The building itself was opened to commemorate the sad and untimely death of Burton’s daughter, Mary, who died of cancer in 1949 at the age of just 44. She was a talented artist in her own right and her father wanted the gallery to be a lasting memorial to her.
In a letter to the Bideford Gazette in October 1949, Burton’s friend Coop wrote:
‘It’s a happy chance that two old townsmen have come together to make a last effort to leave the town richer than they found it. The gallery should be a peaceful haven where one may take a quiet look at beautiful things; a gallery for the enjoyment, education and good of all, old and young, inhabitants and visitors – everyone and, as far as one can tell, of lasting credit to the living and those to come…’
Throughout Coop’s life he amassed a fine collection of paintings, porcelain and antiques, and because he felt that there was a special appreciation of the arts in Bideford, he left his collection to the town, provided that it would be ‘properly housed’. The Coop collection now forms the basis of The Permanent Collection.
Coop was instrumental in assisting Thomas Burton (Mayor, Alderman, Freeman of the Borough, and philanthropist) to build the Burton Art Gallery. The architect was Frank Whiting, who also designed Coop’s home on Goats Hill, Northam, overlooking the river. Hubert Coop died in 1953 aged 80. In his obituary in the Bideford Gazette, January 1953, it said: ‘His generosity in connection with the starting of the Burton Gallery will be a lasting reminder…’
In 1994 the gallery was extended and refurbished, increasing its capacity to four times its original size. It now has three exhibition spaces, a museum, a craft gallery, a shop, an education space and a café.
In 2008 the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) service was added to the services the gallery provides. At this time, the long-serving curator John Butler retired (after 30 years service), and new roles were created, including the Visual Arts Manager, the lead managerial role, and the Collections and Exhibitions Officer.
After the gallery sitting within the Culture and Leisure department at Torridge District Council for over 50 years, in April 2016 The Burton became a company limited by guarantee with charity status