

A large stained glass window faced the main entrance in Hope Street and a road was built 15 ft wide from Egerton Street for exit only.

The exhibition was opened in July by the Duke of Westminster, and  by then many more exhibits had been acquired, with items contributed by Mr W E Gladstone, Sir W W Wynn, Sir R Brooke, Earl Denbigh, Lord Penrhyn, Sir Reginald Chomlondley was the largest contributor  with  no less than 41 paintings on show.

The Duke expressed his disappointment that the Prince and Princess of Wales were unable to attend the opening of either this or the Eisteddfod due to take place the next month. He expected that the number of visitors would be about 1000 each day which would ensure the Exhibitions financial success.

The event was then declared open and a vocal and instrumental concert was given, with Mr Best presiding at the organ, Mr J Thomas conducting the band. Madame Edith Wynne had been announced to sing but was suffering from hoarseness and unable to attend.

His Grace the Duke of Westminster declares the building open.

In August a report in the Wrexham Advertiser on the exhibition stated that the attendance was not as high as expected, and that it was possible that many people were not aware of the `great musical treat` in the Art Gallery.  No expense had been spared in securing the  best artists, Madame Sinico, Mr Vernon Rigby, Signor Campobello were among the vocalists, Miss Bessie Waugh on the pianoforte, Mr John Thomas at the harp and Mr Edwin Harris at the organ. Also appearing was the Birkenhead Cambrian Choral Union along with the band of the 106th Regiment.

The Chester Courant said that regret was felt  when they heard  of the low attendance, the art exhibition was one of the best ever held in the provinces and that the only thing wanting to ensure success was the support of the public. It was felt that if such great effort met with scant recognition, it would be said by many critics that the people of North Wales are indifferent to fine arts. It was hoped that large employers in the area would stimulate their workmen to visit, and that on certain days schools were allowed to attend.   

The exhibition ended on Monday 27th November, it was stated that in the four months it had been open over 80,000 people had attended.


MAJOR CORNWALLIS WEST ON THE FAILURE OF THE WREXHAM ART TREASURES EXHIBITION

In March 1877 a letter was printed in the Wrexham Advertiser from Major Cornwallis West to the Mayor of Wrexham, on the accounts of the Exhibition which showed  that receipts had fallen short of expenditure  by £4,215 15s 9d.

My Dear Sir – As you have kindly consented at my request in conjunction with Col. Jones V.C. to audit the accounts connected with the Wrexham Art Treasures

Exhibition, I consider it desirable as the chairman of the Committee to send you a report explanatory as far as possible of the serious deficit which exists, and of the embarrassment consequent upon it and in doing so express regret that the result of so much labour and anxiety should have been in (a financial point of view) so disastrous and so calculated to throw discredit upon the gentlemen who were the principal promoters of the Exhibition.

He goes on to write –

The Building.

The largest item of expenditure was the building, which had been originally estimated by Mr Kennedy, the architect to cost £2.500, but later it was found that more rooms were needed and alterations had to be made to the original plan.

Decorating and Colouring.

For decorating the walls, roof and pillars   no contract were given and work was paid for on a daily basis,  therefore no definite notion of cost was given.

The Contract

The time given and accepted for the  contract was too short , and led to a great strain on the contractor Mr Samuel, resulting in a great deal of work being done hurriedly without any idea of the cost.

Want of a Suitable Public Building in Wrexham.

If any suitable building had existed in Wrexham, this could have been used, even if a temporary addition was to have been made. As there was no such building and it was desired that the exhibition should run in conjunction with the National Eisteddfod there was no other alternative but for temporary buildings – the cost of which was confidently expected to be met by the large influx of visitors.

Hope of Promoters Unfulfilled.

The hopes of the promoters were unfulfilled, and that it was useless to deny that although the attractions on show and the daily performances by the musicians, the mass of the people were decidedly backward in their patronage. It was estimated that no more than 50.000 visited in the four months of its existence, in a town with close proximity by rail to Chester, Birkenhead, Liverpool, Oswestry, Shrewsbury and the whole of Wales with its population of over 1,000,000.

