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National Gallery

Coordinates: 51°30′32″N 0°7′42″W / 51.50889°N 0.12833°W / 51.50889; -0.12833
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National Gallery
Trafalgar Square façade
National Gallery is located in Central London
National Gallery
Location within Central London
Established1824; 200 years ago (1824), current location since 1838
LocationTrafalgar Square, London, England, United Kingdom
Coordinates51°30′32″N 0°7′42″W / 51.50889°N 0.12833°W / 51.50889; -0.12833
TypeArt museum
Visitors3,096,508 (2023)[1]
DirectorGabriele Finaldi
Public transit accessLondon Underground Charing Cross
National Rail Charing Cross
Detailed information below
Websitewww.nationalgallery.org.uk Edit this at Wikidata

The National Gallery is an art museum in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, in Central London, England. Founded in 1824, it houses a collection of more than 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900[2].[note 1] The current director of the National Gallery is Gabriele Finaldi.

The National Gallery is an exempt charity, and a non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.[3] Its collection belongs to the government on behalf of the British public, and entry to the main collection is free of charge.

Unlike comparable museums in continental Europe, the National Gallery was not formed by nationalising an existing royal or princely art collection. It came into being when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein in 1824. After that initial purchase, the gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors, especially Charles Lock Eastlake, and by private donations, which now account for two-thirds of the collection.[4] The collection is smaller than many European national galleries, but encyclopaedic in scope; most major developments in Western painting "from Giotto to Cézanne"[5] are represented with important works. It used to be claimed that this was one of the few national galleries that had all its works on permanent exhibition,[6] but this is no longer the case.

The present building, the third site to house the National Gallery, was designed by William Wilkins. Building began in 1832 and it opened to the public in 1838. Only the façade onto Trafalgar Square remains essentially unchanged from this time, as the building has been expanded piecemeal throughout its history. Wilkins's building was often criticised for the perceived weaknesses of its design and for its lack of space; the latter problem led to the establishment of the Tate Gallery for British art in 1897. The Sainsbury Wing, a 1991 extension to the west by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is a significant example of Postmodernist architecture in Britain.


The call for a National Gallery[edit]

Realistic painting of a robed figure, arms extended, standing outside on a small platform among people doing various things such as talking to each other, but most of whom are looking at him.
The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, from the Angerstein collection. This became the founding collection of the National Gallery in 1824. The painting has the accession number NG1, making it officially the first painting to enter the gallery.

The late 18th century saw the nationalisation of royal or princely art collections across mainland Europe. The Bavarian royal collection (now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) opened to the public in 1779, that of the Medici in Florence around 1789 (as the Uffizi Gallery), and the Museum Français at the Louvre was formed out of the former French royal collection in 1793.[7] Great Britain, however, did not follow other European countries, and the British Royal Collection still remains in the sovereign's possession. In 1777, the British government had the opportunity to buy an art collection of international stature, when the descendants of Sir Robert Walpole put his collection up for sale. The MP John Wilkes argued for the government to buy this "invaluable treasure" and suggested that it be housed in "a noble gallery... to be built in the spacious garden of the British Museum".[8] Nothing came of Wilkes's appeal and 20 years later the collection was bought in its entirety by Catherine the Great; it is now to be found in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

A plan to acquire 150 paintings from the Orléans collection, which had been brought to London for sale in 1798, also failed, despite the interest of both the King and the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger.[9] The twenty-five paintings from that collection now in the gallery, including "NG1", arrived later by a variety of routes. In 1799, the dealer Noël Desenfans offered a ready-made national collection to the British government; he and his partner Sir Francis Bourgeois had assembled it for the king of Poland, before the Third Partition in 1795 abolished Polish independence.[7] This offer was declined and Bourgeois bequeathed the collection to his old school, Dulwich College, on his death. The collection opened in 1814 in Britain's first purpose-built public gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Scottish dealer William Buchanan and the collector Joseph Count Truchsess both formed art collections expressly as the basis for a future national collection, but their respective offers (both made in 1803) were also declined.[7]

