Story Of London

The National Gallery

The National Gallery
by Stephen Montgomery

The British Government have always been more than willing to look a gift horse in the mouth. They did it with Tate when he offered them a new gallery for English Art – well, I suppose he WAS in Trade, sugar you know. However, by then they had had some practice. In the early 19th century they were offered sixteen important paintings to form the nucleus of a national art collection – and they sniffed. The King pointed out that this was a good idea and that they should also consider purchasing an even bigger collection soon to come on the market.They sniffed even more at that – it had been collected by a Russian merchant. Support for their stand came from the artistic world which was apparently afraid of foreign competition. In the end, George IV twisted enough arms and the deed was finally done. It is now one of the greatest art collections in the world and this is a brief synopsis of its story so far.

The National Gallery

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In early 1823, the art connoisseur Sir George Beaumont offered to donate his collection of sixteen valuable paintings to the nation, on condition that a suitable building be found for them. The reaction of the nation was muted. John Constable voiced the opinion that it would be the end of art in poor old England. However, he had the backing of George IV and the King began to put pressure on Parliament to accept the offer. He also pointed out that in 1824 another collection, that of the Russian-born merchant and philanthropist Sir Julius Angerstein, was about to come on the market. The Government finally agreed, on March 22nd 1824, to accept the Beaumont collection and raise the £57,000 needed to purchase the Angerstein collection. The thirty-eight painting in the collection included five by Claude and six of Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series.

The fifty-four paintings in the combined collections also included works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Reubens, Wilkie and Richard Wilson. They were housed in Angerstain’s house at 100 Pall Mall until a suitable gallery could be built and went on public display for the first time on May 10 1824. Other paintings were soon acquired including Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Rubens’ Chateau de Steen and Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard.

The site chosen for the new building was on the north side of the new development that would become Trafalgar Square. The site was known as the King’s Mews and was probably first established by Edward I. They had become stables by the Tudor period when destroyed by fire and rebuilt in Elizabeth’s reign. In the Civil War they were used to incarcerate 4,500 Royalist prisoners. The main stable block was rebuilt in 1732. By the early 19th century it was used as a menagerie and a storehouse for public records. Its replacement was part of John Nash’s plan for the redevelopment of the entire Charing Cross area. The new building was designed by William Wilkins and constructed between 1832 and 1838 using the columns from the old Carlton House for its portico. The building was less deep than it now is and the Government had stipulated that it be shared with the Royal Academy so that space was at once at a premium. The five rooms on the western side were given over to the national collection whilst the Royal Academy occupied the eastern wing. Professional rivalries ran high and there was constant tension until the RA moved to its present premises at Burlington House in 1868.

The first Director was Sir Charles Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy, and was appointed in 1855. Between 1854 and he death at Pisa in 1865, he made an annual trip to Italy in search of paintings of the Italian Renaissance and earlier dates. He purchased a total of 139 paintings and helped to raise gallery to a position of high rank among the public collections of Europe. The numbers of gifts and bequests also grew each year so that the collection soon outstripped its limited accommodation. In 1876 the Dome and its neighbouring rooms were added and in 1887 what are now the central rooms were added. Amongst the major bequests were those of :

  • 1851 J M W Turner, his own works
  • 1876 Wynn Ellis
  • 1910 George Salting
  • 1917 Sir Hug Lane
  • 1924 Ludwig Monday

In addition to these, a number of masterpieces, including the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, Holbein’s Duchess of Milan, Tintoretto’s Morosoni, Rubens’ Watering Place and the Leonardo cartoon of the Virgin and Child were acquired with financial assistance from the National Art-Collections Fund. Further extensions were made in the twentieth century, the Mond Room in 1927, the Duveen Room in 1929 and the north-western range in 1976. In 1897 the Gallery lost most of its British work, including Turner’s bequest, when the Tate Gallery was opened.

Nonetheless, the Gallery now possesses an unrivalled collection of over 4,500 paintings from Giotto to Van Gogh of which approximately 2,000 will be on display at any one time. Many of the rest are on loan to other galleries both in Britain and abroad. They are arranged in the display rooms according to National Schools with, unsurprisingly, the Italian schools being by far the most numerous. The British Government makes an annual purchase grant to the Gallery and supplements this from time to time by special grants for individual items which would otherwise go abroad. A recent example of this was Tutuan’s Death of Actaeon which was saved for the nation in 1972 by a Government Grant and Public Subscription.

The most recent extension to the Gallery has, perhaps been the most controversial. In the early 1980s the Sainsbury family undertook to finance a complete new wing at the western end of the existing range to house the Gallery’s early Renaissance collection. In 1983 the Trustees agreed a design for the new building and immediately ran into controversy. The Prince of Wales, who has a strong interest in, and knowledge of, architecture famously described it as resembling “a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved uncle”. The public agreed with him and the Trustees eventually selected a new design by the American architect Robert Venturi. It was officially opened by the Queen on July 9th 1991. The new design has been popular with the public but one art critic, Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard was unimpressed claiming that we have a building that will inspire neither awe nor affection; outside it is all clever clowning.