Bryan Biggs: The shared history of The Bluecoat and the Art Sheds

Art Sheds History, Art Sheds Teachers

Bryan Biggs is the Artistic Director of The Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts.  The Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. For Biennial 2014, The Bluecoat hosted an exhibition of work by James McNeill Whistler and it is also hosting the The International Biennial Association Summit on October 11th.

Here, Bryan discusses the fascinating little-known connection between the Art Sheds and The Bluecoat – a connection that would help to inspire The Bluecoat to become the cultural landmark that it is today.

Bryan Biggs

Bryan Biggs, taken during the Biennial 2014 Whistler exhibition at The Bluecoat

There is an historical connection between the Bluecoat and the Art Sheds, the ramshackle buildings that housed the University of Liverpool’s Applied Art Department 1894 -1905. And it was a group of young artists from the Sheds we must thank for putting in motion a train of events that would transform the Bluecoat from school to arts centre.

The 1902 Education Act compelled Liverpool Corporation to take over the School of Design (then in Mount Street next door to the Mechanics’ Institute, which is now LIPA), and it was decided to also incorporate the University’s Applied Art Section into a new School of Art. Used to the progressive teaching of J. Herbert MacNair (Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s brother-in-law) and Augustus John who’d taught at the Art Sheds for 18 months, several students, together with tutors MacNair and the painter Gerard Chowne, resisted this move and broke away to form an independent art school.

Bluecoat Courtyard

The Bluecoat, present day (photo by Ian Lawson, taken from

Taking up residence in Sandon Terrace (the site now occupied by LIPA’s car park), the group named themselves the Sandon Terrace Studios, later becoming the Sandon Studios Society. In 1907 however the group had to vacate these premises and it was Fanny Lister, later Mrs Calder, who spotted the opportunity to occupy the vacant School Lane premises of the Blue Coat School that had just moved to larger premises in suburban Wavertree.

The artistic colony’s early years in the building were eventful. Its first exhibition in 1908 included work by Monet, probably the first time his work had been seen outside London. 1911 saw the first Post Impressionists exhibition, a version of the show that Roger Fry had curated a few months earlier in London, where it had caused such a stir, Virginia Woolf declaring that the world would never be the same. The modern era in art had arrived! Significantly, the Bluecoat show was the first time that the likes of Picasso and Matisse had shown alongside British artists – members of the Sandon, including several who had studied at the Art Sheds.

Bluecoat Historic

Historic photograph of The Bluecoat (taken from

Amongst these, Herbert Tyson Smith went on to rent a studio at the Bluecoat (until his death in 1972), becoming one of Liverpool’s most eminent artists, specialising in architectural sculpture – his work includes the Liverpool Cenotaph, outside St. George’s Hall, and the reliefs over the Mersey Tunnel entrance. Another exhibitor, Gerard Chowne, was killed a few years later during the First World War. Another, Fanny Calder, later led a successful campaign to save the building.

Charles Reilly, Professor of Architecture at the University, and supportive of the work going on in the Art Sheds, had moved his department to the Bluecoat, working alongside the Sandon artists. His vision to consolidate the building’s activity and create an arts centre had been supported by William Lever (the first Lord Leverhulme) who purchased the building from the school using damages received from a successful libel action against the Daily Mail.

Although Lever lost interest and died before the scheme could be implemented, the vision was eventually realised in 1927 following the indomitable Mrs Calder’s fundraising campaign. With the Bluecoat Society of Arts formally constituted that year, the Bluecoat’s future as an arts centre was secured, making it arguably the earliest arts centre in the country.

The Art Sheds exhibition runs at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until October 25th 2014.

Many thanks to Bryan Biggs at The Bluecoat for this entry.


Spotlight on Gallery 7: James Abbott McNeil Whistler – ‘Nocturne: Furnace’ (1886)

Art Sheds Collections, Susan Forsyth

In Gallery 7, you can see a selection of artworks from the collections of the Victoria Gallery & Museum.  Susan Forsyth has hand-picked some of her favourite pieces. Here, she looks at one of those artworks in depth.

Nocturn Furnace - Whistler

“I have done a lot of casting in bronze and iron and I was immediately drawn to Whistler’s small etching of a working furnace.  Whistler was not primarily interested in the subjects depicted in the work and his musical references to ‘symphonies’, ‘harmonies’, ‘studies’ and ‘nocturnes’ encourage us to look at the colour tones and general mood of each piece.

“Whistler was a well-travelled, well-dressed, socialite and dandy who had been expelled from West Point Military Academy for misconduct.  He moved to Paris to train as an artist, befriending many brilliant literary figures, including the poet Stephane Mallarme and Oscar Wilde on the way.

“Though a social butterfly – he later signed his work with a butterfly motif – Whistler was very serious about his work.  In 1887 he disastrously took the critic John Ruskin to court for libel and though he won the case he was forced to sell all his work and property to settle the court costs.

“Whistler was a master-etcher and many critics place him alongside Rembrandt for his skill in this technically demanding craft. The Victoria Gallery & Museum has several prints by the American-born artist.  Both the etchings in the Gallery 7 date from 1886, a year after Whistler’s celebrated ‘Ten O’clock Lectures’ were published.  In these lectures he set out his ground-breaking idea that artists should make ‘art for art’s sake’.  I take this idea for granted but to Whistler’s bemused late-Victorian audience it was a completely new concept and caused a great deal of controversy.”

You can also see works by Whistler at the Bluecoat’s Biennial 2014 exhibition ‘A Needle Walks Into A Haystack’