The Tatham Art Gallery collection was founded in 1903 through the fund raising efforts of Ada Susan Tatham, an influential Pietermaritzburg citizen. Until 1923 the collection comprised paintings by British artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Between 1923 and 1926 the collection was expanded with generous gifts of over four hundred art works and objets d’art from Colonel Robert H. Whitwell, a retired officer of the Indian Army Medical Corps. These included paintings, drawings and sculptures by British and French artists who embraced Impressionist and Post-Impressionist aesthetics. Objets d’art included Chinese and European ceramics.
Over one hundred art works, considered unsuitable for an art museum, were sold by the City Council from the collection in the early 1960s. The first permanent curator was appointed in 1963. Art works and ceramics by historical and contemporary white South African artists were acquired for the collection from 1965 onwards.
The first art works by contemporary black South African artists and ceramists were acquired from 1983 onwards. Subsequently, traditional and contemporary southern African ceramics, beadwork, basketry, and wood carving have been acquired. A focus on art work produced by artists of KwaZulu-Natal gives the Tatham Art Gallery collection a distinct regional character.