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Art Gallery

Aberdeen Art Gallery is the main visual arts exhibition space in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland. It opened in 1885, in a building designed by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie.

A Museum and Art Gallery, raised by public subscription, was a few years ago erected in Schoolhill in front of the Gordon College. A handsome building,  of the Italian Renaissance order, and largely constructed of light -red and grey granite, it presents a novel and striking appearance. It is united by a noble arch-way to an Art School, presented by Councillor John Gray to the town, and erected at a cost of £5000. A nucleus for the Art Gallery has been formed by the bequest of a magnificent collection by the late Mr Alexander MacDonald of Kepplestone.

The origins of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums can be traced to 1873 when John Forbes White and a number of local art collectors decided to hold a public exhibition to display their collections. From this developed a plan to establish a public art gallery for the benefit of citizens, an objective that continues to drive the programmes of activity within the Museums and Galleries service today. 




One of the loveliest Victorian galleries in the UK, it displays exhibitions of art, greatly enhanced by generous gifts, including Aberdeen granite merchant Alexander MacDonald's private collection in 1900.

The fine A-listed Classical building was built in granite 1883-85, the work of local architect A. Marshall Mackenzie (1847-1933). Mackenzie added the top-lit Sculpture Court in 1905, to house a collection of plaster casts from which art students at the newly established Gray's School of Art could practice drawing, but now used to exhibit works by leading contemporary artists.  In 1907 the Town Council assumed responsibility for the building and its growing collections.

Blackfriars Street Corner, Deemed as a slum and demolished in 1923 to make way for the War Memorial and Cowdray Hall.

In the 1920s further development took place with the addition of the City's War Memorial and the Cowdray Hall, opened by King George V and Queen Mary. The cost of the War Memorial was met by public subscription, and that of the Cowdray Hall, a unique recital venue, by Lord and Lady Cowdray "with a view to encouraging the taste for art and music in the City of Aberdeen". 

Woolmanhill taken 1907, looking towards the Triple Kirks, Schoolhill. It shows the house where Joseph Robertson, the Historian, was born in 1810.  The library of the late Joseph Robertson, was sold by auction by T. Chapman, Feb. 26, 1867, and during the 3 following days.  The buildings at the left were demolished for the construction of the War Memorial and Cowdray Hall.

Cowdray Hall

Lord Cowdray of Midhurst who was born Yorkshire in 1856 was a successful businessman whose Company built Harbours and Railways.  The Pearson family must have given Sussex a jolt when they arrived in 1909. Weetman Dickinson Pearson was an industrialist who built London’s Blackwall Tunnel and Dover Harbour.  Overseas, he transformed Mexico City (acquiring a few oilfields along the way).  In due course, the family would go on to buy everything from the Financial Times to Chateau Latour. With such wealth came the usual upward mobility. Weetman became a baronet in 1894, Baron Cowdray in 1910 and Viscount Cowdray in 1917 He was also an MP and during the 1st World War became a Government Minister in charge of building aeroplanes. Lord Cowdray and his wife had unusual medals made to give to friends as a token of their friendship; a portrait of Lord Cowdray appears on one side with Lady Cowdray on the other.  Lord Cowdray owned estates in Aberdeenshire and in the south of England and gave his name to the Cowdray Hall which is part of Aberdeen Art Gallery.

His 16,500 Acre Estate includes Cowdray Park, with its 16 bedrooms, 2 lakes, 2 swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), 6 cottages, 12 flats, a bowling alley, cricket pitch, polo field and 110 acres of grounds.  The 53,000-acre Dunecht Estate in Aberdeenshire was owned by Lord Cowdray.  Lord Cowdray died  at Dunecht House, Aberdeenshire, on May 1, 1927 while on his way to Aberdeen, the freedom of which he and Lady Cowdray were to have received.  He made substantial donations to a number of Universities including Aberdeen and to Hospital provision within the City. Lord Cowdray also served as Lord Rector of Aberdeen University for 3 years between 1918 and 1921. Along with a small number of eminent local families, he provided funding to help establish the Foresterhill Hospital site, which has developed into one of the largest single site teaching hospitals. His wife Lady Cowdray gave substantial support to the Aberdeen branch of the College of Nursing.

Cowdray Club - Annie, Viscountess Cowdray, gave the Club to the Royal College of Nursing as a residential and social club for nurses and other professional women in 1929. In Fonthill Road, the Club and the adjacent Fonthill Lodge have been tastefully renovated with the dining room and ballroom being particularly gracious. The Club provides nursing care ranging from a few days rest to full dependency nursing. Residents may rest assured that it no longer has this dated appearance but provides 1st class accommodation in the 2 buildings.

Shrine, War Memorial, Cowdray Hall, 1927

War Memorial - On 29 September 1925 the Moderators of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church dedicated the War Memorial. King George V opened Cowdray Hall and other extensions on the same day. Lord and Lady Cowdray had paid for the Hall and thus earned the honour of the Freedom of the City. This was conferred on 3 May 1927; with a luncheon at the Town and County Hall where the menu included salmon, roast chicken and foie gras on toast, to the strains of light classical music.

The War Memorial and the extension of the Art Gallery, including the Cowdray Hall and Museum, were opened by King George V and Queen Mary on 29th September 1925. These were erected at a cost of £80,000, with the cost of the War Memorial being raised by public subscription. The War Memorial is a Cenotaph, in the form of a Memorial Court or Hall of Remembrance and is "consecrated to the memory of those 5000 of the City and District who gave their lives on land and sea 'that we might live'". 

