Watford Museum opened on 14 March 1981, in the former Benskins Brewery mansion at 194, Lower High Street.
At its inception Watford Museum already had a considerable collection of paintings, most of which where held by Watford Library.
These were largely donated by private collectors or local artists and their families, the first and most significant of these being a bequest in 1930 by Edward Thomas Burr, a long time resident of Watford. This consisted of 47 oil paintings, many of North European origin with the emphasis on the Dutch and Flemish schools. Among the artists represented are Adam Francios van der Meulen, Klases Moleneart, Pieter Neeffs the Elder and Adriaen van Ostade.
Six monumental works were given to Watford Library in 1967 from the collection of Major Armand D Blackley, a Watford magistrate and one time director of London-based James Bourlet and Sons Ltd, shopper and restorer of paintings. His bequest included paintings by Sir Peter Lely; George Chalmers follower of Gaspard Dughet; Studio of Jean Nattier and the self portrait attributed to Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-le Brun. Almost identical to the painting in the Uffizi, the Vigee le Brun depicts the artists working at her easel painting a portrait of Marie Antoinette.
More recently the museum acquired the outstanding collecting of fourteenth century portraits of the Essex family, a bequest made during the early 1990s by the late lady Essex. Theses are on permanent display in Watford Museum's Cassiobury gallery, named after Cassiobury House, the Watford seat of the Earls of Essex. They span a period from 1590-1830 and capture not only the Essex family but the changing styles in the field of portrait painting. The earliest painting in this collection is that of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex of the 6th Creation (1566-1601) by studio of Marcus Gheeraerts. The portrait is of particular interest in that Devereux was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1st until his secret marriage to Frances Walsingham and his subsequent attempt to overthrow the Queen's councillors led to his impeachment for treason and later his death by beheading on Tower Hill.
Portraits of Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex (1631-1683) and Lady Elizabeth Percy, Countess of Essex (1636-1717) painted by Sir Peter Lely reflect the style of Sir Anthony Van Dyck and the sumptuous portraiture fashionable in the 17th Century. Dating from the early 1700s are the portraits of Lady Mary Bentinck (1697-1726), wife of Algernon, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lady Jane Hyde (c.1694-1724), 1st wife of William, 3rd Earl of Essex attributed to Godfrey Kneller.
Also hanging in the Cassiobury Gallery, Adele by Edward Hughes was given to the Borough of Watford by Lady Peake, daughter of the sitter and was probably painted in 1893, the year of Adele's marriage to George Devereaux de Vere Capell who was soon to become 7th Earl of Essex.
The collection is still being added to, and one of the most recent additions is that of A View of Cassiobury by John Wootton, bought with a grant from the National Art Collection Fund and generous donations by the people of Watford. It depicts Cassiobury House and the estate, set in a vast landscape with the 5th Earl of Essex, his family and servants in the foreground.
The oil paintings held at Watford Museum form part of a superb collection of drawings, paintings and sculptures that enhance the local and social history collections and reflect both the Urban and Rural landscapes of Watford.