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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

The National Gallery, London: A Brief History

What’s in the National Gallery?

The National Gallery is Britain’s national gallery of Western European art spanning the period c.1250-1900.

From Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, to George Stubbs’ fabulous Whistlejacket, the National Gallery is home to some of the world’s most celebrated works of art. Now with a collection of over 2,300 objects, ranging from 13th-century religious altarpieces to the masterpieces of French Post-Impressionism, it is hard to believe that the National Gallery was founded with a collection of only 38 paintings.

The National Gallery, London

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A History of the National Gallery in London

In April 1824, the House of Commons agreed to pay £57,000 for the picture collection of the deceased banker John Julius Angerstein, with the idea of forming a new free-of-charge national collection for the enjoyment and education of all. The impressive Angerstein collection comprised works from the Italian, Dutch, Flemish and English Schools, including Raphael, Hogarth and Sebastiano del Piombo’s enormous altarpiece depicting the raising of Lazarus.

In 1831, parliament chose Trafalgar Square, the site of the former King’s Mews (royal stables and falconry grounds), as the ideal place to house the collection. It was as easy to reach by carriage from the wealthy streets of West London as it was on foot from the poverty-stricken East End. The National Gallery truly was a space created with arts accessibility at the forefront of its agenda.

The building, with its grand colonnaded portico, was designed in Greek Revival style by architect William Wilkins. But until the gallery’s opening in 1838, the pictures were displayed at Angerstein’s house. The collection was compared to the grandeur of the Louvre, which had opened only in the last decade of the previous century, and the intimidating scale of its collections. Britain’s comparatively minute national collection received initial ridicule.

The National Gallery evening

For the first 30 years of its existence, the National Gallery shared its quarters with the Royal Academy. This, combined with a rapidly expanding collection, meant that as early as 1866 the gallery was deemed too small for its purpose, as well as architecturally unworthy of its important site right in the centre of the city. In the late 19th century, the building was extended and added to. Firstly by architect E. M. Barry who designed a new east wing extension, and later by Sir John Taylor who added the richly-coloured Central Hall and grand Staircase Hall. More recently, in the 1970s, a modernist northern extension was built, and in 1991 the Sainsbury Wing, designed to house the entire early Renaissance collection. The mosaics in the vestibule of the main hall were laid by Russian-born artist Boris Anrep in 1933. Look out for some famous faces, including Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and Virginia Woolf.

The gallery has the most comprehensive collection of Italian paintings outside Italy, and an outstanding selection of work spanning both the Northern and Italianate Renaissance. Highlights include Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini Portrait, Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus and the allegorical The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. For those with a more modern sensibility, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières and Surprised! the wonderfully Naïve work by Henri Rosseau, are not to be missed.

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