Matthew Biggar Walker (1873-1950): Wolverhampton friend of Sir Frank Brangwyn and patron of artists and arts
It is well known in Wolverhampton that the Art Gallery and its collection were established as a result of efforts and generous donations undertaken by several local entrepreneurs and benefactors of the Victorian period, such as Sidney Cartwright and his wife Maria Christiana, Philip Horsman and Paul Lutz. Local art patrons of the 20th century and their involvement in the further development of the collection are less known. Nevertheless, their influence appears equally important to that of these predecessors. Their efforts brought to Wolverhampton a strong collection of works by 20th century artists and secured their relations with the Gallery. One of such patrons whose efforts helped to establish the national reputation of Wolverhampton Art Gallery was Matthew Biggar Walker (1873-1950).

Son of a travelling draper, he was born in Dudley, and started his career as a school teacher. He moved to Wolverhampton by 1900, when he married Ada Frances Boulton (1870-1953), a daughter of a local butcher. Somehow surprisingly, he initially established himself here as a tailor and draper on his own account[1], but very soon returned to teaching and eventually became a superintendent of night classes at Queen Street Chapel and a Sunday school teacher at Red Cross-Street school. From 1910 and until their death, Matthew and Ada Walker lived permanently in 1, Park Crescent.[2]

    Donated by M. B. Walker to WAG in 1919: Frank Short.
    Vessel in Distress (after JMW Turner).
He developed a strong interest in art and established close relations with many living artists of the Black Country, such as Frank Short, Sidney Causer, William Strang and Albert Goodwin.

In the 1910s-1920s Walker became known as an art collector and art dealer.[3] His name was first recorded in the Gallery’s acquisition book in 1919, when he donated two works on paper by Frank Short.

In November 1922 Walker was appointed a member of the Art Gallery and Public Library Committee[4] and for decades he remained its active member, loaning works from his own collection to the exhibitions at the Gallery, organising loans and donations from other local collectors, communicating with artists and their families, establishing links with museums and galleries across the region.
 Donated by M. B. Walker to WAG in 1919:  Frank Short. The
In 1924, he donated six drawings by Edward Poynter to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, thus it is not surprising that next year, when Walker organised in Wolverhampton the Albert Goodwin (1845-1932) exhibition, its formal opening was performed by Sir Whitworth Wallis, the first director of BM & AG and son of George Wallis of Wolverhampton.

The exhibition included ninety one artworks and was described as ‘the largest and the most representative collection so far.’ Sir Whitworth said that Albert Goodwin was a master of many methods, and that was the finest exhibition of his works he had seen[5].

Donated by M. B. Walker in 1925:  Albert Goodwin. Sermon in the Hayfield. Simplon. 1882.
Walker loaned for that exhibition two Goodwin paintings from his own collection. One of these, ‘Sermon in the Hayfield, Simplon’ he eventually donated to the Gallery, the second, ‘The City of Glittering Light’, was later purchased from him by the Art Committee for £150.

In 1926 he secured for Wolverhampton the bequest of his late friend, Henry Watson Smith of Stourbridge: a view of Winchester by Albert Goodwin, ‘French River Scene’ by Sir Alfred East, and an etching by Frank Brangwyn of Barnard Castle.[6]

In 1929, he organised at the Gallery a loan exhibition of Worcester porcelain from Alderman Bantock. In this way, he anticipated the development of Wolverhampton Museum Service, a part of which Bantock House would become years later.

Today, the Bantock porcelain collection has been preserved at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and displayed at both Bantock House and the Art Gallery.

In the same year, he gave to the Gallery a watercolour by Sidney Causer and an etching by William Strang.[7]

Purchased from M. B. Walker in 1925: Albert Goodwin. The City of Glittering Light. 1905

Frank Brangwyn, Frank Short, and M. B. Walker at Brangwyn’s home. C.1933.
Courtesy of Libby Horner.
This gift was followed by 18 mezzotints and etchings by Frank Short given to Bushbury Branch Library in the 1930s.[8]

In fact, Walker was a local dealer for Frank Short: the heading of Walker’s letter paper reads: ‘Fine Art and Literary Valuer. The Studio, 20 Wolverhampton Street, Dudley.

