Alexander Laing, 1879,
Alexander Laing, 1879, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Commemorative Bust
Commemorative Bust in Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle University

Alexander Laing was born in Forfarshire. He worked for the well-known brewers Jeffery and Co. in Belfast and Edinburgh before arriving in Newcastle in 1849. Shortly thereafter he established his own business in the city bottling beer, before expanding into liquors and spirits. He ran a retail shop on Market Street. Like many other successful businessmen of his era, he lived in a large house overlooking Jesmond Dene.

Laing’s largest philanthropic gift, and indeed what he is best known for, is the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. The council earmarked a site, next to the library in New Bridge Street and began to seek subscriptions for the construction of a gallery. To mark the 50th anniversary of his business, Laing came forward and donated £30,000 (almost £4 million in today’s money] to enable its construction. It was opened by Viscount Ridley on the 13th of October 1904, a year prior to Laing’s death.

The museum started life as something of a white elephant. Laing was not a collector or connoisseur of art and therefore had nothing to personally donate to fill the building. At its opening, the gallery did not possess a single work of art. Laing, however, was confident that it would soon acquire important collections of art as other civic-minded individuals came forward to fill the void. On the subject he said:

“in commemoration of a successful business career of fifty years in your midst, I am prepared to erect and present the City a building to be known as the Laing Gallery for the use and enjoyment of the public in perpetuity having no doubt, that by the liberality of the inhabitants [of Newcastle] it would soon be supplied with pictures and statuary for the encouragement and development of British Art”.

In 1919, Laing’s friend, neighbour and fellow wine merchant, Albert Higginbottom, gave the museum a collection of Japanese Art, one of the first large collections to be shown at the gallery. The collection, known as the Higginbottom collection, is still intermittently on show at the gallery [it was last presented in 2010]. In the first half of the 20th century, there were a number of important gifts and bequests. These included gifts of fine art from John Lamb (1909), William Glover (1920) and George E. Henderson (1934 and 1937), decorative art from Lady Wise (1935) and T. Edward Hodgkin (1945).

The gallery has since flourished and today it holds one of northern England’s most important and diverse collections of art. The Laing is now managed on behalf of Newcastle City Council by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, a registered charity.


Conte-Helm, M. (1989). Japan and the North East of England: from 1862 to the present day. A&C Black. Available here (Accessed: 08/05/2018).

Jesmond Old Cemetery (2018). Alexander Laing (1828-1905). Available here (Accessed: 08/05/2018).

The Laing Art Gallery. (2018). About the Laing. Available here (Accessed: 08/05/2018).