Following the Walpole sale many artists, including James Barry and John Flaxman, had made renewed calls for the establishment of a National Gallery, arguing that a British school of painting could only flourish if it had access to the canon of European painting. The British Institution, founded in 1805 by a group of aristocratic connoisseurs, attempted to address this situation. The members lent works to exhibitions that changed annually, while an art school was held in the summer months. However, as the paintings that were lent were often mediocre,[10] some artists resented the Institution and saw it as a racket for the gentry to increase the sale prices of their Old Master paintings.[11] One of the Institution's founding members, Sir George Beaumont, Bt, would eventually play a major role in the National Gallery's foundation by offering a gift of 16 paintings.

In 1823, another major art collection came on the market, which had been assembled by the recently deceased John Julius Angerstein. Angerstein was a Russian-born émigré banker based in London; his collection numbered 38 paintings, including works by Raphael and Hogarth's Marriage A-la-Mode series. On 1 July 1823, George Agar Ellis, a Whig politician, proposed to the House of Commons that it purchase the collection.[12] The appeal was given added impetus by Beaumont's offer, which came with two conditions: that the government buy the Angerstein collection, and that a suitable building was to be found. The unexpected repayment of a war debt by Austria finally moved the government to buy Angerstein's collection, for £57,000.

Foundation and early history[edit]

Engraving of a three-storey building, seen from the street. Women in long dresses date the picture.
100 Pall Mall, the home of the National Gallery from 1824 to 1834

The National Gallery opened in 1824 in Angerstein's former townhouse at No. 100 Pall Mall.[note 2] Angerstein's paintings were joined in 1826 by those from Beaumont's collection, and in 1831 by the Reverend William Holwell Carr's bequest of 35 paintings.[13] Initially the Keeper of Paintings, William Seguier, bore the burden of managing the gallery, but in July 1824 some of this responsibility fell to the newly formed board of trustees.

The National Gallery at Pall Mall was frequently overcrowded and hot, and its diminutive size in comparison with the Louvre in Paris was a cause of national embarrassment. But Agar Ellis, by then a trustee of the gallery, appraised the site for being "in the very gangway of London"; this was seen as necessary for the gallery to fulfil its social purpose.[14] Subsidence in No. 100 caused the gallery to move briefly to No. 105 Pall Mall, which the novelist Anthony Trollope described as a "dingy, dull, narrow house, ill-adapted for the exhibition of the treasures it held".[14] This in turn had to be demolished for the opening of a road to Carlton House Terrace.[15]

In 1832, construction began on a new building by William Wilkins on the northern half of the site of the old Royal Mews in Charing Cross, after the transformation of its southern half into Trafalgar Square in the late 1820s. The location was a significant one, between the wealthy West End and poorer areas to the east.[16] The argument that the collection could be accessed by people of all social classes outstripped other concerns, such as the pollution of central London or the failings of Wilkins's building, when the prospect of a move to South Kensington was mooted in the 1850s. According to the Parliamentary Commission of 1857, "The existence of the pictures is not the end purpose of the collection, but the means only to give the people an ennobling enjoyment".[17]

Growth under Eastlake and his successors[edit]

15th- and 16th-century Italian paintings were at the core of the National Gallery and for the first 30 years of its existence the trustees' independent acquisitions were mainly limited to works by High Renaissance masters. Their conservative tastes resulted in several missed opportunities and the management of the gallery later fell into complete disarray, with no acquisitions being made between 1847 and 1850.[18] A critical House of Commons report in 1851 called for the appointment of a director, whose authority would surpass that of the trustees. Many thought the position would go to the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen, whom the gallery had consulted on previous occasions about the lighting and display of the collections. However, the man preferred for the job by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, was the Keeper of Paintings at the gallery, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake. Eastlake, who was President of the Royal Academy, played an essential role in the foundation of the Arundel Society and knew most of London's leading art experts.

