Call for a National Gallery
The late 18th century saw the nationalisation of royal or princely art collections across mainland Europe. The Bavarian royal collection (now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) opened to the public in 1779, that of the Medici in Florence around 1789 (as the Uffizi Gallery), and the Museum Français at the Louvre was formed out of the former French royal collection in 1793. Great Britain, however, did not emulate the continental model, and the British Royal Collection remains in the sovereign's possession today. In 1777 the British government had the opportunity to buy an art collection of international stature, when the descendants of Sir Robert Walpole put his collection up for sale. The MP John Wilkes argued for the government to buy this "invaluable treasure" and suggested that it be housed in "a noble gallery... to be built in the spacious garden of the British Museum" Nothing came of Wilkes's appeal and 20 years later the collection was bought in its entirety by Catherine the Great; it is now to be found in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
A plan to acquire 150 paintings from the Orléans collection, which had been brought to London for sale in 1798, also failed, despite the interest of both the King and the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger. The twenty-five paintings from that collection now in the Gallery, including "NG1", arrived later by a variety of routes. In 1799 the dealer Noel Desenfans offered a ready-made national collection to the British government; he and his partner Sir Francis Bourgeois had assembled it for the king of Poland, before the Third Partition in 1795 abolished Polish independence. This offer was declined and Bourgeois bequeathed the collection to his old school, Dulwich College, on his death. The collection opened in 1814 in Britain's first purpose-built public gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Scottish dealer William Buchanan and the collector Joseph Count Truchsess, both formed art collections expressly as the basis for a future national collection, but their respective offers (both made in 1803) were also declined.
Following the Walpole sale many artists, including James Barry and John Flaxman, had made renewed calls for the establishment of a National Gallery, arguing that a British school of painting could only flourish if it had access to the canon of European painting. The British Institution, founded in 1805 by a group of aristocratic connoisseurs, attempted to address this situation. The members lent works to exhibitions that changed annually, while an art school was held in the summer months. However, as the paintings that were lent were often mediocre, some artists resented the Institution and saw it as a racket for the gentry to increase the sale prices of their Old Master paintings. One of the Institution's founding members, Sir George Beaumont, Bt, would eventually play a major role in the National Gallery's foundation by offering a gift of 16 paintings.
In 1823 another major art collection came on the market, which had been assembled by the recently deceased John Julius Angerstein. Angerstein was a Russian-born émigré banker based in London; his collection numbered 38 paintings, including works by Raphael and Hogarth's Marriage à-la-mode series. On 1 July 1823 George Agar Ellis, a Whig politician, proposed to the House of Commons that it purchase the collection. The appeal was given added impetus by Beaumont's offer, which came with two conditions: that the government buy Angerstein's collection, and that a suitable building was to be found. The unexpected repayment of a war debt by Austria finally moved the government to buy Angerstein's collection, for £57,000.
Foundation and early history
100 Pall Mall
, the home of the National Gallery from 1824 to 1834
The National Gallery opened to the public on 10 May 1824, housed in Angerstein's former townhouse at No. 100 Pall Mall. Angerstein's paintings were joined in 1826 by those from Beaumont's collection, and in 1831 by the Reverend William Holwell Carr's bequest of 35 paintings. Initially the Keeper of Paintings, William Seguier, bore the burden of managing the Gallery, but in July 1824 some of this responsibility fell to the newly formed board of trustees.
The National Gallery at Pall Mall was frequently overcrowded and hot and its diminutive size in comparison with the Louvre in Paris was a cause of national embarrassment. But Agar Ellis, by then a trustee of the Gallery, appraised the site for being "in the very gangway of London"; this was seen as necessary for the Gallery to fulfil its social purpose. Subsidence in No. 100 caused the Gallery to move briefly to No. 105 Pall Mall, which the novelist Anthony Trollope described as a "dingy, dull, narrow house, ill-adapted for the exhibition of the treasures it held". This in turn had to be demolished for the opening of a road to Carlton House Terrace.
In 1832 construction began on a new building by William Wilkins on the site of the King's Mews in Charing Cross, in an area that had been transformed over the 1820s into Trafalgar Square. The location was a significant one, between the wealthy West End and poorer areas to the east. The argument that the collection could be accessed by people of all social classes outstripped other concerns, such as the pollution of central London or the failings of Wilkins's building, when the prospect of a move to South Kensington was mooted in the 1850s. According to the Parliamentary Commission of 1857, "The existence of the pictures is not the end purpose of the collection, but the means only to give the people an ennobling enjoyment".
From 1837 until 1868 the Royal Academy was housed in the east wing of the building.
