Henry D Roberts (1870 – 1951)

Few people have been as closely associated with the cultural life of Brighton in the early 20th century as Henry D Roberts, who moved to the town in 1906 and was involved with our public library, museums and art galleries for nearly thirty years.

Sussex County Magazine, December 1935
Sussex County Magazine, December 1935

The eldest of ten children, Roberts left school at 16 and started work within the library service in Newcastle. He became the youngest librarian in the country when, in 1893, he was offered a post at St Saviour’s Public Library in Southwark. On top of his responsibilities as librarian, he arranged lectures for adults and children, contributed articles to newspapers including The Times, and served on countless committees.  His appetite for work, and his ability to take on many different projects, seems to have been extraordinary.

After his arrival in Brighton, he set about raising the profile of the library, introducing longer opening hours and open access to books, while increasing the average attendance from 150 to more than 500 people per day within his first two years in the job. A profile published in 1908 declared that, ‘Mr Roberts has left no stone unturned to acquaint the public with the advantages of the library.’

In the public art gallery, he broke new ground with a series of exhibitions focusing not on English artists, as had been the norm, but on the modern art of other nations. The first of these shows, an Exhibition of the Works of Modern French Artists, opened in June 1910 and featured paintings by Monet, Degas, Matisse and Cezanne, many of which were for sale.

Sussex Daily News, 30 June 1917
Sussex Daily News, 30 June 1917

In subsequent years, the art of Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Russia and Japan was showcased in Brighton in this way. Roberts understood the importance of official patronage in raising the status of his events, and was apparently fearless in approaching heads of state or royal family members. It was reported in the Brighton Herald, for example, that he met with Mussolini in Rome to discuss the exhibition of Modern Italian art held in 1926, for which he secured the patronage of the King of Italy. Art critic Robert Dell observed, ‘Brighton is to be congratulated on the possession of a Director of its Public Art Gallery sufficiently enterprising to conceive so ambitious a scheme.’

Brighton Society, 17 February 1916
Brighton Society, 17 February 1916

In 1920, Roberts became the first director of the Royal Pavilion Estate, an additional post for which he was paid £100 per year. During World War One, the Royal Pavilion had been used as a hospital, initially for wounded Indian soldiers and later for limbless men, andRoberts had acted as liaison officer between the military authorities and the town during this time. He was obviously seen as a safe, highly motivated, pair of hands. An article in the Brighton Herald published on 24 April 1920 spoke approvingly of his ‘thorough knowledge of the possibilities of the Royal Pavilion’ and, when he and his family had moved into their quarters within the building, he began a programme of repair and refurbishment, using original archives and accounts for reference. In his own Official Guide to the State Apartments, published in 1929, he described the glorious wall decorations in the Music Room which, he explained, ‘have only recently been exposed to the present generation…until the 1921 restoration their beauties had been covered by layers of varnish, which had become darkened through age.’

On top of his many duties, Roberts found time for a surprising number of activities, which he documented meticulously in scrapbooks that are held in Brighton History Centre’s collection of rare materials. The scrapbooks include newspaper cuttings, correspondence, invitations to official functions and all sorts of fascinating ephemera from the early 20th century. Roberts also gave lectures, wrote books, including A History of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, published in 1939, and at the request of Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford, transcribed and edited Brighton’s early parish registers.

Lecture invitation, 1916
Lecture invitation, 1916

Sir Charles and Lady Thomas-Stanford are known to have thought highly of Roberts and it was he who suggested that they bequeath Preston Manor and its contents to the town upon their deaths. They were happy to do this, and requested that Roberts act as director of the property. He moved there with his family in 1933 and remained until his death in 1951.

In spite of his high profile, Roberts seems to have been a modest character. His obituary in The Times described him as, ‘a keen-faced, energetic man, more ready to listen than to talk, quick to read a useful suggestion into a casual remark, and with an extraordinary perception  of what was significant, or likely to be significant in modern art.’ Looking back on his own career, he said, ‘I think I have had opportunities which have not always been given to others and I have perhaps taken advantage of many of them… I have loved my work and I have given of my best to Brighton.’

Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre

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