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March 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1452

The National Gallery

Two hundred years ago, in the spring of 1824, British enthusiasts for European painting had good reason to feel optimistic. In a House of Commons debate that took place on 2nd April the government was praised for agreeing to acquire for the nation thirty-eight paintings from the collection of the discerning banker John Julius Angerstein, in order to establish a new National Gallery in London. Advocates for the purchase, such as George Agar Ellis, were delighted; he declared that ‘All the pictures [are] of the very first excellence [and] would form a new era in the history of the arts in this country’. The intermittent campaigning that had led up to this symbolic moment had been rumbling on for fifty years, since the sale of paintings from Houghton Hall to Russia in the 1770s and unheeded calls to acquire them for the public – an event that has been described as the first British ‘heritage crisis’. 

The splendid Angerstein collection, which formed the nucleus of the new National Gallery, opened to the public on 10th May 1824. Its initial home at 100 Pall Mall, which had been Angerstein’s town house, was elegant but modest by continental standards. On 11th May The Times reported that ‘a number of the nobility and gentry’ had visited. While the context may have been domestic, the press reaction muted and the public certainly limited at this early stage, the soaring quality of the collection, ranging from Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo to Claude and Hogarth, set the tone and ambition for the nascent gallery’s subsequent evolution. Its growth was imminent as the purchase of Angerstein’s pictures soon secured other important collections – including that of George Beaumont – which had been pledged as long as a National Gallery was established at public expense. 

The gallery moved to the more familiar setting of William Wilkins’s building on the north side of Trafalgar Square in 1838 and since then profound transformations have of course occurred: the modest trickle of early visitors is now replaced by a constant stream of millions each year. The building has gradually expanded to accommodate its changing role and navigate both national and international expectations about what such a gallery should both be and do – ideas that have altered drastically with the passage of time. Scholarly integrity, popular appeal, exhibition programmes, education and outreach, expanding access and participation in the discussion of societal issues, as well as generating income – all of these priorities have to be achieved and balanced. 

In other ways, it could happily be said that little has changed over the intervening two centuries. From the outset, entry to the National Gallery was free: the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon noted in 1824 that ‘It was delightful to walk in [. . .] just as you felt inclined without trouble or inconvenience’. Today one can still wander through the collection without making a payment and be immersed in the study and enjoyment of many of the highpoints of European art. 

The other largely unwavering characteristic of the gallery has been the remarkably high calibre of its collection, which remains, by comparison with many other national collections, notably small: it currently stands at just over 2,300 works. This has never been an issue of concern because of the related benefit that much of it can be displayed. Purchases continue to be made at a stately pace, with the most recent acquisition being Abraham Bloemart’s Lot and his daughters (1624), which previously had been on loan and was acquired in December of last year. An impressive work of the artist’s maturity that was recently reattributed to him, it is somewhat surprisingly the first Bloemart to enter the collection. 

A less well-known but nonetheless significant element of the gallery’s long life is its relationship with this Magazine. The connections have been strong from our foundation in 1903 and they have always been driven by a shared belief in the value of empirical, object-based art-historical research. Two Editors, Charles Holmes and Neil MacGregor, became Directors of the gallery and numerous important contributions to the content of and governance of the Magazine have been made by the National Gallery’s curators, conservators, scientists and other experts. This relationship was recently reinforced in a pleasing manner by the transfer of the Magazine’s archive to the National Gallery Research Centre. 

Significant articles about the gallery’s collection have appeared in these pages; a long list could be drawn up and any selection of highlights might start with Kenneth Clark discussing Sassetta or Erwin Panofsky analysing Van Eyck in the 1930s.1 It would also include many more recent submissions, such as the May 2021 article in which Francesca Whitlum-Cooper discussed Poussin’s Triumph of Silenus (c.1636), a work from the Angerstein collection.2 For many years it was designated as a copy; however, conservation and technical analysis were used to reinstate it as the work Poussin painted for Cardinal Richelieu in the mid-1630s and, consequently, the first example of the artist’s paintings to enter a British national collection. 

Bicentenary celebrations, under the banner ‘NG 200’, are soon to be underway: a new building project is already in progress and masterpiece loans are to be distributed across the United Kingdom. Among the most striking elements of this initiative are to be the loan of Botticelli’s Mars and Venus (1485) to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Wilton Diptych (1395) to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, as neither work has before now moved from London (apart from during wartime) since their acquisition in 1874 and 1929 respectively. 

Other major paintings are also receiving fresh attention because of the temporary closure of the Sainsbury Wing. The building scheme has provided the welcome opportunity for Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (probably 1438–40) and the Pollaiuolo brothers’ Martyrdom of St Sebastian (1475) to be conserved. In addition, such eye-catching exhibitions as Van Gogh: Poets and Lovers (opening 14th September) will no doubt prove immensely popular. Meanwhile, meticulous cataloguing – a vital part of the gallery’s work since the pioneering publications of Martin Davies began to appear in the 1940s – continues in a resolute manner: in the autumn Susan Foister’s new catalogue of the German paintings in the collection is scheduled to appear. 

The vision and munificence that the 1824 purchase of the Angerstein collection represented has yielded many profound benefits that are still being felt. It should not, however, be merely a matter of historical curiosity and commemoration but rather an inspiration to contemporary philanthropists and politicians. As this bicentenary year is to be one when a general election is held in the UK, the latter group should especially take note. 

[1] K. Clark: ‘Seven Sassettas for the National Gallery’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 66 (1935), pp.152–55; E. Panofsky: ‘Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 64 (1934), pp.117–19 and 122–27. 

[2] F. Whitlum-Cooper: ‘Poussin’s “Triumph of Silenus” rediscovered’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 163 (2021), pp.408–15.