Penlee House Gallery & Museum turns 75!

24th June 2024 in Local News, Penlee House, Penzance

Monday 24 June 2024 marks the 75th anniversary of Penlee House becoming a Gallery & Museum!

History of Penlee House and estate

Penlee House was originally constructed for the wealthy Penzance miller and merchant, John Richards Branwell and was completed in 1865. The house is built in the Italianate style and is probably the work of the Penzance Borough architect John Matthews.

The parkland surrounding Penlee House was laid out with formal and informal gardens and a lodge was built at the Trewithen Road end of the park.  When the house was first built, Morrab Road did not exist and the Penlee House Estate directly bordered onto the Morrab House Estate, the home of Charles Campbell Ross MP, which later became Morrab Library and Morrab Gardens.

In 1946 the estate was purchased by public subscription to be a War Memorial which would also house the town’s historic and art collections. The house opened as the District Museum in 1949 with further refurbishment taking place in 1974 and again in 1997. 

History of the Museum

Initially known as Penzance Museum, the current Gallery has its origins in the collections of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1839. Its first home was in the Penzance Market House, which had just been completed. The Museum was situated in the dome of the building and contained a mixture of Natural Science, Archaeology and Ethnological artefacts – a typical antiquarian museum of the period.

In 1867 the Museum moved to the newly constructed Public Buildings (now St John’s Hall). By the end of the decade the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society had more or less ceased to exist and the Museum was in a sort of hibernation.

In the mid-1880s the society was reformed but, as no rent had been paid for the museum premises for many years, specimens were sold to raise money and to clear the debt. Insect damage to the majority of the Natural History collection meant that most of it was subsequently destroyed.

The Museum remained in the Public Buildings until 1947. The society sold the collections to Penzance Borough Council in 1937 for a nominal sum, with an agreement that they would be displayed for the public good. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw the collections put into storage and unfortunately many items subsequently disappeared.

At the end of World War II, the owners of the Penlee Estate were planning to build on the land and to demolish the house. The then Mayor, Robert Thomas, decided to launch a public appeal and purchase the estate as a War Memorial. The estate is about 15 acres, and the purchase price was £13,000.  It was decided to use the house as a museum and arts centre plus two domestic council dwellings. 

The Museum was opened in its new home by Sir Cyril Fox on 24 June 1949. The Museum was administered by the Borough Librarian from 1949 until 1974 when Penzance lost its borough status, and the Museum became the property of Penwith District Council.  In 1985 ownership of the Penlee Estate reverted to Penzance Town Council who still own and operate Penlee House today.

In the 1990s substantial funding was raised from various sources to redevelop and extend the building, which re-opened in 1997. Care was taken to preserve the feel of the original genteel Victorian home.

Penlee House today

Penlee House Gallery & Museum has established itself as one of the most important galleries in the UK today for its collection and displays of Newlyn School and Lamorna paintings, as well as an impressive collection of local archaeology, history and photography.

Penlee House is well-known for its beautiful special exhibitions, which bring together paintings from the Penlee collection with amazing works from UK museums and private collectors. The current exhibition is The Exceptional Harold Harvey.

“Penlee House Gallery & Museum doesn’t dwell on the past, despite an impressive history, it has embraced modern technology and social media, inviting visitors, especially younger people, to not only engage with the artworks, but more importantly, to create their own art”, said Cllr Joan Beveridge, Chair of the council’s Arts & Culture Committee.

“It has an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable support base in the Friends of Penlee House helping to develop a modern, extended Gallery and Learning Space fit for the future.”

The Gallery runs an exciting schools programme, free fortnightly Baby Sensory sessions, free monthly Little Penlee Explorer sessions, and free family activities every Saturday from 2.30pm – 3.30pm.

On Monday 24 June, it will celebrate its 75th anniversary as a Museum & Gallery. Penzance Parish residents can get free entry all year round with a Penzance Pass.

Help us to fix the roof!

The historic building of Penlee House needs urgent work and we need your support! Parts of the roof are now over 150 years old and we desperately need a new one to safeguard our important collections for today and future generations.

Our target is £90,000 and all donations are gratefully received!

You can donate in a number of ways:

Online:

By text:

You can donate by text:

  • To donate £1 – text PENLEE to 70201
  • To donate £3 – text PENLEE to 70331
  • To donate £5 – text PENLEE to 70970
  • To donate £10 – text PENLEE to 70191

(Texts will cost your donation amount + a standard network message charge)

In person:

You can donate in person when you pop into Penlee House using their contactless donation station or by speaking to our friendly shop staff and making a donation by cash, cheque or card.

Fundraising, payments and donations will be processed and administered by the National Funding Scheme, operating as DONATE, a charity registered in England and Wales (1149800) and Scotland (SC045106). For Terms & Conditions, see Terms & Conditions of Use (nationalfundingscheme.org).

Recent News & Events Posts

Penzance Council News Header Image
Hanging baskets in full bloom outside a shop at the top of Market Jew Street (Photo- Pz Community Flora Group)
Councillor vacancy page header image

Our Partners & Who We Support

Pause