Art, Antiques & Museums Arts & Culture

Two Hundred Years of the National Treasure – NG200

  • November 19, 2023
  • 6 min read
Two Hundred Years of the National Treasure – NG200

by Simon Tait

To stand beneath the newly-cleaned and massive del Piombo masterpiece The Raising of Lazarus in Room 32 (the first picture on the right in our gallery shot) couldn’t have been more appropriate for the Director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, to announce the details of the institution’s bicentenary celebrations. The accession number of this picture is NG1, the first work of art to come into the new public gallery as it opened in May 2024. There are now over 2,300.

He was announcing a £95m programme of celebration, NG200, in which some of the best loved images on its Trafalgar Square walls home will be leaving to tour the nations and regions over the year 2024-25, plus the biggest capital development of the Trafalgar Square building in 30 years.

The birth of the National Gallery was not easy. Towards the end of the 18th century there was a feverish yearning for a national collection of paintings to match those sprouting up over Europe, and in the 1770s the outstanding holding of Sir Robert Walpole (put together largely on the advice of his son Horace) with paintings by Lely, Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens, and Rembrandt, was offered for sale to the nation by his heirs. The government dithered, and by the time it had decided graciously to accept, it had already been snapped up by Catherine the Great for £40,000 in 1779, to be the basis of what is The Hermitage. Others were offered, including one that became the core of Britain’s first purpose-built public gallery, at Dulwich – and turned down, largely on grounds of quality.
As the century turned, there was a growing clamour from artists who bemoaned the lack of access to European art, which would allow the British school to flourish. A group of connoisseurs formed a British Institution aimed at creating a national gallery; members lent works for exhibitions, and one of them, Sir George Beaumont, gave 16 paintings of acceptable standard.
It wasn’t until 1823 that the die was cast when the collection of a recently deceased banker, John Julius Angerstein, came on the market with works by Raphael, Velasquez and Titian, as well as del Piombo. Six months after Angerstein’s death, the House of Commons decided not to make the Walpole mistake again and bought the collection for £60,000. At first, said Finaldi, it was thought to consign it to the British Museum, but it opened in Angerstein’s house in Pall Mall as the separate National Gallery on 19th May 1824.
However, the Pall Mall building was too small and dark, unfavourably compared with Paris’s spacious and palatial Louvre. It moved a few doors up Pall Mall, and then to Carlton House Terrace, to accommodation that was hardly more capacious. In 1832, a new building designed by William Wilkins was growing on the site of the Royal Mews at Charing Cross and, despite fears that pollution from the foul air of central London might ruin the paintings, the National Gallery duly moved in, with the Royal Academy sharing between 1837 and 1868. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries the collections grew steadily with notable gifts and help from the new National Art Collections Fund, today called Art Fund. 
In the Second World War, on the direction of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery’s then Director, the paintings disappeared to safety in caves deep in the Welsh hillsides and then the slate quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog, while Wilkins’s building became better known for Myra Hess’s free lunchtime concerts.
After the war there was tinkering with the Wilkins building. However, in the 1980s the three grocer Sainsbury brothers made a donation, which enabled the building of a new wing on the site of a former car park. It became the de facto main entrance.
Work has now started on turning the Sainsbury Wing into the actual main entrance with space being cleared up two storeys to bring light onto the enlarged gathering area, allowing a more complete connection with the old Wilkins building. The education centre behind the main building in Orange Street will be enlarged and improved.Finaldi believes that the gallery has overlooked the comfort and convenience of its financial supporters, who are responsible for contributing half of its income. Therefore, the gallery plans to reshape its interior and make better use of underutilised back buildings, where they will create a “Supporters’ House” within the existing structure for the benefit of members and other donors. Furthermore, the gallery intends to establish a new research centre with its own separate entrance

However, beyond that space is a whole country – four whole countries and nine English regions – and some of the best-known masterpieces from Trafalgar Square will be going on leave. Partnerships have been made with 12 venues outside London each of which has its own tailor-made programme woven around one painting, and it’s worth listing them. 

The Laing in Newcastle will get Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire; York Art Gallery gets Monet’s The Water Lily Pond; Renoir’s Umbrellas goes to Leicester Museum & Art Gallery; Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam will get Botticelli’s Venus and Mars; Oxford’s Ashmolean will have the 14th century Wilton Diptych; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery will have Rembrandt’s Self Portrait(age 35); the Ikon in Birmingham gets Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria; Constable’s The Hay Wain will go to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery; the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth will have Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard; the Walker in Liverpool will get Velasquez’s  Rokeby Venus; the Ulster Museum gets Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus; and Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal will be at National Galleries Scotland in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, the Trafalgar Square site gets a make-over designed to make your appreciation of great art comfortable and more enjoyable. “We believe we need to make the experience of visiting the gallery welcoming and complete,” said Finaldi. “This is your gallery, these are your paintings. We all miss out when anyone thinks that the National Gallery is not for them…(the) thoughtful interventions will help to make the gallery entrance lighter, more accessible, and more visible as a public space.”

Room 32 of the National Gallery

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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