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, one of Eastlake's purchases

The new director's taste was for the Northern and Early Italian Renaissance masters or "primitives", who had been neglected by the gallery's acquisitions policy but were slowly gaining recognition from connoisseurs. He made annual tours to the continent and to Italy in particular, seeking out appropriate paintings to buy for the gallery. In all, he bought 148 pictures abroad and 46 in Britain,[19] among the former such seminal works as Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano. Eastlake also amassed a private art collection during this period, consisting of paintings that he knew did not interest the trustees. His ultimate aim, however, was for them to enter the National Gallery; this was duly arranged upon his death by his friend and successor as director, William Boxall, and his widow Lady Eastlake.

One of the most persistent criticisms of the National Gallery, other than of the perceived inadequacies of the building, has been of its conservation policy. The gallery's detractors have accused it of having had an over-zealous approach to restoration. The first cleaning operation at the National Gallery began in 1844 after Eastlake's appointment as Keeper, and was the subject of attacks in the press after the first three paintings to receive the treatment – a Rubens, a Cuyp and a Velázquez – were unveiled to the public in 1846.[20] The gallery's most virulent critic was J. Morris Moore, who wrote a series of letters to The Times under the pseudonym "Verax" savaging the institution's cleanings. While an 1853 Parliamentary select committee set up to investigate the matter cleared the gallery of any wrongdoing, criticism of its methods has been erupting sporadically ever since from some in the art establishment.

An 1847 Punch cartoon by John Leech depicting the restoration controversy then ongoing

The gallery's lack of space remained acute in this period. In 1845, a large bequest of British paintings was made by Robert Vernon; there was insufficient room in the Wilkins building so they were displayed first in Vernon's town house at No. 50 Pall Mall and then at Marlborough House.[21] The gallery was even less well equipped for its next major bequest, as J. M. W. Turner was to bequeath the entire contents of his studio, excepting unfinished works, to the nation upon his death in 1851. The first 20 of these were displayed off-site in Marlborough House in 1856.[22] Ralph Nicholson Wornum, the gallery's Keeper and Secretary, worked with John Ruskin to bring the bequest together. The stipulation in Turner's will that two of his paintings be displayed alongside works by Claude[23] is still honoured as of 2024, but his bequest has never been adequately displayed in its entirety; today the works are divided between Trafalgar Square and the Clore Gallery, a small purpose-built extension to Tate Britain completed in 1985.

The third director, Sir Frederic William Burton, laid the foundations of the collection of 18th-century art and made several outstanding purchases from English private collections. The acquisition in 1885 of two paintings from Blenheim Palace, Raphael's Ansidei Madonna and Van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, with a record-setting grant of £87,500 from the Treasury, brought the gallery's "golden age of collecting" to an end, as its annual purchase grant was suspended for several years thereafter.[24] When the gallery purchased Holbein's Ambassadors from the Earl of Radnor in 1890, it did so with the aid of private individuals for the first time in its history.[25] In 1897, the formation of the National Gallery of British Art, known unofficially from early in its history as the Tate Gallery, allowed some British works to be moved off-site, following the precedent set by the Vernon collection and the Turner Bequest. Works by artists born after 1790 were moved to the new gallery on Millbank, which allowed Hogarth, Turner and Constable to remain in Trafalgar Square.

Early 20th century[edit]

Realistic painting of a nude woman seen from behind, reclining on a couch. She is looking at her reflection in a mirror held by a winged child.
Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus) by Diego Velázquez

The agricultural crisis at the turn of the 20th century caused many aristocratic families to sell their paintings, but the British national collections were priced out of the market by American plutocrats.[26] This prompted the foundation of the National Art-Collections Fund, a society of subscribers dedicated to stemming the flow of artworks to the United States. Their first acquisition for the National Gallery was Velázquez's Rokeby Venus in 1906, followed by Holbein's Portrait of Christina of Denmark in 1909. However, despite the crisis in aristocratic fortunes, the following decade was one of several great bequests from private collectors. In 1909, the industrialist Ludwig Mond gave 42 Italian Renaissance paintings, including the Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, to the gallery.[27] Other bequests of note were those of George Salting in 1910, Austen Henry Layard in 1916 and Sir Hugh Lane in 1917.

