The National Gallery London celebrates its 200th birthday

the national gallery
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square. Credit: Chris Mouyiaris / AWL images

The National Gallery celebrates its 200th birthday in 2024. Discover the evolution of this London icon, from its surprising origins to its plans for this landmark year

London’s National Gallery, which celebrates its 200th birthday this spring, boasts one of the world’s most magnificent art collections, its 2,600 works (and counting) treasured by Britons, and its iconic Trafalgar Square home a magnet for tourists. But this giant of galleries, in fact, started very small. 

The history of The National Gallery   

the national gallery
Gabrielli’s The National Gallery 1886, Interior of Room 32. Credit: The National Gallery Photographic Department

Its story began on 23 February 1824, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer took to his feet in the House of Commons to confirm how he had decided to spend what he called a ‘Godsend’ – a boost to the British coffers courtesy of the partial repayment of a multi-million-pound loan. The loan had been all but written off in the 25 years since it had been made to the Austrian government at the height of the French revolutionary wars. £60,000 of the unexpected windfall, he proposed, be allocated for the purchase and upkeep – “for the use of the public” – of 38 paintings belonging to the late financier John Julius Angerstein. Parliament emphatically approved the plan, and it was thus, without great fanfare, and by circumstance rather than design, that the gallery was born. 

200 years on, so great is its worldwide reputation that it’s hard to believe Britain was behind the times. “Numerous European nations already had flourishing public art galleries,” explains curator Dr Susanna Avery-Quash. Campaigners in this country had long called for the creation of a similar institution, driven partly, she says, by national pride, but also a desire to create opportunities for ordinary Britons – including living British artists – to feast their eyes on ‘first-rate’ masterpieces.  

the national gallery
Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire in Room 34. Credit: The National Gallery Photographic Department.

The embryo collection certainly had plenty of those. Acquired by the Russian-born Angerstein with help and advice from the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence, it included not just a Rubens, a Raphael, a Rembrandt and a Reynolds; but a reputed Titian, two Van Dycks, five Claudes and seven Hogarths. 

They went on display almost immediately – though the building which flung open its doors in May 1824 was not the domed and pillared edifice that towers over Trafalgar Square today, but a relatively modest townhouse on Pall Mall, Angerstein’s former home. 

It was a far cry from the gallery “conductive to the glory of the country” that supporters of the scheme had envisaged, and the press ridiculed it. The public complained that it was poorly lit and overcrowded, especially after the gift of a further 16 paintings by Sir George Beaumont in 1826, and a further 35 by Reverend Holwell Carr in 1831.

the national gallery
Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus, 1647-51. Credit: The National Gallery Photographic Department.

Eventually, sick of the persistent jibes about its inferiority to the magnificent French gallery at the Louvre, the government agreed to stump up the cash for the creation of the purpose-built home we know today, with its grand portico entrance and lofty, sky-lit galleries. 

Designed by William Wilkins, it was a fraction of its current size when it opened in 1838 – and shared with the Royal Academy of Arts. The Victorians remained unimpressed. The place our present King has called “a much loved and elegant friend”, they dismissed as a diminutive “mustard-pot-and-pepper-box building”.  

the national gallery
Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, 1884. Credit: The National Gallery Photographic Department.

On the great canvas of the gallery’s history, however, their era proved transformative. The Royal Academy moved out, and many, many more paintings moved in. Some, like Constable’s The Hay Wain and Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, were among a swathe of gifts, “which have always played a huge role in the development of the collection, augmenting it in diverse ways,” says Susanna. Other paintings like the ever-popular Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck and Rembrandt’s Self Portraits were purchases. 

Acquisitions of the latter style stepped into the foreground after the appointment of artist Charles Eastlake as the gallery’s first Director in 1855, along with the institution of an annual purchase grant. Eastlake embarked on a series of spending sprees in Europe, procuring over 150 pictures in a single decade, including masterpieces by Piero della Francesca, Veronese and Botticelli. His successors followed suit, creating a collection of Western European painting almost unrivalled in its breadth and depth. 

the national gallery
The Barry Octagon at the National Gallery. Credit: Mark Sykes/ AWL Images Ltd

It wasn’t always easy catering for the Victorian viewing public, mind you. A few alterations to An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, painted by the Florentine Bronzino in the mid-16th century, were considered necessary. The previous owner had already strategically placed some extra drapery and fronds, and on Eastlake’s apparent instruction Venus’ protruding tongue and left nipple were painted out, too – stereotypically prudish tinkering that was only discovered (and remedied) during restoration work in the 1950s. 

Yet putting such a sexually provocative painting on display would not have accorded with the oft-expressed Victorian aim for the gallery to be “a means of moral and intellectual Improvement for the People” – a free, cultural counterbalance to pubs, gin palaces and football grounds. Nor would it have been the sort of painting the Victorian establishment wanted to inspire the next generation of British artists, as the gallery had encouraged from the start, stipulating that, two days a week, entrance be reserved for students and copyists alone (a rule that stood until 1945). 

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was acquired by the gallery in 1924. Credit: The National Gallery Photographic Department.

As the paintings continued to multiply in the 19th century, so too did the visitors, as the British forged a firm connection with the gallery that had been – almost uniquely in Europe – founded and funded by the people, for the people (its continental counterparts generally being nationalised royal collections). 

That sense of ownership sometimes brought drama to the gallery’s door. In 1961 John Bunton and his father Kempton, angry at the government funds used to purchase it, held to ransom Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which John had spirited out through an unlocked window in the gents’ toilets, in the only successful heist in the institution’s history. Five decades earlier, Suffragette Mary Richardson had similarly used the public art for political protest, repeatedly slashing with a meat cleaver Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus to draw attention to the war for women’s votes.   

Copy-cat attacks by two other weapon-wielding Suffragettes saw the gallery close completely for a time, something not even the Zeppelins and Luftwaffe bombers that stalked London’s skies during two World Wars managed to achieve. They did, however, force the evacuation of the nation’s priceless pictures, and in summer 1940, when the threat of German invasion loomed large, the collection made the strangest move in its history. Churchill vetoed the idea of shipping it to Canada for safekeeping – “hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island,” he demanded with typically patriotic fervour – so it went into hibernation instead, inside a network of quarry caves in Snowdonia. The gallery, empty and echoing without its art, was utilised for lunchtime concerts which proved enormously popular with culture-starved Londoners.  

Post-war the gallery’s story has been one of continued expansion. Paintings by artists from Italian masters to German modernists are added to the roll call of national treasures every year, and its once-controversial building has grown accordingly; big enough today to hold over 2,000 London buses. 

A beautiful Neoclassical colonnade welcomes you to the National Gallery’s front entrance. Credit: Slawek Staszczuk Photo / Alamy

Bicentenary events at the National Gallery

With 2024 promising a dramatic redisplay, a new welcome space and the sharing of some of its best-loved works, it’s clear that as the National Gallery embarks on its third century in existence, there’s much more to be added to the picture yet.

The gallery has exciting plans for its anniversary year, launching a series of events from 10 May. The National Treasures exhibition will see 12 exhibitions opening simultaneously around the country, each focused on a National Gallery masterpiece, while a new, large-scale digital gallery experience will be available via the website. Summer on the Square, a festival in Trafalgar Square, will bring this world-famous collection to the streets of Westminster. And a new Van Gogh exhibition – the first major show dedicated to the artist in the UK since 2010 – comes exactly 100 years after the gallery acquired Van Gogh’s Chair and Sunflowers, two of the gallery’s most popular paintings. nationalgallery.org.uk

This is an extract, read the full feature on Royal Berkshire in the March/April 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 9 February. 

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