In 1900 Newcastle Corporation, aware that Newcastle lacked the sort of art gallery possessed by other important town and cities, earmarked a site next to the Free Library in New Bridge Street and began to seek subscriptions. When only £1200 was raised the project seemed doomed. At this point Alexander Laing wrote to the Corporation to announce that ‘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 it would soon be supplied with pictures and statuary for the encouragement and development of British Art’.
Born in Forfarshire, Alexander Laing served his time in the drapery trade and worked in Belfast and Edinburgh before arriving in Newcastle in 1849 to represent Jeffrey & Co., the well-known Edinburgh brewers. He later set up on his own account as a bottler then expanded into wines, spirits and the licensed trade, operating for many years from offices in Market Street.
The Edwardian Baroque Laing Art Gallery, with its Art Nouveau elements was designed by Messrs Cackett and Burns Dick, and was opened in 1904 by Viscount Ridley. In recognition of his generosity in spending over £30,000 for the benefit of his fellow citizens, Alexander Laing was given the Honorary Freedom of the City. The Art Gallery was not built to house an existing collection (Laing had not been a connoisseur or collector). At the opening it did not possess a single work of art and wood shavings were displayed to highlight the gallery’s plight.