Engraved works of Sir Frank Short. RA,

But the most important and long-lasting, the subject of Walker’s joy and pride, were his relations with Sir Frank Brangwyn.

His first visit to Brangwyn’s London home, to see his sketches for Jefferson City Court House, was recorded in 1922.

The result of this visit was close and life-long friendship between the London artist and Wolverhampton art connoisseur. 

In 1981, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery purchased from Wolverhampton art dealer John R. Beards[10] a correspondence consisting of 250 letters, all but eight of them from Frank Brangwyn to Matthew Biggar Walker covering a period from November 1922 to May 1946[11]. About forty letters contain humorous sketches commenting their meetings and relations.

One of them, depicting a woman ‘seen at the nudist camp at Wolverhampton’[12], suggests that not only Walker went to London and Suffolk to see Brangwyn, but Brangwyn also visited Wolverhampton.

Frank Brangwyn’s sketch in his letter to M. B. Walker: “Seen at the nudist camp at Wolverhampton”. © BM & AG.

Frank Brangwyn’s sketch in his letter to M. B. Walker: “Christmas – F[rank] B[rangwyn] serves a pudding on a sketch. M[att] W[alker]  filling up with sketches” © BM & AG.
Along with documents which have been preserved at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Archives, they confirm that Walker acted as a mediator between Frank Brangwyn and the Gallery, establishing and encouraging Brangwyn’s direct patronage of the Gallery. 

In May 1930, ‘Mr. Matthew Biggar Walker reported that Mr. Frank Brangwyn, RA, the famous artist, had offered to present to the Art Gallery some of his drawings.[13] 

This present consisted of Brangwyn’s seven original drawings to illustrate the 1919 edition of ‘Les Villes Tentaculaires’ by Emile Verhaeren.
In April next year, Walker wrote to the Curator of the Gallery: ‘When I was with Sir Brangwyn a week ago, he gave me for the Gallery the original drawing and the etching of ‘St Leonard’s Abbey near Tours’. /…/ I was very pleased when he so readily made another gift. He said I could give them to Dudley or Wolverhampton, but I thought our gallery here more fitting for them.’[14]

Another easy gift was a watercolour by Sir Alfred East ‘The Silver Seine, France’ the historic value of which is particularly important today because it bears an inscription: “Alfred East, to my friend F. Brangwyn, 1.3.1903.”[15]

    Donated by Frank Brangwyn in 1931
    “through the instrumentality of Mr.
F. Brangwyn. St Leonard’s
    Abbey near Tours.

Donated by Frank Brangwyn in 1931 “through the instrumentality of Mr. Walker”: Sir Alfred East. ‘The Silver Seine, France’. Inscribed: “Alfred East, to my friend F. Brangwyn, 1.3.1903.”
In 1932, Brangwyn presented to the Gallery a bronze bust of himself by Alfred Drury (1859-1944). “It was modelled on Mr. Brangwyn’s fifty-first birthday and presented to Mrs Brangwyn by a great admirer of her husband’s work and skill. /…/

Since the death of Mrs Brangwyn, Mr. Brangwyn decided that it shall find its permanent resting place in the Wolverhampton collection.[16]

In the same year other eight lithographs by Brangwyn were added to the gallery collection ‘through the instrumentality of Mr. M. B. Walker’.

In 1932, Walker ‘offered a very fine collection of drawings by Sir Frank Brangwyn for the purpose of exhibition.’[17] From this modest proposal, a large-scale exhibition emerged, in the development of which Walker played an instrumental role. It was then considered one of the most important exhibitions that had ever held in Wolverhampton.

There were 185 works on show from which only eight were given by Brangwyn, but 157 items were loaned by M. B. Walker from his own private collection. He mentioned at the opening that it had taken him ten years to get the collection together. 

