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Whitechapel Gallery unveils plans for first permanent Rachel Whiteread artwork in the UK

Date uploaded: February 29, 2012

Whitechapel Gallery unveils plans for first permanent Rachel Whiteread
artwork in the UK

Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick OBE has unveiled detailed plans of a major new commission by British artist Rachel Whiteread for the building’s historic façade. The work is Whiteread’s first ever permanent public commission in the UK.

The Whitechapel Gallery Rachel Whiteread commission is made possible by the Art Fund and is a key part of the London 2012 Festival, due to be unveiled in June 2012.

Rachel Whiteread is an internationally-acclaimed artist who has lived near the Whitechapel Gallery in east London for the past 25 years. The work is commissioned for the facade of the Gallery, an important Grade II* listed Arts and Crafts building dating from 1901 and designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. The original plans for the Gallery show it was to have a frieze embodying the Gallery’s public message – to bring great art to the people of London. It was never realised and a large blank rectangle has instead remained above the main entrance. Now, some 100 years later, the Whitechapel Gallery has commissioned Rachel Whiteread to create a frieze to complete the façade.

For this commission, Whiteread draws inspiration from the decorative Tree of Life motif, which is part of the terracotta building, to create a powerful new work of art celebrating the qualities of the existing architecture. Typically, Whiteread is making casts from existing features, to then create clusters of gilded leaves and branches which catch and reflect light as a motif that floats above the existing trees on the upper part of the façade. Four negative casts of existing Gallery windows in terracotta will be located centrally within the recessed panel area between the towers, as a formal counterpoint to the leaf elements.

This ambitious and important commission will enable the Whitechapel Gallery to play a central part in the London 2012 Festival by creating a lasting artistic legacy for the enjoyment of all, as well as enhancing one of London’s most important street arteries - Whitechapel High Street or ‘High Street 2012’.

The commission is enabled by the Art Fund. Famous for its frequent role in ‘saving’ Old Masters for the nation, the commission reflects the fundraising charity’s ongoing parallel role in supporting contemporary art.

Today’s announcement by Iwona Blazwick was made at the Whitechapel Gallery alongside Rachel Whiteread, The Art Fund’s Director Stephen Deuchar, and Ruth Mackenzie, London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Director.
Iwona Blazwick, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, said: ‘The Whitechapel Gallery has been the artist’s gallery for over a century, so it is truly fitting to have a major new work of art for our facade created by Rachel Whiteread, one of Britain’s leading artists. Having lived near the Gallery for 25 Years it’s wonderful that Rachel’s work will become part of the fabric of the building for future generations to enjoy. Her minimalist aesthetic and use of existing architectural forms as the departure point for her sculpture are the perfect fit for this commission. Our thanks to The Art Fund for their generous support in enabling this commission and our partners at the London 2012 Festival.’

Rachel Whiteread, artist, said, ‘Having lived in this area of London for so long I feel very connected to the Whitechapel Gallery and I hope my work will have a positive and lasting impact for the area and communities here’.

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said, ‘The Art Fund has long had a reputation for supporting contemporary as well as historic art and we are delighted to be the major funder of this significant commission by one of the world’s foremost sculptors. It is an important moment in the history of the Whitechapel Gallery and we greatly look forward to seeing the work in situ this summer.’

Ruth Mackenzie, Director, Cultural Olympiad & London 2012 Festival, said, ‘Our London 2012 Festival co-commission to Rachel Whiteread will finally give the Whitechapel Gallery the beautiful frieze planned since the building was conceived. It will give the legacy of a world class piece free to the millions who travel down Whitechapel High Street.’


Architectural history of the Whitechapel Gallery

The Whitechapel Gallery was designed by the architect Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928) between the years 1896-1897. Construction started in 1899, and the building was opened formally as the Whitechapel Art Gallery by the former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery on March 12th 1901. The Gallery was built on land acquired by Canon Samuel Barnett, benefactor of the adjacent Whitechapel Library
that was completed in 1892. Further funding was secured from philanthropist J. Passmore Edwards, patron of the library.

Townsend’s initial design for the Gallery in 1896 was of an Italianate design with a central arched doorway below the strong horizontal lines of a balustrade, a row of arched windows, and a wide decorative frieze (by Walter Crane), itself displaying further arches containing classical figures. A second design by Townsend was published in 1899, which progressed many of the elements found in the first, although with a clear direction away from certain formal aspects of the classical style, with the striking asymmetry of the second design being noted as of ‘clear modern intent’. That second design retained as a key element of the façade a recessed area to contain a frieze, between the
distinctive towers rising in the upper part of the façade.

The decorative ‘relief of Arts and Crafts foliage of half trees with slender trunks and entangled roots’ further emphasises the presence of the towers, and form a key component of the overall composition.

The Tree of Life motif in the terracotta panels at the foot of the towers provides a visual representation of the themes of learning, growth and renewal that were at the heart of the civic and philanthropic purpose of the building from its inception. There is, therefore, a strong link between the aesthetic interest associated with the Tree of Life as a visual symbol, and the historic interest of the Gallery as an institution with a mission to bring great art to east London.

Nearly a century after the Gallery first opened, an expansion which incorporated the former Library and united the paired landmarks was opened in 2009. The Whitechapel Gallery Rachel Whiteread Commission will now enable the Whitechapel Gallery to play a central part in the London 2012 Festival by creating a lasting artistic legacy for the enjoyment of all, as well as enhancing one of London’s most important street arteries - Whitechapel High Street or ‘High Street 2012’.

