Leeds Infirmary and the 1868 National Exhibition

In May 1968 the Leeds Infirmary (now the Leeds General Infirmary) opened its doors at its current location on Great George Street. However, its first visitors were not in need of medical attention, but art lovers.

black and white etching of the Infirmary in 1868, looking very grand, with people on horses and carriages in the roads.
‘The New Infirmary at Leeds, now occupied by the National Art Exhibition, opened by the Prince of Wales on Tuesday.’

Although the New Infirmary was purpose built to be a hospital, for six months of its existence it was home to the National Exhibition of Works of Art. Designed by George Gilbert Scott the light and airy long wards planned for patients were transformed into galleries filled to the brim with a huge array of famous art works, and many of the smaller rooms and corridors held artefacts and curiosities from across the globe.

a Black and white photograph of lots of old men sitting on stools to have their photograph taken outside the infirmary. Most of them are wearing hats.
The directors & officials of the National Exhibition of Works of Art, 1868. The signatures identify some of those present as J.B. Waring, General Manager and Chief Commissioner; W.M. Chaffers, Superintendent of the Museum of Ornamental Art; R.C. Saunders, Superintendent of the English Galleries; L. Lefevre, Superintendent of the Modern Foreign Gallery and Professor T. Hayter Lewis, Designer of Mural Decorations.

The exhibition was opened by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on 19 May 1868. the visit of the Prince, who stayed at Temple Newsam House, was much celebrated in Leeds including a triumphal arch being erected on York Road and a ball held in his honour at the Town Hall.

By the time the exhibition closed on 31 October, over half a million people had been through the doors, each paying a small fee for admittance.

a black and white photograph of a beautiful domed glass ceiling in a massive hall at the infirmary
The Central Hall, Leeds General Infirmary, known as ‘Crystal Palace’ where the opening of the 1868 exhibition took place. This photo dates from c.1900. Originally designed to be a winter garden for convalescent patients the glass roof was beset with problems from the outset and was removed in 1911.

The wide range of artwork and artefacts on display is truly astounding. There were works from The Old Masters which included paintings such as Bottichelli’s “Virgin and Child” and Raphael’s “Three Graces”. There were also works by Titian, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrant, Rubens and van Eyck to name but a few.  In other galleries works of British painters were displayed including those of Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and Hogarth.

A ‘Yorkshire Worthies’ display contained portraits of people associated with Yorkshire such as the explorer Captain James Cook and William Hey who had been a surgeon at the Infirmary and Mayor of Leeds in the late 18th century.

The Museum of Ornamental Art which formed part of the exhibition contained a huge range of objects including vases from Ancient Greece, Anglo-Saxon jewellery, English pottery and a silver folding fork and spoon said to have been owned by Charles I.

This is only a tiny portion of the types of objects that were on display. The catalogue produced for the exhibition runs to well over 350 pages.

There were, of course, issues with using a hospital as an art gallery. The Infirmary had been designed based on the ‘Pavilion’ style which meant long, bright and airy wards. The Spectator magazine points out the difficulties in transforming these bright well-lit wards into suitable spaces for viewing art works.

It is, in fact, a series of separate buildings (connected by corridors) between which the air circulates freely and into the windows of which the sun shines brightly. This latter circumstance, however favourable for the patients, was decidedly unfortunate for the pictures. The windows almost all look east and west so as to catch either the morning or the evening sun, so that the projectors of the Exhibition had to count upon changing lights and that direct sunshine that is so unfavourable to picture-viewing. The difficulty has been overcome more completely than could have been expected. By blocking up the lower part of the windows, the effect of a roof light has been partially attained, and by obscuring the upper part the power of the sun’s rays has been greatly mellowed.

THE ARTS EXHIBITION AT LEEDS, The Spectator, 23 May 1868, page 13.

In addition to bringing rare art works to Yorkshire, and showing off George Gilbert Scott’s amazing building, the aim of the exhibition was to raise funds for the Infirmary. However, in this respect it does not seem to have been successful. In an address given by A.E. Wheeler, Registrar of the University of Leeds, in 1937 he stated that after paying all expenses only £5 was made – further noting that he ‘did not know whether any allowance was made for wear and tear’.

After the exhibition closed in October 1868 it took some time for the wards to be reinstated and furniture installed. In fact it was almost a year after the exhibition welcomed its first visitor that the first patient arrived at the new Infirmary. On 22nd May 1869 a young boy who had a fractured right thigh was admitted and the building started its life as the hospital it was built to be.

By Rebecca Fallas, Volunteer Blogger (@rebecca_fallas)

This post is part of a series celebrating Leeds General Infirmary’s 250th anniversary. Find out more about#LGI250.

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