The initial reception of Impressionist art at the gallery was exceptionally controversial. In 1906, Sir Hugh Lane promised 39 paintings, including Renoir's Umbrellas, to the National Gallery on his death, unless a suitable building could be built in Dublin. Although eagerly accepted by the director Charles Holroyd, they were received with extreme hostility by the trustees; Lord Redesdale wrote that "I would as soon expect to hear of a Mormon service being conducted in St. Paul's Cathedral as to see the exhibition of the works of the modern French Art-rebels in the sacred precincts of Trafalgar Square".[28] Perhaps as a result of such attitudes, Lane amended his will with a codicil that the works should only go to Ireland, but crucially this was never witnessed.[29] Lane died on board the RMS Lusitania in 1915, and a dispute began which was not resolved until 1959. Part of the collection is now on permanent loan to Dublin City Gallery ("The Hugh Lane") and other works rotate between London and Dublin every few years.

A fund for the purchase of modern paintings established by Samuel Courtauld in 1923 bought Seurat's Bathers at Asnières and other modern works for the nation;[30] in 1934, many of these were transferred to the National Gallery from the Tate.

The director Kenneth Clark's decision in 1939 to label a group of Venetian paintings, Scenes from Tebaldeo's Eclogues, as works by Giorgione was controversial at the time, and the panels were soon identified as works by Andrea Previtali by a junior curator Clark had appointed.[31]

Second World War[edit]

Paintings being evacuated from the National Gallery during the Second World War

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War the paintings were evacuated to locations in Wales, including Penrhyn Castle and the university colleges of Bangor and Aberystwyth.[32] In 1940, during the Battle of France, a more secure home was sought, and there were discussions about moving the paintings to Canada. This idea was firmly rejected by Winston Churchill, who wrote in a telegram to Kenneth Clark, "bury them in caves or in cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands".[33] Instead a slate quarry at Manod, near Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, was requisitioned for the gallery's use.[34] In the seclusion afforded by the paintings' new location, the Keeper (and future director) Martin Davies began to compile scholarly catalogues on the collection, with assistance of the gallery's library which was also stored in the quarry. The move to Manod confirmed the importance of storing paintings at a constant temperature and humidity, something the gallery's conservators had long suspected but had hitherto been unable to prove.[35] This eventually resulted in the first air-conditioned gallery opening in 1949.[21]

For the course of the war Myra Hess and other musicians, such as Moura Lympany, gave daily lunch-time recitals in the empty building in Trafalgar Square, to raise public morale as every concert hall in London was closed.[36][37] Art exhibitions were held at the gallery as a complement to the recitals. The first of these was British Painting since Whistler in 1940, organised by Lillian Browse,[38] who also mounted the major joint retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by Sir William Nicholson and Jack B. Yeats held from 1 January to 15 March 1942, which was seen by 10,518 visitors.[39][40] Exhibitions of work by war artists, including Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, were also held; the War Artists' Advisory Committee had been set up by Clark in order "to keep artists at work on any pretext".[41] In 1941, a request from an artist to see Rembrandt's Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (a new acquisition) resulted in the "Picture of the Month" scheme, in which a single painting was removed from Manod and exhibited to the general public in the National Gallery each month. The art critic Herbert Read, writing that year, called the National Gallery "a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis".[42] The paintings returned to Trafalgar Square in 1945.

Post-war developments[edit]

The last major outcry against the use of radical conservation techniques at the National Gallery was in the immediate post-war years, following a restoration campaign by the gallery's chief restorer Helmut Ruhemann while the paintings were in Manod Quarry. When the cleaned pictures were exhibited to the public in 1946 there followed a furore with parallels to that of a century earlier. The principal criticism was that the extensive removal of varnish, which was used in the 19th century to protect the surface of paintings but which darkened and discoloured over time, may have resulted in the loss of "harmonising" glazes added to the paintings by the artists themselves. The opposition to Ruhemann's techniques was led by Ernst Gombrich, a professor at the Warburg Institute who in later correspondence with a restorer described being treated with "offensive superciliousness" by the National Gallery.[43] A 1947 commission concluded that no damage had been done in the recent cleanings.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