The Whitechapel Gallery frieze

A mosaic frieze was again designed by Walter Crane for the building (published in The Studio in 1899) but was never executed. Crane’s second design was, as the building, less formal than the first, and
made extensive use of the tree of life motif employed on the building itself. The original architectural vision for the building remains incomplete, as the mosaic work by Walter Crane – which further explored and developed the Tree of Life motif in its design – was never implemented and the panel remains blank. The intention of Townsend was well captured when, giving a vote of thanks days before the opening of the Gallery, Walter Crane ‘heartily echoed the wish which Mr Townsend
expressed that more decoration might appear in London… that the glorious vision might one be realised and London decorated with mural designs and colour.’ (Peter Wentworth Shield 23-24, quoted in Rises in the East: Whitechapel Gallery).

The making of a new work of art for the Whitechapel Gallery


The Whitechapel Gallery commissioned the artwork to finally complete the façade of the building, more than a century after the Gallery first opened. The frieze is intended as much to give a new focal
point to the building, as originally intended, as it is to improve the experience of Whitechapel High Street and to highlight the cultural asset that the Gallery represents for the community it forms part of.

The project has also been commissioned to contribute to the Cultural Olympiad and High Street 2012 programmes, and will provide a renewed focus for the Whitechapel Gallery on this principle Olympic route.

The Trustees of Whitechapel Gallery approached the artist Rachel Whiteread to design the piece following her long collaborative involvement with the Gallery. Her minimalist approach, and her use of
existing architectural forms as the departure point for her sculpture, were seen as highly appropriate for this commission.

A range of stakeholders have been engaged in the project and it’s formulation over the last 12 months. The following stakeholders shaped the final scheme: The Art Fund, Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, The Victorian Society, English Heritage, The Twentieth Century Society, High Street 2012, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, The GLA – Mayor’s Office, and visitors to the Whitechapel Gallery.


Rachel Whiteread’s new work of art is rooted in the original designs for the building where the upper part of the building was to carry a decorative frieze. Typically, Whiteread takes casts from existing objects, translating their historic profile into contemporary sculpture.

The starting point are the leaves on the Tree of Life, a symbol of renewal through the arts at the time of the Gallery’s creation, and a motif that can be seen in Townsend’s other major London building
façades such as the Bishopsgate Institute and Horniman Museum.
Rachel Whiteread was also inspired by the gilding on the rooftops of iconic buildings, such as the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and the gold foliage on the top of the Secession building in Vienna. The work also references the many natural forms that can be found in cities, such as weeds or buddleja that springs up around buildings.

For this work, imprints from the sections of decorative bas-relief at the base of the two towers are taken in order to create clusters of gilded leaves and branches to be arranged across the upper part of the façade. These will catch and reflect light to create a motif that floats in front of the existing trees and across the wider façade, and aims to enhance the viewer’s awareness of the original elements of the façade. Four negative casts of façade windows in terracotta, will be placed centrally within the recessed panel area between the towers as a formal counterpoint to the leaf elements. A small number of the terracotta leaves within the Tree of Life area on each of the two towers of the building will be applied with gold leaf to provide a link between the frieze and the existing decorative
elements of the façade.

Follow the process of the work of art being made and installed at whitechapelgallery.org

Design and Production team

The realisation of the Whitechapel Gallery Rachel Whiteread commission uses traditional art and crafts techniques such as casting and gilding and a number of experts will be involved in assisting Rachel Whiteread, her studio and the Whitechapel Gallery with the making and installation of the work of art. Other People’s Sculpture have been work closely with the artist on the production of the piece along with Bronze Age Foundry. Paye Stonework will be working with Hathern Terracotta. Both Other People’s Sculpture and Paye Stonework will design and install fixings, help prepare and install the artwork. Jason Bruges Studio have created a lighting design to highlight the work of the art of the Whitechapel Gallery’s façade and complement their lighting scheme realised for the Gallery’s 2009 expansion. The Gallery is consulting with relevant specialists to advise on long term conservation of the work.

The Art Fund

The Art Fund has given a significant grant of £200,000 to enable the Whitechapel Gallery to undertake this project and commission Rachel Whiteread. Founded in 1903 the Art Fund is an independent fundraising charity helping UK museums and galleries to buy, show and share great art for the enjoyment of all. Their programme ranges from major fundraising appeals to ensure masterpieces such as Turner’s Blue Rigi and the Staffordshire Gold Hoard stay on public display in the UK to the annual Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries and the sponsorship of ARTISTS ROOMS on tour.

Over the past five years, the Art Fund has given £24 million to buy art of all ages - from historic to contemporary - for UK collections. The Art Fund has also facilitated the creation of several new works in the last 10 years including James Turrell’s Deer Shelter (2006) for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, David Batchelor’s Waldella (2009) for McManus Galleries Dundee and 6 Times by Antony Gormley (2010) for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

A large element of Art Fund funding comes from sales of the National Art Pass and additional support from their 90,000 members. The National Art Pass costs from £50.00 a year and gives free entry to over 200 museums, galleries and historic houses across the country as well as 50% off major exhibitions. For information about the Art Fund and the National Art Pass visit www.artfund.org, email [email protected] or call 020 7225 4888.

About the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Spread over four years, it is designed to give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and inspire creativity across all forms of culture, especially among young people.

The culmination of the Cultural Olympiad will be the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK, from Midsummers Day on 21 June and running until the final day of the Paralympic Games on 9 September 2012. The London 2012 Festival will celebrate the huge range, quality and accessibility of the UK’s world-class culture including dance, music, theatre, the visual arts, fashion, film and digital innovation, giving the opportunity for people across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Principal funders of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival are Arts Council England, Legacy Trust UK and the Olympic Lottery Distributor. BP and BT are Premier Partners of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. For more details on the programme and to sign up for information visit www.london2012.com/festival

Rachel Whiteread From the series First Women By Anita Corbin, March 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rachel Whiteread From the series First Women By Anita Corbin, March 2011 Courtesy the artist