The Cooper Gallery – A History

Tracey Hebron, Visitor Services Assistant at Barnsley Museums talks about the history of the Cooper Gallery and gallery founder Samuel Joshua Cooper. The building has been used as a school, a hospital and now displays an impressive art collection.     

S J Cooper in his Library at Mount Vernon, Barnsley 

Samuel Joshua Cooper

Samuel Joshua Cooper was born in Worsbrough, Barnsley on 17 September 1830. His parents were William and Harriet Cooper. William Cooper was a wealthy industrialist who made his fortune from the production of coal, iron and linen.  Samuel, the second but only surviving son, inherited wealth from his father which allowed him, like many nineteenth century men, to travel. Samuel married Fanny Mann on 9 February 1859 at St Peters Church in Bradford.  Together they went on annual trips to Europe, visiting Paris in the springtime nearly every year to buy paintings, sculpture, decorative art, wine and clothing. Sometimes they would travel to Italy including Florence, Venice, Milan and Rome. Samuel also bought works from art dealers in London, Leeds and Sheffield. In 1871 he and Fanny were living at Mount Vernon, where they had four domestic servants plus a coachman and gardener in separate accommodation nearby. The couple also owned a country house called Cowick Hall outside Goole, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  

The History of 35 Church Street  

In 1660 Thomas Keresforth built a school house on Church Street. It was free for poor children and those who could afford it paid half fees. Unusually it was initially open to both boys and girls. The subjects taught included Latin, Greek, French, History, Geography, English Grammar and Composition, Religious Knowledge and Arithmetic. Reading and Writing were undertaken daily and Drawing took place once a week. The most famous pupil to attend was Joseph Locke who started at the school in 1818 at the age of seven. He left at the age of 13 to serve an apprenticeship with George Stephenson. In 1861 his wife, Mrs Phoebe Locke, made a gift of £3,000 for ten scholarships. The boys who received these were known as the ‘Locke Scholars’. In 1893 Samuel Joshua Cooper gave a gift of £1500 to fund another scholarship. In 1887 the school was combined with the Hemsworth Holgate Grammar School. 

The building in use as a Grammar School,Church Street, Barnsley 

Barnsley Grammar School

The grammar school moved on 23 January 1912 to larger premises in Shaw Lane to accommodate 300 boys. The building was sold at auction on 18 September 1912 for approximately £3,400 to Samuel Joshua Cooper. His intention was to provide an art gallery for the people of Barnsley. Sadly, Samuel died on 11 July 1913 and did not live to see the completion of the gallery. On the news of his death the Barnsley Chronicle wrote “Barnsley has undoubtedly lost a great benefactor by the death of S J Cooper. He had a marked tenderness and sympathy for the poor and suffering. He was not a great talker but was always interesting. Singularly well read and well informed, he delighted in such themes as art, literature and travel”. Before his death Mr Cooper arranged to have the building on Church Street altered and a board of trustees was set up to establish and maintain the gallery and collection, making it free for the people of Barnsley.  

The Founding of The Gallery

The original trustees were W.H Horsfall. A.F. Pawsey, F.J. Sadler and A.D. Bond. Minutes recorded at a meeting on 23 June 1914 state that the trustees asked the Earl Fitzwilliam to open the gallery the following month on 31 July 1914 at 3:30pm – admittance was to be by ticket only. On the day of opening the trustees met Lord Fitzwilliam along with a large company including several of the beneficiaries of Mr Cooper’s will. The premises were inspected, and admiration expressed at the way in which alterations had been carried out and the paintings exhibited. The Barnsley Chronicle reported at the time that Lord Fitzwilliam expressed his pleasure in being asked to open the gallery and commented on the impending war. “It is interesting to open a building in commemoration of a gentleman who spent his life in a way that politicians and solders did not, and that was in pursuit of a peaceful industry”. The gallery opened to much success with the content comprising the Coopers’ original bequest of 275 paintings and drawings. The gallery was run by volunteers and trustees and the collection was hung and rotated by themes.  

Paintings from the Coopers’ art collection. 

The War Years

During the Second World War the trustees agreed for the “temporary occupation by the hospital of the gallery”. The gallery was used as an annexe for the local Becketts Hospital and the collection was stored for safekeeping. After the war it was turned into an outpatient’s clinic and rehabilitation ward. Once new premises were erected for the Hospital, they vacated the gallery in November 1955 and the building was handed back to the trustees in 1956. In 1957, the trustees appointed architect “Mr Durrent” who began work on plans to reopen the gallery and produce new lighting and heating for the building. Mr Glover, the director of Barnsley Art School also helped in arranging necessary storage racks for the paintings and new dustsheets to protect the collection. The trustees appointed a Mr David Fullerton as honorary curator who assisted the gallery by cleaning and arranging paintings. Sir Philip Hendy official reopened the gallery on Friday 3 May at 12pm with the Mayor of Barnsley in attendance. Since the 1970s Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council has run the gallery alongside the Trustees of the Cooper Gallery.  

The Gallery Today

Today the gallery has a stunning collection of paintings. The collection ranges from the 17th to 20th centuries and contains over 400 works. Since Mr Cooper’s original bequest further bequests have been added to the collection by Sir Michael Sadler, The Fox Family, Roland Addy, The Sutherlands, Charles Arthur Humphrey and most recently Malcolm Whittaker, adding more dimensions to an already diverse collection. Highlights include Abel Hold’s ‘Peggy Airey’, Turner’s ‘The Ancient Market Place, Sailsbury’, ‘Flowerpiece’ by Vanessa Bell and the marble masterpiece ‘The Veiled Lady’. As well as galleries for the permanent collection, temporary exhibition spaces are used to display touring exhibitions and local artist work. Original features of the gallery also remain, including a coat of arms above the front door which represents both Mr Cooper and his wife. In the entrance you can also see beautiful original stained glass bearing the initials of Mr Cooper.   

The Veiled Lady.

In 2014, to celebrate 100 years of the Cooper Gallery, an ambitious £765,000 project was spearheaded by the Trustees and Barnsley Museums, largely with money successfully raised from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 2016 a new extension to the gallery was opened, with new and refurbished exhibition spaces featuring more of the art collection alongside film, sound, interactives and resources for discovering more. This development of the building created a striking modern interior and new relaxing outdoor space, which includes Barnsley’s first ever living wall. The new extension space not only allows more of the wonderful collection to be viewed but also enables the Gallery to host more events to engage the local community in art related projects. Further refurbishments were made in 2019 to transform an empty cottage at the rear of the Gallery into a modern artist studio space, with areas to display artists’ work, a café (named Joshua’s after Mr Cooper) and an innovative, outdoor, digital installation in the gallery’s outdoor space. This new £125,000 renovation project and digital installation has taken place thanks to funding from Arts Council England. These recent developments not only celebrate the presence of the gallery as a fixture in Barnsley town centre for well over 100 years but also look to the future to continue the remarkable work started by Mr Cooper.     

The gallery in 2020 

You can find more information about the Cooper Gallery on our website: 



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