In the post-war years, acquisitions have become increasingly difficult for the National Gallery as the prices for Old Masters – and even more so for the Impressionists and Post-impressionists – have risen beyond its means. Some of the gallery's most significant purchases in this period would have been impossible without the major public appeals backing them, including Leonardo da Vinci's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (bought in 1962) and Titian's Death of Actaeon (bought in 1972). The gallery's purchase grant from the government was frozen in 1985, but later that year it received an endowment of £50 million from Sir Paul Getty, enabling many major purchases to be made.[21] In April 1985 Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover and his brothers, the Hon. Simon Sainsbury and Sir Timothy Sainsbury, had made a donation that would enable the construction of the Sainsbury Wing.[44]

The directorship of Neil MacGregor saw a major rehang at the gallery, dispensing with the classification of paintings by national school that had been introduced by Eastlake. The new chronological hang sought to emphasise the interaction between cultures rather than fixed national characteristics, reflecting the change in art-historical values since the 19th century.[45] In other respects, however, Victorian tastes were rehabilitated: the building's interiors were no longer considered an embarrassment and were restored, and in 1999 the gallery accepted a bequest of 26 Italian Baroque paintings from Sir Denis Mahon. Earlier in the 20th century many considered the Baroque to be beyond the pale: in 1945 the gallery's trustees declined to buy a Guercino from Mahon's collection for £200. The same painting was valued at £4 million in 2003.[46] Mahon's bequest was made on the condition that the gallery would never deaccession any of its paintings or charge for admission.[47]

Associate artists
Paula Rego 1989–1990
Ken Kiff 1991–1993
Peter Blake 1994–1996
Ana Maria Pacheco 1997–1999
Ron Mueck 2000–2002
John Virtue 2003–2005
Alison Watt 2006–2008
Michael Landy 2009–2013
George Shaw 2014–2016

Jock McFadyen was the first Artist in Residence in 1981.[48] Since 1989, the gallery has run an Associate Artist scheme that gives a studio to contemporary artists to create work based on the permanent collection. They usually hold the position of associate artist for two years and are given an exhibition in the National Gallery at the end of their tenure.

The respective remits of the National and Tate Galleries, which had long been contested by the two institutions, were more clearly defined in 1996. 1900 was established as the cut-off point for paintings in the National Gallery, and in 1997 more than 60 post-1900 paintings from the collection were given to the Tate on a long-term loan, in return for works by Gauguin and others. However, future expansion of the National Gallery may yet see the return of 20th-century paintings to its walls.[49]

21st century[edit]

Painting of a man happening upon a group of nude women, bathing in a grotto-like space.
Titian's Diana and Actaeon, bought in 2008, jointly with the National Gallery of Scotland
Painting of two groups of mostly nude women; on the right, the goddess Diana points accusingly at a woman in the left group who lies on the floor in a state of distress.
Titian's Diana and Callisto, bought in 2012, jointly with the National Gallery of Scotland

In the 21st century there have been three large fundraising campaigns at the gallery: in 2004, to buy Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks; in 2008, for Titian's Diana and Actaeon; and in 2012, Titian's Diana and Callisto. Both Titians were bought in tandem with the National Gallery of Scotland for £95 m. Both of these major works were sold from the collection of the Duke of Sutherland. The National Gallery is now largely priced out of the market for Old Master paintings and can only make such acquisitions with the backing of major public appeals; the departing director Charles Saumarez Smith expressed his frustration at this situation in 2007.[50]

The National Gallery was sponsored by the Italian arms manufacturer Finmeccanica between October 2011 and October 2012. The sponsorship deal allowed the company to use gallery spaces for gatherings, and the gallery was used to host delegates during the DSEI arms fair and the Farnborough Airshow. The sponsorship deal was ended a year early after protests.[51]

In February 2014, the gallery purchased Men of the Docks by the American artist George Bellows for $25.5 million (£15.6 million). It was the first major American painting to be purchased by the gallery. The director, Nicholas Penny, termed the painting a new direction for the gallery, a non-European painting in a European style. Its sale was controversial in the United States.[52]

