In 1938 the local industrialist, Sir Alfred Herbert, donated funds to the city of Coventry to pay for the construction of an art gallery and museum. The gallery was built to designs by Sir Alfred's nephew, the architect Albert Herbert. Herbert Art Gallery & Museum was not completed until 1960 due to the devastation of the city during the Second World War.
The original policy of the gallery was to collect mainly British art that portrays life and landscape. Abstract art first began to be collected in 1963; the gallery has also gathered a collection of Expressionist and Modernist works. The craft collection consists of approximately two hundred and fifty works, including a diverse mix of ceramics and bronzes from China, Korea, Japan, the Middle East and North America. There are several pieces of Arts and Crafts ware and a small selection of Art Deco ceramics as well as a collection of textiles and folk art.
A major redevelopment of the Herbert, by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt, was completed in 2008, creating a number of new permanent exhibitions, many of which feature items from the visual art collections. The new development of buildings has created large gallery spaces for the engaging temporary exhibition programme.
The Old Masters gallery features British and European paintings from the 1500’s to the 1900’s; including major works by Luca Giordano, Thomas Lawrence, Johann Zoffany and George Morland. The Sculpture Gallery includes work by Jacob Epstein and Barbara Hepworth, plus an installation by Gustav Metzger acquired in 2015 with the support of the Contemporary Art Society. The collection of modern and contemporary works is displayed in the Art Since 1900 gallery; this features highlights of the British Life and Landscape collection, started by the gallery’s first Art Director, John Hewitt, in the late 1950’s. This includes works by Graham Sutherland relating to the commission of the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral.
The Herbert is actively collecting art on the themes of conflict, peace and reconciliation, reflecting the city’s experiences during the Second World War and subsequently. The collection includes works by Raymond Mason, Peter Howson, John Keane and Peter Kennard, as well as contemporary pieces by Langlands & Bell, Matthew Picton, Chloe Dewe Matthews and Barbara Walker. A selection of these works are usually on display in the Peace and Reconciliation and Art since 1900 galleries.