The shrine is of white and grey marble in a niche in the north wall of the Memorial Court, directly opposite the entrance. It takes the form of a table on which is placed the Roll of Honour, printed on vellum, within glass. The table is supported by trusses decorated in Renaissance style. On either side are the Union Jack and White Ensign, representing Army and Navy, and in the centre is a laurel wreath in gilt bronze.  The circular balcony or gallery, with a graceful balustrade, grey marble coping and ornate mouldings, which encircles the Court and leads to various picture galleries, one of which can be seen through the doorway.

In 1937 the Regional Museum opened in the basement below the Cowdray Hall, with displays of local history, natural history and geology. The Regional Museum closed in the 1970s, with the opening of a new display space in James Dun's House. (Inset - this building is no longer part of the Museums service). The early 1960s saw further developments at the Art Gallery with the opening of the James McBey Print Room and Art Library in 1961. This fitting tribute to a famous local artist was thanks to the generosity of his widow, Marguerite, who left another substantial bequest when she died in the 1990s.




Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, 1885 with 1905 Sculpture Court to Art Gallery and 1925 War Memorial and Cowdray Hall. Outstanding, 2-storey block of Rennaissance-style buildings constructed in distinctive polished, grey granite ashlar with pink Correnie granite dressings and detailing linked by vehicular arch. Moulded base course; rock-faced rusticated course rising to cill-course; moulded blocking course; plain ashlar freize; moulded cornice. Architraved and corniced, astragalled fixed-pane windows run length of ground floor with decorative roundels above.

South (principal) ELEVATION: 14-bay Art Gallery and 7-bay former School of Art linked by semi-elliptical arch form a continuous run facing Schoolhill. Art Gallery with full-height engaged Corinthian columns flanking round-arched entrance with 2-leaf timber door; columns flanked by channelled pilasters; dentiled pediment above. Former School of Art has similar entrance bay arrangement with further pair of Corinthian columns replacing channelled pilasters. Arch (leading to Robert Gordons College) with channelled pilasters, tripartite fixed-pane linking corridor above with scrolled and arched pediment and fine, ornamental cast-iron gates and gate-piers with crown-finialled lanterns.

SW CORNER ELEVATION: Grey granite ashlar with curved quadrant colonnade and wide entrance doors to Cowdray Hall at outer quadrant bays flanked by Corinthian pilasters; dentiled architrave; garland and swag details. Steps at central quadrant area surround plinth with lion sculpture designed by W McMillan.

W (Blackfriars Street) ELEVATION: Grey and pink granite as above. Blind portico to centre with shallow Corinthian pilasters flanked by broad sections of full-height channelled rustication. Windows to outer bays flanked by channelled pilasters.  Predominantly fixed multi-pane windows. Grey slate. Multi-pitched roof with broad multi-pane rooflights to N, S, E and W. Large oval cupola to central Sculpture Court of Art Gallery; fluted copper dome to War Memorial. Cast-iron rainwater goods.

INTERIOR: Art Gallery: fine central Sculpture Court with bifurcated stair of black and white marble. Distinctive colonnaded sculpture court with columns of different coloured granite. Above, balustraded balcony. 1959 James McBey Print Room linked to main gallery at NE re-entrant angle. War Memorial: octagonal court rising to balustraded circular balcony at 1st floor; giant, arched recesses rise to domed ceiling.

Cowdray Hall: curving, stepped stage area with pneumatic pipe organ; colonnaded mezzanine to rear; oak panelled dado. Doric-columned basement level with geometric plasterwork ceiling. Decorative cast-iron balustrades to hallway stairs; predominantly original brass fixtures. Timber-boarded cloak room with drop-leaf counter. Former Gray’s School of Art: balustraded, bifurcated staircase at main entrance hall. 


Aberdeen’s Art Gallery is widely considered to be one of the most successful examples of its type in Scotland. The use of pink and grey granite is unusual and this complex of buildings, by one of the city’s most renowned architects adds significantly to the streetscape. According to Mackenzie’s apprentice, Herbert Hardy Wigglesworth, a visit to Italy circa 1883 inspired the adoption of a 2 colour treatment, apparently in deference to the use of sandstone and brick dressings of Simpson's Triple Kirk opposite (of which only the spire and East Free Church sections survive). This colour contrast extended to the neo-Georgian villas he designed in the 1890s.  The Sculpture Court at the Art Gallery was added by Mackenzie in 1905 using various types of granite mostly derived from local quarries including Rubislaw, Kemnay and Correnie. The principal gallery spaces have been restored following original designs by Mackenzie.  The War Memorial and Cowdray Hall (by Mackenzie and his son Alexander George Robertson Mackenzie) were outlined before World War I but not carried out, and with alteration to the original design, until 1923-5. Both buildings are currently only accessible via the Art Gallery. The War Memorial interior is a particularly fine example of Neo-Classical work of the period. The quadrant corner was originally intended as a setting for an Edward VII memorial statue but due to the late building date, it instead received a stylised lion sculpture designed by W McMillan and executed by Arthur Taylor's granite Yard.

Carved by mason James Philip with his assistant George Cooper. Pneumatic and hand chisels were used in the cutting of this Kemnay granite sculpture. The leadmason, James Philip, spent his working life in the granite yard of Arthur Taylor and he was perhaps the best carver ever employed in the City’s stone trade.

Arthur Taylor’s granite yard was in Jute Street and it was from this yard that James Philip produced works of notable skill and artistic merit: including work for the Titanic memorial in Liverpool and Inverurie war memorial, as well as the statue of Edward VII in Aberdeen.

In 1897 Taylors Yard employed the 1st of 2 mechanical pneumatic hammers which had been used in this way in the country. In 1900 Mr Taylor presented the hammers to the Aberdeen Mechanical Society.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013