The reviewer of the ‘Express and Star’ noticed that ‘Mr. Walker had persuaded the artist to lend a number of important paintings that made the exhibition thoroughly representative.[18]

Purchased in 1933 from the Brangwyn exhibition organised by M. B. Walker.
Frank Brangwyn. The Brass Pot.
It was acknowledged that ‘it was one of the most important exhibitions they had ever held in the town, and had only been possible through Mr. M. B. Walker, who was a personal friend of Mr. Brangwyn.[19]

From this exhibition, Brangwyn’s painting ‘The Brass Pot’ was purchased for the Gallery for £300. Next year, ‘through the instrumentality of Mr. M. B. Walker’ the Gallery received from Brangwyn a large Sevres vase which ‘previously had been presented to him by the French Government in recognition of his services to art in France.’[20]

In 1934-1935, Brangwyn donated a number of his works to Dudley, and two exhibitions of Brangwyn’s works from the Walker collection were organised at Dudley Art Gallery. Its curator C. V. Mackenzie wrote: ‘The inhabitants of Dudley have much to be thankful for /…/ the insight of Mr. Matthew Biggar Walker, their permanent collection of pictures have been enriched by a fine series of drawings and lithographs by Brangwyn.’[21]

Promoting Brangwyn’s works and his own collection, M. B. Walker worked on national level: after Wolverhampton and Dudley, he organised the Brangwyn exhibition in Liverpool, and Frank Lambert, the Director of Walker Art Gallery, wrote in April 1935 to M. B. Walker: ‘…This is probably the only gallery which has the space to show indefinitely /…/ his own large works and your collection of his work. All the framed works in your collection were hung immediately we received them. I was waiting until Brangwyn’s pictures arrived before including the whole of your collection and his in one large and handsome Brangwyn Exhibition.’[22] In 1939, an exhibition was organised at Sunderland Public Art Gallery, Museum and Library, to which ‘a collection of paintings, etchings, drawings, etc. by Frank Brangwyn, was lent by M. B. Walker of Wolverhampton.’[23]

One of the last Walker’s actions of friendship towards Sir Frank Brangwyn was the delivery of the artist’s self-portrait to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Commissioned by the Uffizi in 1910, it was for many years in M. B. Walker’s possession, until in 1949 he brought the portrait to Florence.[24]

Walker’s influence was so strong that Brangwyn continued to pay his attention to Wolverhampton even after M B. Walker’s death in 1950. In 1950 and 1951, Brangwyn again gave to the Gallery twenty five and twenty three his drawings respectively. Eventually, one of exhibition galleries at WAG was named ‘Brangwyn Room’.

There is another group of artworks in the Gallery collection which is associated with Frank Brangwyn: a series of oil paintings and drawings by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic-James Shields (1833-1911), which is recorded in the 1974 ‘Catalogue of Oil Paintings in the Permanent Collection of Wolverhampton Art Gallery’ as given in 1950 by Frank Brangwyn[25].

A close friend of DG Rossetti and FM Brown, Shields was known as a painter, book illustrator, sometimes a designer, but his most significant works were three successive series of mural decorations for the private chapel of W H Houldworth at Kilmarnock (1876-1880), the Chapel of Eaton Hall, Cheshire, seat of the Dukes of Westminster (1876-1888), and for the Chapel of the Ascension, Bayswater Road, London (1888-1910).

