Our history

A class of around 30 adults are standing in a dark blue room in the V&A, with paintings in the background. A young man leading the class is at the front on a small stage, teaching a dance
A Taste of London Ballroom’ by Bronze 007 and Tiffany 007. Part of BLM Fest x Counterpoints’, curated by Kayza Rose and commissioned by Counterpoints Arts and V&A during Refugee Week 2022. Photo credit: Hydar Dewachi

A brief history of the Foundation since we were established in 1987.


Paul Hamlyn Foundation was established in 1987, by the publisher and entrepreneur Paul Hamlyn. 

Paul was guided by a commitment to social justice, challenging prejudice and opening up arts and education to everyone, but particularly young people. 

This ethos shaped much of the work of the Foundation and still runs through our work to this day.

There are many people, places and projects which deserve support. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation tries, in a small way, to assist those which work to help others to help themselves

Paul Hamlyn, October 1993

1987: expanding access to the arts

We have had a long-standing commitment to opening up access to the arts. This was seen most clearly in the early days of the Foundation through Hamlyn nights’ at the Royal Opera House. On these nights, tickets were heavily subsidised to make it possible for people to go to the opera who had never been before. 

Subsidised ticketing, at Covent Garden and elsewhere, continued into our funding programmes, enabling us to play a part in developing and scaling audience development schemes across the country.

For me the genius of Paul Hamlyn was to have the courage to say the work itself, the art, the performances, are untouchably accessible – they will touch your heart whoever you are. The barriers are class-based and artificial, and are about price and snobbery, and you can overcome them if you have determination, vision and a bit of money.

Ruth Mackenzie, Executive Director at Nottingham Playhouse (1990–97) who received a grant from the Foundation in 1992 

1990: grant making in India

Our work in India began life early on in the Foundation’s history. In the early 1990s, Paul met D. R. Mehta, who was the founder of Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samit (BMVSS). BMVSS is a Jaipur-based non-profit, providing mobility aids and prosthetics for free and at the time of meeting, were in the early stages of developing the Jaipur Foot’ – a low-cost technology for prosthetic legs.

Paul was inspired by D. R. Mehta’s work, and wanted to support work in India where he saw both the strength of the people and communities he met with as well and the difficulty of the circumstances some were contending with. With regular funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation, BMVSS has grown to help hundreds of ordinary people each day to live their lives more fully, by giving them back their mobility and independence. 

In 2012, as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, we made an endowment gift of £1m to Jaipur Foot’, to help BMVSS provide prosthetic limbs to people in India and other countries.

1991: looking to the future of education

Alongside the arts, education has been a focal point for the work of the Foundation since the beginning.

In 1990, one of our advisors, Sir Claus Moser, called for an overall review of the education and training scene: a review which would be visionary about the medium and long-term future facing our children and this country, treating the system in all its interconnected parts; and, last but not least, considering the changes in our working and labour market scenes.”

The idea gained traction and an independent enquiry was established. In 1991, the Foundation then launched its first large-scale initiative, in the form of the National Commission on Education. Its members divided into working groups looking at a wide range of areas and types of education. 

The Foundation funded the initiative to the tune of £1m – its largest single grant to that point. The commission’s report was published in 1993 as Learning to Succeed’.

1994: recognising the value of artists

In 1994, we started Awards for Artists’. These awards recognise the contribution artists make to society and seek to enable them to continue their practice, and in late 2024 will reach its 30th anniversary.

The no-strings’ support, offered over three years to a group of artists, has had significant impact on the recipients’ lives and work. Initially the scheme rotated art form, with awards going to groups of poets, sculptors and choreographers. Today, the awards recognise visual artists and composers and they are the largest award of their kind in the UK.

  • £7,220,000 has been awarded to artists over 25 years

  • 56 years separate our youngest and oldest winners – 24 year old Nick Relph, visual artist, received the award in 2003 with Oliver Payne, and 80 year old Gustav Metzger, visual artist, received it in 2006

2001: Paul Hamlyn’s passing

On his death in 2001, Paul Hamlyn left much of his estate to the Foundation, enabling it to grow into the organisation it is today.

Our work still honours Paul’s legacy, with many of the areas Paul was passionate about reflected in our funding priorities.

Paul’s daughter and founder of Frith Street Gallery, Jane Hamlyn, became Chair of the board that same year – a position she holds to this day.

Our founder

Find out more about the life and career of our founder, Paul Hamlyn.

2002: backing innovators

Our financial independence as a funder means that we would frequently support organisations who were just starting out, often being the first funder to give a grant.

One such organisation was The Reading Agency. Founded in 2002, we supported the organisation as it built itself into a leader in the field. The agency also received funding through our special initiative, the Reading and Libraries Challenge Fund (begun in 2003), which worked with a range of organisations and institutions to find ways to encourage reading.

Other organisations backed by the Foundation early in their lives were Teach First and the Prison Radio Association (PRA), which we funded at its inception in 2006. PRA has gone on to become a leading organisation working with prisoners throughout the UK and its productions – developed and hosted by prisoners – are regularly recognised by the broadcast industry.

2007: centring social justice

In 2007, we made the focus of our work more explicit by launching a distinct programme addressing social injustice. The creation of the Social Justice programme opened up new ways in which the Foundation worked to help people.

The Right Here’ programme, focusing on young people’s mental health, developed innovative partnership models between young people’s service providers and young people themselves. The Supported Options Initiative addressed the complex set of challenges faced by undocumented young people in particular.

2020 – present: a new strategy

We launched our current strategy in September 2020. It is built around key funding priorities where we wish to see change:

  • Investing in young people
  • Migration and integration
  • Arts access and participation
  • Education and learning through the arts
  • Nurturing ideas and people
  • Creating opportunities for people and communities in India

These priorities shape our work today and support our mission to advance social justice.

A smiling woman is holding string up to a fabric artwork. The artwork isn't in frame, but the woman is wearing brightly patterned dress with flowing fabric and a badge that says 'Big Ting'
Fabric memories workshop led by Karen Arthur as part of Women’s History Month event at the Migration Museum. Photo credit: Elzbieta Piekacz 

Advancing social justice 

Our mission is to be an effective and independent funder, using all our resources to create opportunities and support social change. See how this work to advance social justice plays out today.