In 2018, the National Gallery was one of the first public galleries in London to charge more than £20 for admission to a special exhibition, the exhibition in question being of works by Claude Monet.[53]

In February 2019, an employment tribunal ruled that the gallery had incorrectly classed its team of educators as self-employed contractors.[54] The educators were awarded the status of "workers" following legal action brought by 27 claimants. The case received considerable press and media coverage.[55][56][57]

In 2024, the National Gallery celebrated its 200th anniversary with a range of programmes, events, and collaborations.[58]


William Wilkins's building[edit]

National Gallery
The Wilkins Building, with the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields to the right
ArchitectWilliam Wilkins
Architectural style(s)Neoclassical
Listed Building – Grade I
Official nameNational Gallery
Designated5 February 1970
Reference no.1066236[59]

The first suggestion for a National Gallery on Trafalgar Square came from John Nash, who envisaged it on the site of the King's Mews, while a Parthenon-like building for the Royal Academy would occupy the centre of the square.[60] Economic recession prevented this scheme from being built, but a competition for the Mews site was eventually held in 1831, for which Nash submitted a design with C. R. Cockerell as his co-architect. Nash's popularity was waning by this time, however, and the commission was awarded to William Wilkins, who was involved in the selection of the site and submitted some drawings at the last moment.[61] Wilkins had hoped to build a "Temple of the Arts, nurturing contemporary art through historical example",[62] but the commission was blighted by parsimony and compromise, and the resulting building, which opened to the public on 9 April 1838,[63] was deemed a failure on almost all counts.

The site only allowed for the building to be one room deep, as a workhouse and a barracks lay immediately behind.[note 3] To exacerbate matters, there was a public right of way through the site to these buildings, which accounts for the access porticoes on the eastern and western sides of the façade. These had to incorporate columns from the demolished Carlton House, and their relative shortness resulted in an elevation that was deemed excessively low, thus failing to provide Trafalgar Square with its desired commanding focal point to the north. Also recycled are the sculptures on the façade, originally intended for Nash's Marble Arch but abandoned due to his financial problems.[note 4] The eastern half of the building housed the Royal Academy until 1868, which further diminished the space afforded to the National Gallery.

The building was the object of public ridicule before it had even been completed, as a version of the design had been leaked to the Literary Gazette in 1833.[64] Two years before completion, its infamous "pepperpot" elevation appeared on the frontispiece of Contrasts (1836), an influential tract by the Gothicist A. W. N. Pugin, as an example of the degeneracy of the classical style.[65] Even William IV (in his last recorded utterance) thought the building a "nasty little pokey hole",[66] while William Makepeace Thackeray called it "a little gin shop of a building".[66] The twentieth-century architectural historian Sir John Summerson echoed these early criticisms when he compared the arrangement of a dome and two diminutive turrets on the roofline to "the clock and vases on a mantelpiece, only less useful".[61][note 5] Sir Charles Barry's landscaping of Trafalgar Square, from 1840, included a north terrace so that the building would appear to be raised, thus addressing one of the points of complaint.[15] Opinion on the building had mellowed considerably by 1984, when Prince Charles called the Wilkins façade a "much-loved and elegant friend", in contrast to a proposed extension. (See below)

Alteration and expansion (Pennethorne, Barry and Taylor)[edit]

The first significant alteration made to the building was the single, long gallery added by Sir James Pennethorne in 1860–1861. Ornately decorated in comparison with the rooms by Wilkins, it nonetheless worsened the cramped conditions inside the building as it was built over the original entrance hall.[67] Unsurprisingly, several attempts were made either to completely remodel the National Gallery (as suggested by Sir Charles Barry in 1853), or to move it to more capacious premises in Kensington, where the air was also cleaner. In 1867 Barry's son Edward Middleton Barry proposed to replace the Wilkins building with a massive classical building with four domes. The scheme was a failure and contemporary critics denounced the exterior as "a strong plagiarism upon St Paul's Cathedral".[68]

