The Leeds Arts Club

This week we hear from Library and Digital Assistant Ruairí Lewis who talks us through the fascinating history of the Leeds Arts Club through library stock and collections…

Among our local history collections are a few volumes on the history of the Leeds Arts Club, and its fascinating founder, Alfred Orage. Very little has been written about the Club considering its wide cultural influence, and as Tom Steele explains in his Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club 1893-1923 (L 700 STE), Orage left few personal materials behind after his death, making the Central Library an excellent place to research this highly influential institution.  

The Leeds Arts Club was founded in 1903 by the schoolteacher Alfred Orage and journalist and lace merchant Holbrook Jackson. Orage and Jackson bonded over their common political and artistic passions and disdain for what Jackson described as the “intellectual desert” of Leeds. Their aim was to introduce European literary and artistic avant garde ideas into local culture. Weekly lectures and discussion groups were held on diverse topics with an international outlook: the music of Wagner, the drama of Ibsen and the poetry of Heine among many others. The lectures and programmes were frequently covered in the local press, particularly the Leeds Mercury and Yorkshire Post & Intelligencer. 

The club was originally located at 18 Park Lane, but later moved to 8 Blenheim Terrace, now the site of the Club’s blue plaque. Images of the premises are available to view on our Leodis picture archive. Its members were from diverse intellectual backgrounds reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders. Orage was a founding member of the Leeds Branch of the Independent Labour Party and cut his teeth as a writer in the pages of Keir Hardie’s weekly paper Labour Leader. Orage described himself as an “anthologist” of varying socialist tendencies, from Hardie’s trade unionism to the utopianism of William Morris. On top of Orage’s distinct brand of socialism, Jackson had introduced Orage to the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche before founding the Club. Orage’s other major influence was Theosophy, and initial Arts Club members were sourced from Orage’s Theosophical circles, bringing an occultist and esoteric religious influence into the thought of the Club. The intellectual and social circles were so tightly bound that the Arts Club even shared the building at 8 Blenheim Terrace with the Fabians and Theosophists. 

What unified the thought of Arts Club members was a passion for ideas that rubbed against the prevailing liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This outlook facilitated the lifelong friendship between Jackson and Orage. Beyond its two founders, As Tom Steele argues, the Club provided the space for an intersection between a growing cohort of professional class socialists alongside Tory businessmen. This distaste for the perceived mediocrity of the liberal mainstream was expressed in the promotion and discussion of art that fought against it from any angle, including Wassily Kandinsky’s post-impressionism and even the proto-fascist futurists.  

Famous visitors and participants of the Arts Club included the Abbey Theatre group from Dublin (W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge were hosted in 1906), George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. The Club was also supportive of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Isabella Ford was an early member and delivered a lecture on ‘Women’s place in future progress’ in 1905. Mary Gawthorpe, whose personal papers are held at the Central Library, also writes about her time as a member of the Arts Club in her autobiography, Up Hill to Holloway. (We have a copy of that book at the Library)

After Orage and Jackson left Leeds in 1906, the Club eventually came under the leadership of University of Leeds Vice Chancellor Michael Sadler and the Leeds Art Gallery curator Frank Rutter. The Club was still capable of causing controversy (Rutter was sacked by the Art Gallery for an unauthorised purchase of a modernist painting) and influenced several notable artists. Bruce Turner for example produced what the Tate describes as “earliest known manifestation of futurism in British painting” (the programme for an exhibition of Turner’s paintings is held in the Art Library at LE LEEDS CAT 57). 

The Arts Club punched above its weight culturally and left a lasting influence on English society. Orage and Jackson left Leeds for London to edit the modernist journal New Age which produced lively debates on cultural and political issues, as well as being one of the first outlets to publish the writing of T.S. EliotThe Arts Club also influenced institutions that maintain their standing today. Herbert Read, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and prominent anarchist was a member of the Arts Club as a young man. The editorship of the New Age and the founding of the ICA were undoubtedly highly influential, but it is perhaps a shame that the culmination of the Club’s ideas were driven from their birthplace in Leeds by the irresistible centre of gravity that London exerted (and still exerts) on cultural production outside the capital. 

Despite Jackson’s disparaging remarks on the cultural landscape the Clubs progenitors found themselves in, their hope that there was space for the avant garde among the vulgarity of Leeds’ industrial and technically minded elite was vindicated in their own minds. Jackson wrote to Orage (in a somewhat self-aggrandising manner) in 1907: 

We shall never forget how our little band of members worked, and how the Club flourished; nor how respectable Leeds at first held back fearing our revolutionary ideas, and then gradually came forward reassured by the excellence of our exhibitions; and how in turn many of these joined the club and actually became revolutionaries themselves. 

If you are interested in doing further research in the Club, the Leeds Mercury and Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer are available to access on microfilm in Local and Family History. The works used here are all also available in Local and Family History, including a volume on Orage’s criticism Orage as Critic, edited by Wallace Martin (Y 809 ORA). We also hold a memorial edition of New English Weekly for Orage which includes contributions by Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw and T.S. Eliot (Y Q B ORA). 

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