Permanent Collections

Our permanent collections contain a wealth of treasures giving relating to local histories of national importance.

The variety of artistic and historical objects in the collections is vast, and has been collected over more than 90 years. A more detailed description of each category is given below.

Please note that not all collections described may be on display, however it is possible to book private viewings.  Contact the gallery for more information.

Many artworks from our collection can also be found on Art UK, on our Facebook page and our YouTube channel. You can also find out what audiences enjoy most by visiting Visitor Favourites.


The core of the Williamson’s watercolour collections was being built from the early 1920’s.  The first watercolour in the whole collection is number 7 in our accession register, Henry Meynell Rheam’s Green and Blue. The gallery now has over 2,000 watercolours and drawings, dating in particular from the 18th and 19th centuries.  We make a concerted effort to regularly exhibit less familiar items to hang alongside old favourites.


The majority of our Victorian Furniture collection was once in the dining room of Arrowe Hall, Woodchurch.  The hall was built in 1835 for John Shaw, a warehouse owner who was twice Mayor of Liverpool.

The furniture was made around 1880, despite the earlier dates carved into it.  This deceit, and staining the wood very dark to look older, was meant to give the owner a heritage and respectability he did not really have.  The carving on each piece reflects historical subjects and themes which would have appealed to the owners’ interests and self-presentation.


The Williamson Art Gallery is proud to be home to the largest public collection of Della Robbia pottery in the UK.  Founded in 1894 in Birkenhead by Harold Rathbone, the ceramics factory was inspired by the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement.  Rathbone moved in the circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists that surrounded William Morris and followed his ideas.  He also appreciated Italian art and, having seen colourful and decorative pottery adorning churches and other buildings in Italy, wanted to being the same spirit to Britain.

The workshop was led by Conrad Dressler and Giovanni Carlo Manzoni, and trained local young people as labourers.  The workshop produced brightly coloured architectural and decorative designs, with heir colours and materials inspired by Italian designs of the 15th and 16th centuries.  Its work was sold by stories including Liberty and William Morris’ own company.

Although the studio itself was short-lived, closing in 1906, there has always been a considerable interest in the works it produced.


The maritime gallery opened in 1963.  Maritime history is of course a significant part of Birkenhead’s local heritage, with Cammell Laird shipyard in particular a major employer until its closure in 1993.  It brings together models, pictures and artefacts from Cammell Laird ships with equivalent collections from shipping lines with offices in Liverpool.

ship model in a glass case


The Williamson is home to the archive collection of drawings, photographs and fabric samples illustrating the work of Arthur H Lee & Sons up to closure in 1970.

Opening in Birkenhead in 1908, Arthur H Lee and Sons tapestry works produced groundbreaking textiles and fabrics which decorated some of the world’s most beautiful rooms.  The restricted colours of the shuttle boxes were supplemented by printing processes giving Lee textiles a unique appearance. The company also produced a large range of crewel and canvas embroideries. Although perhaps most associated with decorating in the period style, Lee’s also developed a modern range in the 1920s (notably “quiltweaves”) and a range of luxury-market plain upholstery fabrics in the 1950s and 60s. The firm was also the agent for Fortuny in Europe and the USA.


The development of the museums in Birkenhead came at a time of great civic pride in the town. A generation of wealthy collectors, the merchants and professional people who had helped create the town, made donations to the museum.  As a result the collection in many areas grew in a haphazard way.  Oriental ceramics, West African woodcarvings, Irish glass, and Cretan antiquities all figure in the collections.

Whilst many of these donations are not on regular display, they may be explored through our talk series The Things That Live Under The Stairs or on our YouTube channel.

Williamson Art Gallery, Oxton, Birkenhead, Wirral