Growth under Eastlake and his successors
15th- and 16th-century Italian paintings were at the core of the National Gallery and for the first 30 years of its existence the Trustees' independent acquisitions were mainly limited to works by High Renaissance masters. Their conservative tastes resulted in several missed opportunities and the management of the Gallery later fell into complete disarray, with no acquisitions being made between 1847 and 1850. A critical House of Commons report in 1851 called for the appointment of a director, whose authority would surpass that of the trustees. Many thought the position would go to the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen, whom the Gallery had consulted on previous occasions about the lighting and display of the collections. However, the man preferred for the job by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, was the Keeper of Paintings at the Gallery, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, who was President of the Royal Academy, played an essential role in the foundation of the Arundel Society, and knew most of London's leading art experts.
The new director’s taste was for the Northern and Early Italian Renaissance masters or "primitives", who had been neglected by the Gallery’s acquisitions policy but were slowly gaining recognition from connoisseurs. Eastlake made annual tours to the continent and to Italy in particular, seeking out appropriate paintings to buy for the Gallery. In all, he bought 148 pictures abroad and 46 in Britain, among the former such seminal works as Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. Eastlake also amassed a private art collection during this period, consisting of paintings that he knew did not interest the trustees. His ultimate aim, however, was for them to enter the National Gallery; this was duly arranged upon his death by his friend and successor as director, William Boxall, and his widow Lady Eastlake.
The Gallery’s lack of space remained acute in this period. In 1845 a large bequest of British paintings was made by Robert Vernon; there was insufficient room in the Wilkins building so they were displayed first in Vernon’s town house at No. 50 Pall Mall and then at Marlborough House. The Gallery was even less well equipped for its next major bequest, as J. M. W. Turner was to bequeath the entire contents of his studio, excepting unfinished works, to the nation upon his death in 1851. The first 20 of these were displayed off-site in Marlborough House in 1856. Ralph Nicholson Wornum the Gallery's Keeper and Secretary, worked with John Ruskin to bring the bequest together. The stipulation in Turner's will that two of his paintings be displayed alongside works by Claude is still honoured in Room 15 of the Gallery, but his bequest has never been adequately displayed in its entirety; today the works are divided between Trafalgar Square and the Clore Gallery, a small purpose-built extension to the Tate completed in 1985.
The third director, Sir Frederick William Burton, laid the foundations of the collection of 18th-century art and made several outstanding purchases from English private collections. The acquisition in 1885 of two paintings from Blenheim Palace, Raphael's Ansidei Madonna and Van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, with a record-setting grant of £87,500 from the Treasury, brought the Gallery's "golden age of collecting" to an end, as its annual purchase grant was suspended for several years thereafter. When the Gallery purchased Holbein's Ambassadors from the Earl of Radnor in 1890, it did so with the aid of private individuals for the first time in its history. In 1897 the formation of the National Gallery of British Art, known unofficially from early in its history as the Tate Gallery, allowed some British works to be moved off-site, following the precedent set by the Vernon collection and the Turner Bequest. Works by artists born after 1790 were moved to the new gallery on Millbank, which allowed Hogarth, Turner and Constable to remain in Trafalgar Square.
Early 20th century
The agricultural crisis at the turn of the 20th century caused many aristocratic families to sell their paintings, but the British national collections were priced out of the market by American plutocrats. This prompted the foundation of the National Art Collections Fund, a society of subscribers dedicated to stemming the flow of artworks to the United States. Their first acquisition for the National Gallery was Velázquez's Rokeby Venus in 1906, followed by Holbein's Portrait of Christina of Denmark in 1909. However, despite the crisis in aristocratic fortunes, the following decade was one of several great bequests from private collectors. In 1909 the industrialist Dr Ludwig Mond gave 42 Italian renaissance paintings, including the Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, to the Gallery. Other bequests of note were those of George Salting in 1910, Austen Henry Layard in 1916 and Sir Hugh Lane in 1917; the last of these was one of the Gallery's more controversial bequests.
In a rare example of the political protest for which Trafalgar Square is famous occurring in the National Gallery, the Rokeby Venus was damaged on 10 March 1914 by Mary Richardson, a campaigner for women's suffrage, in protest against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day. Later that month another suffragette attacked five Bellinis, causing the Gallery to close until the start of the First World War, when the Women's Social and Political Union called for an end to violent acts drawing attention to their plight.
The reception of Impressionist art at the Gallery got off to an exceptionally stormy start. In 1906, Sir Hugh Lane promised 39 paintings, including Renoir's Umbrellas, to the National Gallery on his death, unless a suitable building could be built in Dublin. Although eagerly accepted by the director Charles Holroyd, they were received with extreme hostility by the Trustees; Lord Redesdale wrote that "I would as soon expect to hear of a Mormon service being conducted in St. Paul's Cathedral as to see the exhibition of the works of the modern French Art-rebels in the sacred precincts of Trafalgar Square". Perhaps as a result of such attitudes, Lane amended his will with a codicil that the works should only go to Ireland, but crucially this was never witnessed. Lane died on board the RMS Lusitania in 1915, and a dispute began which was not resolved until 1959. Part of the collection is now on permanent loan to Dublin City Gallery ("The Hugh Lane") and other works rotate between London and Dublin every few years.
