Brewing With History: A space with a story at The Tetley, Leeds.


Matilda Bentley

'This article was written by Jessica Jenkinson, the Norman Rea Gallery’s Vice-Director. Throughout, she looks in detail at how the old Tetley brewery has evolved into one of Leeds’ newest and most exciting contemporary art galleries, The Tetley. By drawing on the building’s cultural heritage and prominence within the city both in its past and present, the article contributes to presenting Leeds as a leading centre of contemporary art in the U.K, helping support the wider artistic milieu.'

Brewing With History: A space with a story at The Tetley, Leeds.

Written by Jessica Jenkinson

Edited by Matilda Bentley

Since 1822, Leeds’ industrial and cultural heritage has significantly been defined by Tetley’s bitters. The urban landscape has been adorned with the character of Joshua Tetley and sons; from the monocled huntsman embellishing local pubs, to the iconic Tetley shire horses of the vast brewery site on Hunslet Road.

What may have seemed like the end of an era, brought by the closure, site demolition and vacating of the Tetley headquarters building in 2011, was soon diminished when Project Space Leeds, in 2013, founded the Tetley Contemporary Art Gallery; a charity dedicated to growing and inspiring the Leeds art scene. At the heart of Leeds’ fashionable south bank, and its historical art-deco headquarters, The Tetley is amongst a repertoire of re-purposed relics of the industrial past.

Historically, England’s early public galleries were built to educate and inform the population, whilst private collections were still exclusive to the upper-classes, the free gallery with its intention for social change posed strict aesthetic qualities. Austere neo-classical facades, spaces of uniformity and absence of frivolity and ornament characterised the first places that crucially brought together the public and the arts.  However, within the world of current contemporary art there has certainly been an emphasis where the gallery space and the art have a two-way relationship. In such spaces, curation aims to bring together the character of the building with the presentation of art.

Repurposed buildings such as The Tetley hold layers of history and decoration from a bygone life. The art presented within helps to creates an experience for the viewer which allows them to view the building in ever-changing contexts. This movement away from viewing exhibitions at distance in purpose-built venues arguably allows for a space where the intrinsic character of the building shines through uniquely as the exhibitions change.

Contemporary art galleries such as The Tetley have taken a dynamic approach in presenting contemporary art, its issues and its themes to the public eye. The gallery is situated within a wider fashion of industrial buildings being repurposed with the interests of arts at the forefront of these renovation projects. Along with its similar institutions such as 1853 Gallery in Saltaire, and The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle, The Tetley works to platform the booming contemporary art scene in metropolitan spaces. Crucially, this helps display and introduce art to places other than London.

However, unlike its heavy and grey industrial neighbours, the Tetley building is not just a refurbed utility space of Victorian industry. As the art-deco headquarters of the brewery site, the building’s design shows a different face to the industrial north: one of prosperity, pride and new-age glamour. Since its re-opening in 2013, The Tetley has housed a multitude of exhibitions exploring diverse mediums, cultures, ideologies and audiences. The artistic stimulus offered by the exhibitions’ content as well as other contemporary interior features are enclosed in the elegant art-deco surroundings, providing another layer to the total viewing experience.

From the moment the visitor enters The Tetley the original character of the building is very present. The main entrance façade of the building still retains its revolving door; a stylish, heavy and wooden structure that has the feel of a 1930’s New York City office. The visitor pushes their way into what suddenly becomes an open, light and stripped back area that immediately feels modern; the punchy colours of the shop opening onto the trendy Bar and Kitchen area.

The glass bottle case is a favourite of many visitors to The Tetley. An immense display of Tetley bitters displayed in a tall glass case that helps split the bar, kitchen and entrance area. From Double Diamond to Tetley’s Gold, visitors can nostalgically view the brews that have brought together people for generations. An installation that divides the space and contributes to the building’s structure, this display boldly reminds us of the Tetley’s fabric, toying with traditional museum display cases through making the case an art installation in itself. It is proof that Tetley’s beer bottles are not just past relics, for the transparency of the glass cabinets connects the entrance to the gallery on one side, with the seating area on the other side where a pint of Tetley’s can be enjoyed!

From this space, the current exhibition can be accessed on the first floor. Prior to this, the visitor will notice the Tetley’s infamous elevator. Whilst sadly too fragile for use now, the elevator’s path runs through the heart of the building, directly opposite the entrance and can be seen from all floors. With its bold and geometric façade framed by metallic sunrise motifs, a quintessential art-deco symbol which strikingly adorns this metallic core at each level, as one passes through each of the exhibitions rooms along the corridor. Whilst this is a reminder of the building’s heritage as a booming brewery house, the elevator and the sunrise promise upwards growth for the industry. Its original dense lattice cage from the 1930s is still intact, showcasing the building’s industrial might and engineering.

Additionally, the geometric character of the art deco building provides an interesting environment for the many exhibitions that reside on the first floor of the building each year. Whilst the angular motif of the building may seem more appropriate for some exhibitions over others, the subtle colour scheme and elongated lines of the staircase, panelling and ceiling compliment the many forms and medias of The Tetley’s exhibitions. Whilst the photographic installation of grave stones in Mahbub Jokhio’s In The City Of Lost Times continued the motif through its grid-like display and continuous lines, the fantastical shapes of Tai Shani’s SEMIRAMIS contrast the structure, perhaps emphasising how Tai’s mythical world entirely shifts away from the structures of the present world.

The Tetley is a timeless building which has always brought pride to the city of Leeds whether as a brewery, an art gallery, a bar and café or as a community events space. Its character continues to be admired in its constantly changing setting through its hosted exhibitions which both comment on and reflect the changing society we live in today. As a structure of heritage amidst the current, unexpected and exciting future, The Tetley continues to breathe as an important cultural powerhouse in Leeds.

(Disclaimer: Written text copyright to Jessica Jenkinson. All photographs courtesy of the Tetley Gallery, Leeds.)


48 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All