Ancestors of Alexander Laing visit art gallery which bears his name

Two sisters visited the Tyneside art gallery which bears the name of their ancestor Alexander Laing

Sisters L-R Hilary Marshall and Bridget Rabbitts next to a bust of their ancestor Alexander Laing
Sisters L-R Hilary Marshall and Bridget Rabbitts next to a bust of their ancestor Alexander Laing

It was a case of meet the ancestor when two sisters visited a Tyneside art gallery yesterday.

Bridget Rabbitts and her sister Hilary Marshall are the great-great-great-nieces of Alexander Laing, who financed the building of the gallery in Newcastle which bears his name.

The sisters were visiting Newcastle for a talk yesterday on the artist Laura Knight, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the gallery which runs until February 16.

While there, they paused to say hello to the bust of Alexander in the gallery.

Bridget travelled from her home in Ribchester in Lancashire with husband Peter, and joined up with Hilary who lives in Tynemouth.

Alexander Laing arrived in Newcastle from Scotland in 1849 as a representative of Edinburgh brewers Jeffrey and Co. He set up his own bottling business in Market Street in Newcastle and later expanded into wines and spirits.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his successful business, he offered to build the art gallery for the people of Newcastle, which opened in 1904.

A bust of Alexander Laing at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle
A bust of Alexander Laing at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle
 

Bridget, a teacher, grew up in Whitley Bay and moved away from the North East in 1986.

She said: “Alexander Laing’s business did very well and he wanted to thank the city by building what is now a world-renowned art gallery and that makes us proud as a family.

“What he did was in the tradition of the philanthropy of the time. I think he wanted to leave something enduring about himself.

“I am very interested in heritage and I love coming back to the North East,” said Bridget, who studied English at Newcastle University.

“Alexander Laing was someone we knew about as we grew up and as a little girl I remember being taken to the gallery and thinking that it was his house.”

Hilary, now retired from her job as a secretary, has taken up art again as a hobby. She is now a freelance graphite pencil artist.

She said: “Alexander Laing came to Newcastle as a stranger but he took an active part in local affairs and was master of the Newcastle and Gateshead Harriers club.

“When the first exhibition was held at the gallery, extra police had to be brought in to manage the crowds.”

Alexander Laing died, aged 77, in 1905 - two days before the first anniversary of the opening of the gallery.

The Laing is unusual among British regional galleries, in having been established without a formal collection.

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