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, and we share information about individual paintings and objects on our Facebook page and YouTube channel. You can also find out about some of the items visitors enjoy most in our Visitor Favourites.

NEWS: Rare Birkenhead Pottery Artwork is Saved for Williamson Art Gallery

a della robbia plate painted in green, blue and yellow. Around the outside are angels and in he middle is reads peace on earth, good will towards men27th October 2022

A last-minute fundraising drive has ensured that a rare piece of British art pottery has entered the public collection of Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.

The artwork – a large charger plate decorated with angels and the inscription “Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men” was made at the Della Robbia Pottery in Price Street, Birkenhead, in 1894. It is amongst the earliest works made at the Pottery and was painted by its founder, Harold Rathbone.

The Della Robbia Pottery ran in Birkenhead from 1894 to 1906, making a significant impact on the art world of the time with its colourful and innovative ceramics, handmade by local men and women who were trained at the Pottery.

The artwork was auctioned at Byrne’s Auctioneers in Chester on Wednesday 28th September. The Williamson prevailed amidst fierce competition with a £4,800 bid, thanks to funding pledged by the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Decorative Arts Society, and Williamson and Priory Friends.

Williamson curator Niall Hodson commented: “When I saw this beautiful plate coming up for auction, I knew we had to do everything we could to bring it into a public collection. We are grateful to the organisations who gave money to enable us to buy it.

“Della Robbia ceramics made and signed by Harold Rathbone are particularly rare, as he generally took on a consultative and managerial role at the Pottery and left decorating work to others. This must have been an important piece to him; perhaps made as a gift for a friend or family member.

The artwork is currently on display in the foyer.

GALLERIES 1-3: TEMPORARY EXHIBITIONS

Our temporary exhibitions bring both local and national artists into the gallery.

The Williamson Open is always hugely popular, featuring hundreds of works by local artists. This usually takes place in Spring, and we will post submission information to our website. We are also delighted to host an annual exhibition by the Wirral Society of Arts.

Nationally recognised artists who have exhibited in our galleries have included Ralph Steadman, Martin Parr, Emma Rodgers and Graham Dean. We are frequently a host venue for wider cultural programmes across the region including LOOK Photo Biennial, Independents Biennial and Wirral Borough of Culture 2019.

Galleries 1-3 are currently closed.

GALLERIES 4,5,6 & 13: OUR COLLECTIONS

The Williamson’s permament fine art collection has been continuously developed since the 1920s, and we dedicate four of our galleries to curating exhibitions from their treasures. Visit our Exhibitions page to find out what’s currently on display.

GALLERY 7: FURNITURE

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.

GALLERY 8: SHIP MODELS

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

GALLERIES 9 & 10: CERAMICS

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 their 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.

We also have a significant collection of porcelain from the Knowles Boney collection. Much was thought to have been made in Liverpool during the height of its pottery industry in the 18th century, but has subsequently been found to actually have been manufactured elsewhere.

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Williamson Art Gallery, Oxton, Birkenhead, Wirral