It was acknowledged that the grand concerts were perhaps ambitious, but considering the national instinct of the Welsh for music and the novelty of a complete orchestra it was supposed that great interest would be felt, however at least £500 was lost by the concerts. They would have not been continued after their unremunerative character became apparent, but a binding contract had been made between the leader of the orchestra and the musical director of the concerts which the former was disciplined to rescind.

Low Charge of Admission.

He goes on to say that in his opinion the greatest error was the low cost of admission. By an agreement with the railway companies made at a meeting, it was decided that a reduced sum of 6d instead of 1s would be given to any person who presented a special railway ticket at the turnstile. In agreeing to this, especially after the Exhibition had been decided on, and the railway companies had them at their mercy, he said that this was a serious financial mistake that he has never ceased to regret, for it greatly affected the daily receipts without influencing the number of visitors. It was thought that when the arrangement was made that the working classes would take advantage of the reduced fares and nominal admission charge, but they made very little use of the offer. The result was that people were daily admitted for 6d who could well have afforded to pay five times that amount.

Stagnation in Trade

The disinclination in trade by all large employers, to whom personal applications had been made to influence their workmen to visit the Exhibition or to send them there was disappointing in one source of expected income, and with the rumours of war had unsettled many and made them indifferent to matters which in more peaceful times would have been of great interest.

The Officials.

It was considered that the expenses were not overly high and their services had been needed before and after the Exhibition for a time of nearly 10 months. It had also been required to have a staff to guard the precious objects and the great liability of the building to the  effects of storm and wind made it necessary to have men constantly employed to watch for leakage, broken glass or other damage.

The Industrial Annexe.

This was an addition made by the request of many gentlemen from Wrexham, but the cost of erecting the building was not repaid by the rents, resulting in a loss.

Exhibiton Band

Weekly expenses were much enhanced by payments to the band, and Major West wrote that personally he was not favourable for it to be continued when it proved how little interest the Exhibition had shown to the masses, but he was persuaded by others to let it continue.  There was no doubt that it afforded a constant and harmless source of entertainment, especially in the evening, to a large number of persons in Wrexham, to whom Works of Art were on no interest.

Another factor was the “miserable result of sale of effects at the Exhibition”

Major West acknowledged the generosity of the gentleman who consented to become guarantors, and expressed regret and surprise at the necessity to call upon them for payment in full.

He said that although errors may have been committed in the expectation of popular support, but that the promoters had the consolation of knowing that that they had collected some of the finest and rarest examples of ancient and modern art ever seen in the Provinces.   What the outcome of this may be, who can judge,  that is cannot be for evil and may be good is certain, notwithstanding the disastrous financial failure, it will long linger in the memory of those who were capable of an intelligent interest in it`s aims and object.

There followed an itemised summary of receipts and expenditure of the event.

Receipts, £12,153,14s 11d

Balance Sheet.

Dr.

Total amount of Guarantee fund, £2,295,10s 0d

Less cash not yet paid into Bank. £620,0,0

Cash temporarly advanced to meet liabilities £4,838,15s 9d.

Cr.

By balance brought from Expenditure Account £6.511,5s 9d.

“We have examined the above accounts and seen correct receipts for cash, ammonting in the aggregate to the sum of £12,153,14s 11d which has been expended by the Executive Committee under the personal responsibility of Mr Cornwallis West, solely on account of the Wrexham Art Treasures Exhibition”.

Auditors; Mr J Bierne, Mayor , Alfred Jones Leuit Col.


The location of the Exhibition can be still recognised from the plans, the entrance from Hope Street, is an archway and buildings leading from Hope Street to Argyle Street.

They were designed and built by William Low in 1875 and a mural and plaque on Argyle Street commemorate his achievements.

William Low was the Scottish engineer who formed the Channel Tunnel Company and drew up the first realistic plans for a tunnel under the channel.

William Low
William Low ceramics by John Davies

Source: Compiled by Annette Edwards; Graham Lloyd; John Davies.