Born in 1891 in Pendleton outside Manchester, Margaret Pilkington was a pioneering supporter of the arts in Manchester in the early 20th Century. She was determined to make art accessible to a wider audience and was particularly aware of the different needs of gallery visitors, especially young children and those from less privileged backgrounds. Having come from a wealthy background - her grandfather had co-founded Pilkington Glass Works whilst her father Lawrence was the co-founder of Pilkington Lancastrian Pottery and Tile Company, famous for its lustre ware – Margaret felt very deeply that art should not remain the preserve of what she called the ‘idle rich’ and must be made readily available to as many people as possible.
Having been asked to join the Council of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery in 1925, she went on to become Honorary Director from 1936 - 1959, the first female director of a major British gallery, and alongside organising numerous exhibitions, she founded the Friends of the Whitworth which still exists today to support gallery activities. During the Second World War, Margaret oversaw the relocation of major works into storage with the National Library of Wales and helped to set up a rest centre at the gallery for those made homeless during the Manchester Blitz. In recognition of her contribution to the artistic life of the city, Pilkington was awarded an honorary MA from the University of Manchester in 1942 and an O.B.E. in 1956.
In 1953, the Friends of the Whitworth commissioned Margaret’s portrait from Sir Stanley Spencer (fig.1) and he stayed with her several times at the Pilkington family home Firwood, Alderley Edge: ‘before much time goes by I must write and thank you for the lovely time I had a Firwood…’ (Stanley Spencer to Margaret Pilkington, 11th April 1953, Whitworth Art Gallery Archive). Although it is unclear when they first met, Margaret may have known him from the Slade as he had graduated only a year before she arrived in 1913 but she certainly knew his work, purchasing Greenhouse Interior from Arthur Tooth in 1936 (lot 12).
Pilkington was also a talented artist in her own right. She attended the Manchester School of Art from 1911 - 13 and went on to the Slade in 1913 where she was taught by Lucien Pissarro who became a key influence (see fig.2). In 1914, she moved to the Central School and studied wood engraving with Noel Rooke and developed a wonderfully lyrical style. Indeed, according to Campbell Dodgson, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, ‘Miss Gribble and Miss Pilkington are among the other women artists who practice wood engraving with zeal and success…’. After the war, Margaret exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers, becoming a member in 1921, honorary secretary in 1924 and Chairman from 1952 - 67. In 1925, she attended Walter Sickert’s lecture classes in Manchester and later remembered: ‘Sickert himself advocated the making first of a rough sketch which he would then square up and enlarge in the squaring up of the canvas. He would then select the point to him of greatest interest - in a portrait head perhaps an eye - in a landscape a tree or a building. This he would work on first and then work outwards from it. I was interested to see that Stanley Spencer used this method when he made a portrait drawing of me…’. Margaret also had a deep appreciation for William Morris and his vision of uniting the arts and crafts and was thus a founder member and honorary secretary of the Red Rose Guild of Designer Craftsmen with early members including Bernard Leach, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and Ethel Mairet.
Pilkington remained passionate about supporting fellow artists throughout her life acquiring many works for her own collection by names such as Ben Nicholson, Eric Gill, L.S. Lowry, Barbara Hepworth, John Minton, Edward Bawden, Stanley Spencer and Gwen John. Margaret and her sister Dorothy went on to give 145 works to the Whitworth including many 20th Century British works but also paintings by Constable, Rowlandson, Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec, Richard Parkes Bonnington and Richard Wilson. When the Whitworth was refurbished in the mid 1960s, a new central exhibition room was named The Margaret Pilkington Room and in 1999, the Friends of the Whitworth Art Gallery organised a memorial exhibition to celebrate Margaret’s life and work.