Exhibition Square, York YO1 7EP

Originally built for the 1879 Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition, York Art Gallery has recently been the subject of a major redevelopment project and now houses the national Centre of Ceramic Art. Exhibition Square was created in the 1870s to provide a suitable setting for the exhibition building.

The Exhibition Square plaque is on the railings, to the right of the entrance to King’s Manor

Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition

In 1866, York hosted the city’s first Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition in a temporary building in the grounds of Bootham Hospital. Designed by York architect Edward Taylor (1831-1908) in association with the firm of J.B. & W. Atkinson, the exhibition halls were constructed of timber and glass in an elaborate ‘Swiss chalet’ style. Around 400,000 people attended the exhibition, generating a profit of £1,866. At a meeting of the sponsoring committee on 10 April 1867, it was agreed that the surplus would be applied to provide ‘some permanent building to be devoted to the encouragement of Art and Industry’. Edward Taylor was commissioned to design the new building for a second exhibition which would take place in 1879. William Atkinson was appointed as ‘Honorary Consulting Architect’.

The vision of Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the Great Exhibition, which was held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, inspired a series of international exhibitions which would continue for more than a century. The aim was to display the artistic and technological achievements of participating nations, facilitating an exchange of ideas which would promote global cultural progress. One of the revolutionary aspects of the 1851 event was the building it was housed in. Joseph Paxton, who, as head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, had become expert at designing large greenhouses, developed one of the world’s first industrial building systems using cast iron and plate glass, creating what came to be known as the Crystal Palace.

The design and cost of the exhibition building was to prove controversial. Over a period of four years, from 1874 to 1878, there were to be several design variants. Taylor’s drawings for this period survive in a remarkable archive held by York City Council. Also in existence is a scrapbook of press cuttings, letters and other documents relating to the design of the exhibition building compiled by stained glass artist J.W. Knowles between 1876 and 1887. Although a suitable site for the building had been identified at an early stage – the north-east corner of the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey owned by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society bounded by Bootham to the north and St Leonard’s Place to the east – debate would rage around the most suitable architectural style. The use of the building tended to dictate the appropriate style to be adopted in Victorian Britain. In London, in 1857, the various competition entries for the design of the Foreign Office resulted in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Styles’. In the end, a compromise was reached; the noted exponent of the Gothic style, George Gilbert Scott, was asked to redesign his entry with Classical elevations.

In recognition of the importance of King’s Manor, Taylor’s early designs were in the Elizabethan style. In 1876, however, the sponsoring committee suggested that a more ornate ‘Italian’ style would be more suitable. Taylor visited London to see the major development in South Kensington which was under construction in the 1870s including the South Kensington Museum, now known as the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Albert Hall which had been completed in 1871. These were in the Italian Renaissance style and this was the style now favoured by York’s exhibition committee. The approved drawing of the elevation to Exhibition Square is dated 7 October 1877.

Statue of William Etty in front of York Art Gallery

Exhibition Square

To ease traffic congestion, the barbican of Bootham Bar had been demolished in 1831 and the new thoroughfare of St Leonard’s Place constructed, linking Bootham and Museum Street. A number of buildings remained in front of the proposed site of the new gallery including the Bird in Hand public house and the St Leonard’s Hotel and these were now cleared to create Exhibition Square. Due to its historical importance, Queen Margaret’s Arch was retained as was the adjacent gatehouse which was occupied by Edward Bearpark, nurseryman and seedsman who used the gardens immediately behind the Abbey Walls as far as St Mary’s Tower as a plant nursery: the site of the exhibition buildings.

Construction began in January 1878 and the foundation stone was laid on 22 April by the Lord Mayor of York. The building was opened the following year on 7 May 1879. Taylor’s design comprised a permanent building on to Exhibition Square with galleries surrounding a central lecture hall. Behind this was the temporary Great Hall extending as far as St Mary’s Tower with a large side extension to the south containing a display of machinery. A linking building contained the Refreshment Hall with ‘first class’ and ‘second class’ refreshment rooms.

Due to the adoption of a more elaborate design for the main building, the estimated construction cost had risen from £10,000 to £19,000. In an attempt to cut costs, the proposed statuary on the main façade was omitted until the necessary funds were available at a later date. However, George Milburn was commissioned to carve four portrait heads of York worthies to fill the circular medallions: Camidge, representing music; Flaxman, sculpture; Etty, painting; and Carr, architecture. In 1887, two tile panels were added to the façade, one representing Leonardo da Vinci expiring in the arms of Francis I and the other Michelangelo showing his statue of Moses. The four niches for statues are still awaiting appropriate occupants. The final cost of the 1879 building was around £25,000.

By November, when the exhibition closed, around 530,000 visitors had attended. Soon after 1879, the Machinery Annex was demolished but it was decided to retain the Great Hall. The exhibition building remained as the Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Institution and was used for lectures, concerts, performances and events such as boxing, bazaars, displays, prize-givings and exhibitions. In 1890, York School of Art vacated its premises in Minster Yard and moved into the exhibition buildings. York Corporation purchased the property in 1891 for the sum of £6,000 which included the Burton bequest valued at £35,000 at the time. Despite regular repair and maintenance, the temporary structure of the Great Hall was not sufficiently robust to survive. It was declared unsafe in 1909 and closed for use. However, the abandoned building survived until 1942 when it became a victim of the Baedeker bombing raid of 29 April.

Art Gallery collections

A number of donations made by leading York citizens laid the foundations for the art gallery’s permanent collection. In 1882, John Burton of Poppleton bequeathed an important collection of 126 paintings. A York horse dealer, mine owner, amateur artist and art collector, Burton sat on the organising committees of the 1866 and 1979 exhibitions. In 1912, York City Art Gallery was established, run by a Museum and Art Gallery committee set up by the City Council. The noted York historian and conservation pioneer William Arthur Evelyn was one of the art gallery’s driving forces and, in 1931, the gallery acquired Evelyn’s large collection of prints, drawings and watercolours depicting the city of York. Between 1948 and 1963, the Dean of York Minster, Eric Milner-White, gave a total of 35 early-20th-century British paintings to the city gallery along with his collection of studio pottery. An outstanding collection of Old Master paintings was presented by F. D. Lycett Green through the Art Fund in 1955.

Centre of Ceramic Art

In 2013, work began on an £8 million project to transform the art gallery into the national Centre of Ceramic Art. Architects Simpson & Brown, in collaboration with Ushida Findlay, won the competition for the design of the new gallery which opened to the public in 2015. Off the main entrance hall are three ground-floor galleries which now house travelling exhibitions. The most dramatic space is the first-floor gallery where the intricate roof structure of Taylor’s original lecture theatre has been revealed. This is now home to the nationally-important collection of British studio ceramics. Most evident from the exterior is a new rooftop extension which is clad in ceramic tales. At the rear, on the site of the Great Hall, is a sculpture garden which links to York Museum Gardens and the remains of St Mary’s Abbey.


Jeremy Taylor, ‘The Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition Building 1879, Designing for an Historic Setting in York’, Architectural History, Vol.27, SAHGB (1984)

Simpson & Brown Architects, ‘York Art Gallery, Exhibition Square, York, Conservation Statement’, March 2010, revised December 2011

‘Learned societies, museums, libraries and galleries’, A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott (London, 1961), pp535-537. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp535-537 [accessed 6 May 2019]

© Richard Wilcock