Kelvingrove first opened its doors to the public on 2 May 1901 when it formed a major part of the Glasgow International Exhibition of that year. The collection displayed came mainly from the McLellan Galleries and from the City Industrial Museum, which had opened in 1870 in the former Kelvingrove Mansion.
Funding to build the museum came in part from the proceeds of the International Exhibition of 1888, which was held in Kelvingrove Park, on almost exactly the site now occupied by the museum. The Exhibition was a statement of national and local pride, visited by 5.75 million people and making a profit of over £40,000. The Association for the Encouragement of Art and Music in the City of Glasgow increased this amount to over £120,000 by public subscription.
Designing the building
An open architectural competition for the new building was launched in 1891. Some of the main requirements in the brief are clearly seen in the museum today:
- a central or music hall giving easy access to all parts of the building
- a suite of top-lit art galleries
- a series of museum halls, some lit by roof windows with others side-lit
In 1892, the winners of the competition were declared as London-based architects, John W Simpson and EJ Milner Allen.
Although the architecture combines a variety of styles, the best description of the building design is Spanish Baroque. In fact, the two main towers are inspired by those of the great pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela, in northeastern Spain. After closing temporarily following the 1901 International Exhibition, Kelvingrove opened its doors as the new permanent home for the City’s collection on 25 October 1902.
Architect John Simpson created a splendid polished walnut case-front and display pipes for the magnificent Lewis & Co (London) organ. The organ was bought by the City after the 1901 Exhibition to be the focal point of the Central Hall.
The new building was a great success, with 1.1 million visitors in 1903, and again in 1904. An annual drawing competition for children was established in 1904, and continues to this day. Glasgow’s ratepayers voted for Sunday opening in 1905, establishing the museum’s commitment to seven day operation very early on.
Origins of the Collection
Although the museum opened in 1901, the origins of the collection date back to 1854, the year one of the museum’s key benefactors, Archibald McLellan, died. Born in 1797, McLellan was a coachbuilder and prominent Glasgow citizen and art collector. He bequeathed his collection of over 400 paintings to the people of Glasgow, as well as the building in Sauchiehall Street that still bears his name, the McLellan Galleries. McLellan’s paintings still form the backbone of Glasgow’s Old Masters collection, which includes Rembrandt’s A Man in Armour and de Lairesse’s An Allegory of the Senses.
One popular Kelvingrove myth is that the building was built the wrong way round, while a second is the story of the architect committing suicide by leaping from one of the towers. Fortunately, neither is true! When Kelvingrove opened to the public back in 1901, the main entrance was from Kelvingrove Park, but nowadays most visitors enter from the main road at Argyle Street.
During World War II most of Kelvingrove's valuable works were housed at secret locations around the country. This proved very fortunate as a bomb landed in nearby Kelvin Way in 1941, shattering 50 tons of window glass and damaging many of the plaster casts in the Sculpture Court.