For each chapel Shield provided designs for stained glass and mosaics: for the Eaton Hall – on the theme ‘‘Te Deum Laudamus’ and for Kilmarnock –on the theme 'The Triumph of Faith'. For the Chapel of the Ascension which was commissioned by Mrs Emilia Russell Gurney, the widow of judge and politician, the Recorder of London Russell Gurney (1804–1878), he re-used his earlier designs, but at the same time developed a complex iconographical programme, uniting Biblical subjects with allegorical concepts. While the initial idea of Mrs Russell Gurney was a little decorated hall inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture and paintings, Shields brought into this work his intense religious feeling: ‘I feel that if Art may be used in the service of God at all, if the fine talent may be traded with in Christ’s mart, then there is a scope and part for it never yet approached save in a very few exceptional examples. I feel that if there is to be a spiritual life in this work, and welling from it, it must be wrought in and by the spirit of life.’[26]

Saved by F. Brangwyn, secured for Wolverhampton by M. B. Walker: Frederic Shields. Images of Prophets from the Old Testament. 1880s.

Images of prophets and apostles which had been executed at the Eaton Chapel in stained glass and stone mosaics appeared at the Chapel of the Ascension as oil paintings on canvas attached to slabs of slate.[27] The Chapel was opened in October 1897, just before the death of Mrs Russell Gurney, but all artistic work was completed only in 1910. Shields died next year.

In the 1880s, Frank Brangwyn was directly associated with Frederick Shields through A. H. Mackmurdo and William Morris. He was attentive and analytical towards the achievements of the elder generation of Victorian artists and considered Shields one of the best Victorian painters. He had a very high opinion of the Shields’ work at the Chapel of the Ascension: ‘The stuff he did for the Chapel of Ascension /…/ is very fine – irrespective of fashion and the changing of artistic outlook. These decorations are, in every sense, the most complete examples of decoration done in England.’[28]

 The Chapel of the Ascension was severely damaged in London Blitz of 1940 and Shields’ mosaics and paintings perished. Brangwyn mourned the destruction of the Chapel: ‘It is sad beyond words that the beautiful work he did for the Chapel of the Ascension has been destroyed by bombs… and so much else! It makes my heart bleed to think of all this.’[29]

According to Shields’ will, he wanted more than seventy cartoons of designs which remained in his studio, to be placed in some public institution which would frame and hang the whole series. The executors of Shields’ will gave them finally to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for their headquarters in Tottenham Court Road, London. After destruction of the Chapel of the Ascension, the cartoons at YMCA became lucky survivors reminding of Shields’ large-scale and harmonious artistic plan.

In 1944, Brangwyn discovered their location at YMCA. He wrote that his friend William de Belleroche ‘found them in the cellar. They told him they would like to get rid of them. I, at once, for the sake of Shields memory bought them, and have been placing them in such places, as the British Museum, SK Museum (South Kensington, today Victoria & Albert. – OB), Fitzwilliam, Walthamstow, Hull, Birmingham, Ashmolean Oxford etc. etc. so one hopes that some will survive, they are very fine and highly finished, about 5 feet high many of them. Rossetti, Madox Brown, Ruskin and others thought highly about him and his work. One would have thought that the YMCA was the very place to show such things as they are fine Art, and have in most cases a spiritual message, but they told my friend that such subjects had no interest for them and the young. When one is told this by people who have the control and the opportunity of teaching in the right directions, one feels it is rather hopeless. It shows the spirit of our times…’[30] Besides already mentioned institutions, on Brangwyn’s list were museums and galleries of Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Dudley, Wolverhampton[31]. It seems that the task was not easy, and there were museums whose feelings about Shields’ works were similar to those of people of YMCA. While Fitzwilliam, Walthamstow, Manchester and British Museum have today in their collections a few Shields’ works donated by Brangwyn in 1944, the Ashmolean, Victoria & Albert, Liverpool and Cardiff museums do not. It might be the reason why Wolverhampton Art Gallery holds not one or two, but impressive number of sixteen Shields’ cartoons - Matthew Biggar Walker took artworks which were rejected by other potential recipients.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery and its Art Committee, however, also seemed to feel negatively about this acquisition: quite embarrassingly, this gift was not recorded in the Gallery documentation, acquisition books and any other existing paperwork. It was also not recorded in the Minutes of the Art Committee, and it was mentioned neither in local newspapers, nor in the national professional publications, such as Museums Journal or The Year’s Art. The date of the acquisition ‘1950’ given in the 1974 Catalogue contradicts with Brangwyn’s 1944 correspondence on distribution of Shields’ paintings.  