With the demolition of the workhouse, however, Barry was able to build the gallery's first sequence of grand architectural spaces, from 1872 to 1876. Built to a polychrome Neo-Renaissance design, the Barry Rooms were arranged on a Greek cross plan around a huge central octagon. Though it compensated for the underwhelming architecture of the Wilkins building, Barry's new wing was disliked by Gallery staff, who considered its monumental aspect to be in conflict with its function as exhibition space. Also, the decorative programme of the rooms did not take their intended contents into account; the ceiling of the 15th- and 16th-century Italian gallery, for instance, was inscribed with the names of British artists of the 19th century.[69] However, despite these failures, the Barry Rooms provided the gallery with a strong axial groundplan; this was to be followed by all subsequent additions to the gallery for a century, resulting in a building of clear symmetry.

Pennethorne's gallery was demolished for the next phase of building, a scheme by Sir John Taylor extending northwards of the main entrance. Its glass-domed entrance vestibule had painted ceiling decorations by the Crace family firm, who had also worked on the Barry Rooms. A fresco intended for the south wall was never realised.[70]

20th century: modernisation versus restoration[edit]

The Awakening of the Muses (1933), a mosaic by Boris Anrep

Later additions to the west came more steadily but maintained the coherence of the building by mirroring Barry's cross-axis plan to the east. The use of dark marble for doorcases was also continued, giving the extensions a degree of internal consistency with the older rooms. The classical style was still in use at the National Gallery in 1929, when a Beaux-Arts–style gallery was built, funded by the art dealer and trustee Lord Duveen. However, it was not long before the 20th-century reaction against Victorian attitudes became manifest at the gallery. From 1928 to 1952, the landing floors of Taylor's entrance hall were relaid with a new series of mosaics by Boris Anrep, who was friendly with the Bloomsbury Group. These mosaics can be read as a satire on 19th-century conventions for the decoration of public buildings, as typified by the Albert Memorial's Frieze of Parnassus.[71] The central mosaic depicting The Awakening of the Muses includes portraits of Virginia Woolf and Greta Garbo, subverting the high moral tone of its Victorian forebears. In place of Christianity's seven virtues, Anrep offered his own set of Modern Virtues, including "Humour" and "Open Mind"; the allegorical figures are again portraits of his contemporaries, including Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell and T. S. Eliot.[72]

In the 20th century, the gallery's late Victorian interiors fell out of fashion.[73] The Crace ceiling decorations in the entrance hall were not to the taste of the director Charles Holmes, and were obliterated by white paint.[74] The North Galleries, which opened to the public in 1975, marked the arrival of modernist architecture at the National Gallery. In the older rooms, the original classical details were effaced by partitions, daises and suspended ceilings, the aim being to create neutral settings which did not distract from contemplation of the paintings. But the gallery's commitment to modernism was short-lived: by the 1980s Victorian style was no longer considered anathema, and a restoration programme began to restore the 19th- and early 20th-century interiors to their purported original appearance. This began with the refurbishment of the Barry Rooms in 1985–1986. From 1996 to 1999 even the North Galleries, by then considered to "lack a positive architectural character", were remodelled in a classical style, albeit a simplified one.[47]

Sainsbury Wing and later additions[edit]

Sainsbury Wing
The Sainsbury Wing, as built, seen from Trafalgar Square
ArchitectRobert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates
Architectural style(s)Postmodernist
Listed Building – Grade I
Official nameSainsbury Wing at the National Gallery
Designated9 May 2018
Reference no.1451082[75]

The most important addition to the building in the late 20th century was the Sainsbury Wing, designed by the postmodernist architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to house the collection of Renaissance paintings and built in 1991. The building occupies the "Hampton's site" to the west of the main building, where a department store of the same name had stood until its destruction in the Blitz. The gallery had long sought expansion into this space[citation needed] and in 1982 a competition was held to find a suitable architect; the shortlist included a radical high-tech proposal by Richard Rogers, among others. The design that won the most votes was by the firm Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, who then modified their proposal to include a tower, similar to that of the Rogers scheme. The proposal was dropped after the Prince of Wales compared the design to a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend".[76] The term "monstrous carbuncle", for a modern building that clashes with its surroundings, has since become commonplace.[77][78]

