Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Opulent Origins: 200 Years of Displaying Fine Art

2023 marks our 200th birthday!

In 1823, our forerunner, The Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and the Fine Arts opened its doors to the public for the first time.

To mark the occasion, we’re investigating the origins of our Fine Art collection and reimagining the first exhibitions of paintings we hosted in the 1820s.

Join us as we investigate 200 Years of Displaying Fine Art at Bristol Museums.

What was the Bristol Institution?

The Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and the Fine Arts was our founding organisation. It was in operation between 1823 and 1871, with premises on 17-31 Park Street.

The Bristol Institution was typical of the kind of ‘learned societies’ which emerged throughout the United Kingdom during the Georgian Period. It was a private club which belonged to its shareholders. The members had to financially contribute to maintain their membership. Institution membership was made up of the upper echelons of Bristol Society, who often belonged to different religious, economic, and social groupings.

The Institution’s focus was on natural history and geology, but there was also a gallery for exhibitions.

Browse through this online exhibition where we explore our early history and reimagine the heyday of art exhibitions hosted by the Bristol Institution.

The director of the Museum in 1906

“The history of one Institution is really the history of several, which at different periods became merged and consequently took new shapes.”

A brief Chronology of Bristol Museums

Founded in 1820, The Bristol Institution officially opened for business in January 1823.

Swipe through the images below to discover the stages in our history.


The Library Society (founded 1772) and the Philosophical & Literary Society (founded 1805)

In December 1772, a group of men founded the Bristol Library Society. By 1775, the group had moved into a building on King’s Street (designed by John Strahan or James Paty, built 1739 – 1740). Since 1805, a group of wealthy and well-connected locals, called the Philosophical and Literary Society had also been meeting regularly. Membership overlapped between these two private societies.

This group of forty “public-spirited” individuals wanted to open a public museum in the city, following examples set in London (e.g.) the British Institution (f.1805), and in the regions, such as Manchester and Norfolk.

In 1808, it was proposed that these two societies merge to form a cohesive unit and secure a building for Museum and educational endeavours.

In 1810 the Library Society voted against this amalgamation. The Philosophical & Literary Society continued to investigate the purchase of a larger building for its purposes.

This building is now the Cathay Rendezvous Chinese Restaurant.

Edward Cashin, active 1822 – 1826 ‘The Bristol City Library, King Street’, 1823
Watercolour on paper, Bequest 1908
M2503 © Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

The Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and the Fine Arts (founded 1820, opened 1823).

By 1820, the Philosophical and Literary Society purchased a site on the corner of Park Street and St George’s Road.

They hired the well-established London-based architect and archaeologist, Charles Robert Cockerell, to design and build a building. The new building for its newfound purpose as a combined Museum and ‘learned society.’

On 6 January 1823, the Bristol Institution building was officially opened to its members. The Philosophical and Literary Society was refounded as a body within the Institution building.

The building, 17-31 Park Street, is now a Freemasons Hall.

Alfred Montague, c.1811 – 1887, ‘The Bristol Institution in 1825’, c.1830
Ink and watercolour on paper, unknown, before 1977
K4539 © Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Bristol Museum & Library Association (founded 1872)

After a prolonged period of decline, the Bristol Institution eventually amalgamated with the Bristol Library into the Bristol Art Museum & Library Association on 13 April 1871. Management received requests to sell the Park Street premises.

By 1 April 1872, a new combined Bristol Art Museum and Library Association building opened on top of Park Street.

On 14 February 1893, Bristol City Council took over responsibility, as part of the 1891 Museums & Gymnasiums Act. The name changed to Bristol Museum & Reference Library.

This building is now Browns Brasserie & Bar.

John Foster, c.1820 – 1902, ‘Original Design for Bristol Museum and Library’, c.1866
Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on paper, Gift, 1905
K105 © Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Bristol City Art Gallery (opened 1905)

There were a few changes between 1899 and 1906. Following a bequest of money, the library separated from the Museum and moved to the Central Library on College Green.

In 1899, the Council purchased adjoining land for the extension of the Museum.

The Bristol City Art Gallery was then built between 1899 and 1905. In 1930, this building was extended to the rear.

Originally, this building solely housed Fine Art, and the Museum collections remained next door. However, in November 1940, the Museum was severely damaged in the Bristol Blitz. Artillery bombs also burnt out the interior of the old Park Street building.

In 1947, the University bought the Museum building, and Museum collections moved next door.

This building still houses Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as we know and enjoy today.

Façade of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery c.1910
© Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Sources of Wealth

It is crucial to recognise that much of the wealth in the Bristol Institution was amassed at the height of the British Empire, both directly and indirectly enabled by the transatlantic traffic and enslavement of millions of people.

The early history of the Bristol Institution reflects the legacies of mercantile wealth, shipbuilding, and colonialism in the city.

Membership of the Bristol Institution consisted of a cross-section of the upper echelons of Bristol society at the time. Many of the key players were merchants who had amassed enormous wealth from sugar production and the recently outlawed trade in enslaved people, such as the Bright Family, Philip John Miles (1773–1845), and Thomas Daniel (1762–1854).

Some Institution members, such as the Harford Family, Reverend Francis Randolph (1752-1831), and Hannah More (1745–1833) campaigned for abolition.

Despite the abolishment of the Slave Trade by UK Parliament in 1807, many Bristol merchants continued to financially benefit, and received compensation from the government between 1835–43.

The sources of wealth discussed in this exhibition, and accompanying catalogue uncover historical truths which link our collections with attitudes and behaviours that continue to cause hurt and distress. As we go forward, we are seeking to approach our objects with honesty and transparency.

We recognise that much more work needs to be done.

With thanks

This project has been made possible through the National Gallery’s Curatorial Traineeship Programme supported by Art Fund with the assistance of the Vivmar Foundation.