The Rowley Gallery was established in 1898 at 6 High Road, Silver Street, Kensington (1). In 1909 Silver Street was renamed, and although remaining in the same premises, the new address became 140 Church Street.
The business was founded by Albert James Rowley (2) and his wife Emma (3). Albert grew up in nearby Hammersmith, the son of James Rowley, an ecclesiastical carver and muralist. Emma grew up in Kensington and was the daughter of a local builder. The Rowley Gallery was founded in the same year that the couple married, as a small business specialising in picture framing, mounting, restoration, carving, gilding and exhibitions of paintings. Their label at this time features a Toulouse-Lautrec style image of Mr & Mrs Rowley admiring a framed picture (4).
Albert had been a pupil at St Paul’s School, Hammersmith and his friendship with the artist Frank Brangwyn seems to date from this period through his association with Hammersmith’s artistic community. Brangwyn worked for a while for William Morris who lived at Upper Mall in Hammersmith from 1878 until his death in 1896, and Albert was undoubtedly inspired by the legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement established by Morris. Before very long The Rowley Gallery was also producing inlaid wood panels and furniture. Designs for panels were at first adapted from paintings by artists such as Millais, Whistler and Lord Leighton, but then A J Rowley began to commission artists to make designs specifically for wood panels (5). One of the first and most prolific of these was William Chase (6), who later worked with William Nicholson when they were neighbours in Blewbury, Berkshire. Chase and Rowley worked together over many years, and it was Chase who was responsible for the distinctive Pan label (7) which was used from 1912. Some labels have A J Rowley’s name, suggesting he was personally responsible for making the piece, and include an inscription for the artist who designed it (8).
By this time The Rowley Gallery premises had expanded and its address was now 140-142 Church Street, Kensington. As well as Chase, other artists included Henry Butler, Horace Mann-Livens, Robert Anning Bell and most notably Sir Frank Brangwyn. In the 1920s Rowley lived in Ditchling, East Sussex at Hillway House, designed by Arthur Joseph Penty and built on land acquired from Brangwyn, who lived in the neighbouring house, known as The Jointure. The working relationship between Rowley and Brangwyn was long standing. The Studio Yearbook in 1916 noted an exhibition at The Rowley Gallery of “panels executed in stained wood from pictures by Mr Brangwyn (9), Mr Chase and others. These panels were the result of a series of experiments carried out by Mr A J Rowley, and it must be admitted that they possess real decorative value and promise interesting developments”. Over the years Brangwyn contributed numerous designs for panels which proved to be increasingly popular, (Hollyhocks (11) is in the collection of the William Morris Gallery and The Galleon (12) can be found at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery) and reciprocally Rowley provided silver leafed gesso panels for Brangwyn to paint, notably twelve panels for the Canadian Pacific liner The Empress of Britain in 1938. Rowley Gallery artefacts can also be found in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (9) and Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (13). The FCR Gallery (6) in Kensington Church Street often has pieces for sale, as does Patch Rogers Design (10).
Rowley’s son Laurence joined the firm in the mid 1920s bringing his enthusiasm for furniture design (14). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s The Rowley Gallery became renowned for its inlay wood panels, mirrors and screens as well as for its silver leaf furniture and interiors. An oil on panel by A J Rowley, Still Life With Flowers (15), is reminiscent of inlay wood panels made by The Rowley Gallery and exhibited at the Monza International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1930.
There were workshops in Campden Street, Kensington Place and Addison Bridge Place. According to Denis Gale, workshop manager at Addison Bridge Place for several years during the 1930s, and married to Rowley's daughter Betty, there were six cabinet makers, three French polishers, five workers in the paint shop and five seamstresses making curtains. Carpets were also designed and manufactured at these premises. There were two wood mills, and although some use of machinery was inevitable, dove-tailing was still done by hand. He remembers there to be a staff of around fifteen at Campden Street and about four or five porters at the main shop in Church Street.
Several well known artists are recorded as having their work framed by The Rowley Gallery. Amongst those in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery are paintings by Harold Speed, Edward Wadsworth and Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) (16). By 1933 such was the success of the business that the premises at 140-142 Church Street were rebuilt in Portland stone (17), featuring a frieze designed by Brangwyn of three life size carved wooden panels depicting sawyers (18), painters (19), and carpenters (20). The interior decoration of the galleries featured walls “panelled in Japanese golden senwood with burnished silver fittings and black floors” (The Studio, 1933). Some of Laurence Rowley’s designs at this time were inspired by the utopian spirit of Modernism, and The Rowley Gallery produced furniture and decorative schemes in response to the growing need for space saving devices and good design (21).
Sadly in 1940 the new building was hit by an incendiary bomb during WW2. The business moved to their workshop premises at 86 & 87 Campden Street and from that time concentrated mainly on picture framing. A J Rowley died in 1944 and the business continued under the directorship of Laurence Rowley.
In 1967 Laurence’s son, Christopher Rowley, was responsible for opening new showrooms at the present address, 115 Kensington Church Street, which had direct access to the workshops at 86 & 87 Campden Street. On Friday 9 June, 1967, The Kensington News & West London Times (22), alongside reports on Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones in court for possession of cannabis, and “LSD – That hideous and beastly drug”, also noted The Rowley Gallery’s return to Church Street. “The interior decoration of these new commodious and well-lit showrooms is befitting a company of artistic skill and taste. A silver gilt panelled ceiling and fabric covered walls blends well amidst the traditional design of a waxed pine shopfront. The entire effect is a pleasant reminder of earlier days before the advent of plastics and stainless steel.” But maybe Christopher Rowley was not entirely in tune with the times, and unfortunately the ‘Summer Of Love’ proved inauspicious for a relaunch.
In 1969, upon hearing that The Rowley Gallery was about to close, Jonathan Savill and Jack Rutherford determined to rescue the business. Both had been customers for many years, but it was Savill with his artistic and cabinet making skills who breathed new life into the ailing company. An Old Etonian ex Guards officer with interests in gardening (a family tradition - his uncle had created the Savill Garden at Windsor Park), fishing and painting, his pictures were regularly exhibited at The Rowley Gallery, alongside works by the notable botanical watercolourist, Jenny Jowett (23). His enthusiasm sustained The Rowley Gallery for over 25 years until his retirement in 1995.
Jonathan Savill sold the business to three employees, Chris Hamer, Kai Yin Lam and Cathy Williams, who became directors, carrying on trade as framemakers, gilders and restorers. In the same year, Cathy invited her cousin, David Kitchin, to realise his long held ambition to open a picture gallery. He rented wall space from The Rowley Gallery to start his own independent business, trading as Rowley Gallery Contemporary Arts. In 2006 he moved to Winchester, where he took over the former Maltby Gallery, under the new name of Rowley Contemporary Art.
Cathy Williams retired in 2003. Chris Hamer and Kai Yin Lam continued as The Rowley Gallery’s directors and guardians, not only framemaking, gilding and restoring, but also exhibiting their own selection of contemporary paintings and prints.
Sadly in May 2020, Kai died much too soon. There is a post on our blog where many who knew her have paid tribute to her warmth, positivity and inspiration. Please take a look - For Kai - and perhaps leave a tribute of your own.
We are grateful for much of the research for this history to Elizabeth Turner, for her dissertation on The Rowley Gallery for the University of Brighton, and to Jacob Simon of the National Portrait Gallery for his book The Art Of The Picture Frame and the associated NPG newsletter.