Key figure in Harrogate gallery looks back on early years of town's cultural gem

Try to imagine the scene back in 1989, inside what is now known as the Mercer Gallery.

Thursday, 4th February 2021, 4:36 pm

A group of art lovers and their paying guests are gathered for the launch of an appeal to transform what is, at the time, the empty and neglected Promenade Room located on Swan Road near Valley Gardens.

The civic silver may be gleaming inside the crumbling building - first opened in 1805 - as they tuck into a lavish banquet designed to raise the funds for the new campaign.

Judith Thomas, who has retired after playing a leading role for three decades in the rise to cultural prominence of the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

But there is a hole in the ceiling and the only warmth comes from industrial heaters borrowed for the evening.

The first event by the soon-to-be-named Friends of Mercer Gallery turned out to be a great success and set the fledgling gallery on its path to its future role as one of Harrogate’s cultural gems - critically acclaimed, award-winning and, until Covid arrived, an exceptional tourist attraction.

Judith Thomas - who in 1998 received the MBE for her efforts - was there from the very start, when things looked most bleak.

Having retired recently as chair of the Friends after more than 30 years, she is proud of what the team has achieved from that tricky beginning.

Flashback to 1989 and the launch by candlelight of fundraising by founding members of Friends of Mercer Gallery. Judith Thomas is pictured on the right.

Judith said: “The building was practically derelict. The ceiling had stained glass roof lights which were cracked and leaking.

“Once they removed the internal walls and ceilings, put previously in to provide modern office space for the council’s rates office, they found the plasters had broken laths and the plaster was rotten.”

Harrogate Borough Council, which owned the building which hosted performances by Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry in its elegant 19th century prime, provided the funds to make the building watertight and turn the basement into a secure storage area.

The Friends of Mercer Gallery had to do the rest, armed only with a grant from the sons of S Agnew Mercer, a talented amateur artist, and their own reservoirs of enthusiasm and energy.

Within two years under the leadership of Judith Thomas, and with additional support from the council, their mission was accomplished.

But the good work did not let up after Mercer Art Gallery was first opened by the Earl of Harewood in 1991.

Persistent fundraising has helped towards further improvements to the main gallery; the conversion of the ‘North Gallery’ space; a newly-designed studio space; production of the comprehensive Catalogue of Harrogate’s Fine Art Collections; outstanding exhibitions and book publications; as well as the purchase of fine bespoke furniture; and the acquisition of many important artworks.

The standards set have been so high, in fact, some of the gallery’s ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have even won national press coverage.

Judith Thomas said: “For a gallery of our size we very much punch above our weight. We have always had a good working relationship with all the excellent curators.

“I am very proud that we have over 400 members who enjoy and support the gallery while having a great time together.”

It wasn’t easy to give up a life of highlights but the time was right to move on, Judith said. But stepping down does not mean her faith or interest in Mercer Gallery’s future is at an end.

Judith said: “There is such a good team in place now with youth and enthusiasm, it was the right time to retire.

“Funding and maintaining the impetus to keep the Mercer Gallery at the top of its league will be very challenging after Covid but there is such potential for the gallery to expand physically.”

The art of success: Mercer Gallery's most popular exhibitions in Harrogate

As well as giving a home to Harrogate district’s fine art collection of some 2,000 works of art and hosting the popular annual Harrogate Open exhibition, Mercer Gallery is renowned for its successful exhibitions.

Among its most popular over the years have been:

Painting The Victorian Age: William Powell Frith (2007);

Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, (2011);

Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney (2014);

A unique Northern Ballet collaboration with original dance works inspired by the paintings of Tom Wood (2016).

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