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 The name of Free Library has been replaced by that of South London Fine Art Gallery.'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)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test