Southern comfort: Dalya Alberge on the philanthropist William Rossiter

In the mid 1850s, William Rossiter had a dream about founding an art gallery in the slums of Victorian London. Dream turned to reality in South London, where Rossiter solicited sufficient donations to build up a collection that included some of the most prominent Victorian artists: Walter Crane, Evelyn de Morgan, Frederic Lord Leighton, John Ruskin, Ford Madox Brown and G F Watts.

The locals were less than appreciative, but his idealism paid off. 'After 20 years' working,' he once said, 'I can trace at least 100 people who have passed through the gradations of beginning by swearing at us and throwing cabbage stumps . . . then becoming regular attendants at our lectures, and developing into really thoughtful people.' By 1887, the number of visitors was topping 86,500.

Yet, today, relatively few people know about the South London Art Gallery in Peckham. Its profile should be raised following extensive renovation, which has earned it a nomination on the shortlist for the National Art Collections Fund Awards (results are announced on 28 April) and by an exhibition to be held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Rossiter was one of many 19th-century social reformers, philanthropists and artists who set out to improve not only housing and sanitation, but education and culture, a movement given impetus by John Ruskin, the art critic. Rossiter was born in 1831 in Holborn, the son of a portmanteau maker. He began his career as a trunk- maker and by the late 1860s, he had turned to teaching, at the South London Working Men's College, which opened in 1868 in Blackfriars Road. When it moved to larger premises a decade later, opening a free library - a boon when there were no public lending libraries - Rossiter started borrowing works of art for temporary exhibitions in the summer months. Eventually, as he once noted, 'so many friends lent pictures, and so many were allowed to remain, that. . . . The name of Free Library has been replaced by that of South London Fine Art Gallery.'

In 1887, the gallery moved to Camberwell, then a run- down area noted for the large number of public houses, 'the vigour of its language . . . and the utter absence of any means of education beyond the day schools'. Two years later, it moved to its present site, a place where, in his own words, 'the daily lives of the people most need such refreshment, where the great artisan class, whose work beautifies the wealthier part of the metropolis, live with so little beauty.'

(Photograph omitted)

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