A fund for the purchase of modern paintings established by Samuel Courtauld in 1923 bought Seurat's Bathers at Asnières and other notable modern works for the nation; in 1934 these transferred to the National Gallery from the Tate.
World War II
Paintings being evacuated from the National Gallery during the Second World War
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II the paintings were evacuated to various locations in Wales, including Penrhyn Castle, the university colleges of Bangor and Aberystwyth. In 1940, during the Battle of France, a more secure home was sought, and there were discussions about moving the paintings to Canada. This idea was firmly rejected by Winston Churchill, who wrote in a telegram to the director Kenneth Clark, “bury them in caves or in cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands”. Instead a slate quarry at Manod, near Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, was requisitioned for the Gallery's use. In the seclusion afforded by the paintings' new location, the Keeper (and future director) Martin Davies began to compile scholarly catalogues on the collection, helped by the fact that the Gallery's library was also stored in the quarry. The move to Manod confirmed the importance of storing paintings at a constant temperature and humidity, something the Gallery's conservators had long suspected but had hitherto been unable to prove. This eventually resulted in the first air-conditioned gallery opening in 1949.
For the course of the war Myra Hess, and other musicians, such as Moura Lympany, gave daily lunch-time recitals in the empty building, to raise public morale at a time when every concert hall in London was closed. A number of art exhibitions were held at the Gallery as a complement to the recitals. The first of these was British Painting since Whistler in 1940, organised by Lillian Browse, who also mounted the major joint retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by Sir William Nicholson and Jack B. Yeats held from 1 January – 15 March 1942, which was seen by 10,518 visitors. Exhibitions of work by war artists, including Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, were also held; the War Artists' Advisory Committee had been set up by Clark in order "to keep artists at work on any pretext". In 1941 a request from an artist to see Rembrandt's Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (a new acquisition) resulted in the "Picture of the Month" scheme, in which a single painting was removed from Manod and exhibited to the general public in the National Gallery each month. The art critic Herbert Read, writing that year, called the National Gallery "a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis". The paintings returned to Trafalgar Square in 1945.
Titian’s Diana and Callisto
, bought in 2012, jointly with the National Gallery of Scotland
In the post-war years, acquisitions have become increasingly difficult for the National Gallery as the prices for Old Masters – and even more so for the Impressionists and Post-impressionists – have risen beyond its means. Some of the Gallery's most significant purchases in this period would have been impossible without the major public appeals backing them, including The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci (bought in 1962) and Titian’s Death of Actaeon (1972). The Gallery's purchase grant from the government was frozen in 1985, but later that year it received an endowment of £50 million from Sir Paul Getty, enabling many major purchases to be made. In April 1985 Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover and his brothers, the Hon. Simon Sainsbury and Sir Timothy Sainsbury, had made a donation that would enable the construction of the Sainsbury Wing.
The directorship of Neil MacGregor saw a major rehang at the Gallery, dispensing with the classification of paintings by national school that had been introduced by Eastlake. The new chronological hang sought to emphasise the interaction between cultures rather than fixed national characteristics, reflecting the change in art historical values since the 19th century. In other respects, however, Victorian tastes were rehabilitated: the building's interiors were no longer considered an embarrassment and were restored, and in 1999 the Gallery accepted a bequest of 26 Italian Baroque paintings from Sir Denis Mahon. Earlier in the 20th century many considered the Baroque to be beyond the pale: in 1945 the Gallery's trustees declined to buy a Guercino from Mahon's collection for £200. The same painting was valued at £4 million in 2003. Mahon's bequest was made on the condition that the Gallery would never deaccession any of its paintings or charge for admission.
Since 1989, the gallery has run a scheme that gives a studio to contemporary artists to create work based on the permanent collection. They usually hold the position of associate artist for two years and are given an exhibition in the National Gallery at the end of their tenure.
The respective remits of the National and Tate Galleries, which had long been contested by the two institutions, were more clearly defined in 1996. 1900 was established as the cut-off point for paintings in the National Gallery, and in 1997 more than 60 post-1900 paintings from the collection were given to the Tate on a long-term loan, in return for works by Gauguin and others. However, future expansion of the National Gallery may yet see the return of 20th-century paintings to its walls.
In the 21st century there have been three large fundraising campaigns at the Gallery: in 2004, to buy Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, in 2008, for Titian's Diana and Actaeon, and in 2012, Titian's Diana and Callisto. Both Titians were bought in tandem with the National Gallery of Scotland for £95 m. Both of these major works were sold from the famous collection of the Duke of Sutherland. The National Gallery is now largely priced out of the market for Old Master paintings and can only make such acquisitions with the backing of major public appeals; the departing director Charles Saumarez Smith expressed his frustration at this situation in 2007.
In 2014, the National Gallery was the subject of a documentary film by Frederick Wiseman. The film shows the gallery administration and staff at work, the conservation laboratory, docent tours, and the mounting of Leonardo Da Vinci, J. M. W. Turner, and Titian exhibitions in 2011–2012.