The conclusion is that Shields cartoons were probably given to the Gallery in 1944 through M. B. Walker, but not acquired.  The acquisition record was developed much later, in the 1970s, when the curators audited the collection, preparing their catalogue to publication. The date of acquisition ‘1950’ was based on the recorded Brangwyn’s gift of twenty-five his drawings. Another possibility is that the cartoons remained at the Walker’s and were transferred to the Gallery after his death in 1950.

Wolverhampton and its Art Gallery benefited for decades from the attention and generosity of Frank Brangwyn, but it was M. B. Walker who encouraged Brangwyn gifts to Wolverhampton and brought national recognition to the Gallery. Thanks to him, the Gallery possesses today not only a representative selection of works by Sir Frank Brangwyn and other significant British artists of the first part of the 20th century, but also a magnificent series of the Pre-Raphaelite master Frederic Shields, a reminder of the artistic and spiritual longings of the Victorian era and of the tragic artistic losses in time of war. Regarding the Shields cartoons, Walker probably shared Frank Brangwyn’s emotions about which he wrote: ‘I am happy in feeling that we have done the best possible to save the good of a good and Fine artist.’[32]


  [1] 1901 census.
Express and Star, March 29, 1950.
Ibid; The Year’s Art 1940.
WOL-C-AGPL/1. 20.11.1922.
Express & Star, 22.12.1925.
WOL-C-AGPL/2. 30.05.1926. Henry Watson-Smith bequeathed to BM & AG a number of Japanese
        woodblock prints.

Acquisition book DX894/5/4.
WLO-C-AGPL/3. May 1930.
Watson-Cmith. Donor’s file. Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
John R. Beards, Tower Antiques, 175 Blackhalve Lane, Wednesfield, Wolverhampton.
BM & AG. F. Brangwyn- M. B. Walker correspondence. P89’81.
BM & AG. F. Brangwin- M. B. Walker correspondence. P89’81 – 210.
WLO-C-AGPL/3. May 1930.
WAG. Artist’s file ‘Frank Brangwyn’. Letter from MBW to A. Cooper, 2.04.1931.
W95. Sir Alfred East. The Silver Seine. ©Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
Express & Star, 31.05.1932.
WOL-C-AGPL/4. 1932.
Express & Star, March 1933.
Express & Star, March 1933.
Wolverhampton Local Studies. Public Library and Art Gallery Minutes Book 6. (CMB/WOL/AGPL/5).
Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by Frank Brangwyn lent by M. B. Walker, Esq. and David Walker, Esq.
        Dec 1934 -Jan 1935. Dudley Art Gallery.

F. Lambert to M. B. Walker, 24.04.1935. BM & AG. F. Brangwin - M. B. Walker correspondence.
        P89’81 – 244.

The Year’s Art. 1940. P.109.
Brangwyn, Rodney. Brangwyn. London, 1978. P.149-150.
Griffiths V. and Rodgers D. A Catalogue of Oil Paintings in the Permanent Collection of Wolverhampton Art
        Gallery. 1974.
[26] Ernestine Mills. The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields. 1833-1911. 1912. P.309.
[28] Belleroche, W. Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage. London, 1948. P.122
[29] Belleroche, W. Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage. London, 1948. P.128.
[30] F.B. to Eleanor Pugh (niece of A. H. Mackmurdo). 29 May 1944. Walthamstow  J697.
[31] F.B. to William de Belleroche. May 1944. Private Collection; F.B. to William de Belleroche. 10.09.1944.
        Private Collection; F.B. to William de Belleroche. Undated. Private Collection.
[32] F.B. to W. de Belleroche. 23 April 1944. Private collection. Cit. in: Powers Alan. The murals of Frank
        Brangwyn. In: Libby Horner and Gillan Naylor [ed.] Frank Brangwyn. 2006. P.74.

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