Art: Whitechapel centenary exhibition, London

20th April 2001 at 01:00

If you've never visited the Whitechapel in London's East End before, take this opportunity to find out what this gallery is all about.

It was built 100 years ago, the brainchild of Canon Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, Christian Socialists whose purposeful philanthropy inspired them "to bring the finest art in the world to the people of east London".

Canon Barnett believed that art would have a civilising effect on the population; he envisaged the gallery as a cathedral offering "sermons on the walls" which, he hoped, would "fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation".

Although, thanks to its radical and enlightened directors, the Whitechapel became a trailblazer for modern art, the Barnetts' preference was for uplifting history pictures and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1914 Henrietta Barnett wrote to the then director, Gilbert Ramsey, about his forthcoming exhibition of "Twentieth Century Art" pleading with him not to get "too many examples of the extreme thought of this century, for we must never forget that the Whitechapel Gallery is intended for the Whitechapel people who have to be delicately led and will not understand the Post-Impressionists' or the Futurists' methods of seeing and representing things".

Her fears were unfounded; it was here that the British public began to learn about modern art.

Zipping back and forth between Hogarth and Hockney, Burne Jones and Bomberg, Watteau and Warhol, Rothko, Rauschenburg and Rembrandt, this exhibition is an exhilarating, unpredictable experience.

Whitechapel Art Gallery, 80-82 High Street, London E1 7QX. Recorded information: 020 7522 7878. Education service: 020 7522 7855. Website: .

The centenary exhibition continues to May 20. Free, closed Mondays. The Whitechapel Art Gallery Centenary Review , an illustrated collection of essays, reviews, comment and analysis, costs pound;8

A full version of this appears in this week's TES Friday


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