May 10, 2007

The Origin of the British National Gallery

On May 10th, 1824, the British National Gallery first opened its doors.

What was unusual about the British National Gallery, compared to other European art museums, was that it was essentially started "from scratch", rather than by building upon a royal collection. Such museums as the Uffizi in Florence and the Prado in Madrid were built on royal art collections that had been nationalized, but the British royal collection remained the property of the monarch.

Britain was also a relatively late starter. Ideas of starting a public art museum had been kicked around for some time, but nothing had ever come to fruition. In the late 1700's the collection of the late Sir Robert Walpole was offered for sale, and some government officials thought that this would be a prime opportunity to start a national gallery, but the government ultimately let the opportunity pass. (The Walpole Collection was later purchased by Catherine the Great and is now part of the Hermitage Museum.) Another collection, this one belonging to Sir Francis Bourgeois, was bequeathed to Dulwich College in 1811.

It wasn't until 1824, when Britain unexpectedly received payment of a war debt from Austria that funds were allocated to start a national art gallery. The first purchase was of 38 paintings from the collection of John Julius Angerstein, a Russian emigre banker who had died in 1823. The purchase included works by Raphael and Hogarth. Further paintings were acquired in 1826, from the collection of George Beaumont (who had offered them earlier, but only on the condition that a suitable building was found to display them) and in 1828 by a bequest from the Reverend William Howell Carr.

The collection was originally housed in Angerstein's former townhouse at 100 Pall Mall. Later, the collection briefly resided at 105 Pall Mall, before being moved to its current location in Trafalgar Square. The Trafalgar Square location was chosen because it was deemed to be equally accessible to all social classes in London.

During World War II, the art works were removed from the museum, and stored in a slate quarry in North Wales, where it was believed that they would be safe from the bombings. (Murals remained at the gallery, but were hidden under white paint and reinforced with marble.) The museum director had originally hoped to ship them to Canada, but Churchill had told him to "bury them in caves or in cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands." Eventually, a "Picture of the Month" project was developed, in which one painting each month would be removed from the quarry, and put on public display in the National Gallery.

The British National Gallery remains truly a public institution. Admission is free (with the exception of certain special exhibits) and the museum is committed to making the exhibit accessible to all areas of Britain through its Touring Exhibitions.

Illustration: 100 Pall Mall, the first site of the British National Gallery.
From a lithograph by Charles Hullmandel, Public Domain.

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