One of the conditions of the 1982 competition was that the new wing had to include commercial offices as well as public gallery space. However, in 1985 it became possible to devote the extension entirely to the gallery's uses, due to a donation of almost £50 million from Lord Sainsbury and his brothers Simon and Sir Tim Sainsbury. A closed competition was held, and the schemes produced were noticeably more restrained than in the earlier competition.

The main enfilade of the Sainsbury Wing

In contrast with the rich ornamentation of the main building, the galleries in the Sainsbury Wing are pared down and intimate, to suit the smaller scale of many of the paintings.[citation needed] The main inspirations for these rooms are Sir John Soane's toplit galleries for the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the church interiors of Filippo Brunelleschi. (The stone dressing is in pietra serena, the grey stone local to Florence.)[79] The northernmost galleries align with Barry's central axis, so that there is a single vista down the whole length of the gallery. This axis is exaggerated by the use of false perspective, as the columns flanking each opening gradually diminish in size until the visitor reaches the focal point (as of 2009), an altarpiece by Cima of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.[needs update] Venturi's postmodernist approach to architecture is in full evidence at the Sainsbury Wing, with its stylistic quotations from buildings as disparate as the clubhouses on Pall Mall, the Scala Regia in the Vatican, Victorian warehouses and Ancient Egyptian temples.

Following the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, the gallery is currently[when?] engaged in a masterplan to convert the vacated office space on the ground floor into public space. The plan will also fill in disused courtyards and make use of land acquired from the adjoining National Portrait Gallery in St Martin's Place, which it gave to the National Gallery in exchange for land for its 2000 extension. The first phase, the East Wing Project designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, opened to the public in 2004. This provided a new ground level entrance from Trafalgar Square, named in honour of Sir Paul Getty. The main entrance was also refurbished, and reopened in September 2005. Possible future projects include a "West Wing Project" roughly symmetrical with the East Wing Project, which would provide a future ground level entrance, and the public opening of some small rooms at the far eastern end of the building acquired as part of the swap with the National Portrait Gallery. This might include a new public staircase in the bow on the eastern façade. No timetable has been announced for these additional projects.[needs update]

Renovation of the Sainsbury Wing[edit]

In April 2021, a jury short-listed six firms of architects – Caruso St John, David Chipperfield Architects, Asif Kahn, David Kohn Architects, Selldorf Architects, and Witherford Watson Mann Architects – in a competition for design proposals to upgrade the Sainsbury Wing.[80]

In 2024, excavations for the Sainsbury Wing extension at Jubilee Walk uncovered evidence that the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic extended further to the west than had previously been supposed.[81]


In the National Gallery on 10 March 1914, Velázquez's Rokeby Venus was damaged by Mary Richardson, a campaigner for women's suffrage, in protest against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day. Later that month another suffragette attacked five Bellinis, causing the gallery to close until the start of the First World War, when the Women's Social and Political Union called for an end to violent acts drawing attention to their plight.[82]

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya

In August 1961 an unemployed bus driver, Kempton Bunton, stole Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, in what remains the only successful theft from the gallery.[83] Four years later, Bunton returned the painting voluntarily. Following a high-profile trial, he was found not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the frame.[84]

In July 1987, a man entered the gallery armed with a shotgun concealed under his coat and shot Leonardo's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. The man, Robert Cambridge, told police that his intent had been to express his disgust with "political, social and economic conditions in Britain". Though the pellets did not penetrate the cartoon, it had to undergo extensive restoration. It was placed back on display the following year.[85]

Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers was attacked at the gallery on 14 October 2022 by environmental activists from the Just Stop Oil campaign, who threw tomato soup at it.[86] Due to the protection of the plexiglass, the painting was not harmed, but there was some minor damage to the frame, according to a spokesperson for the gallery.[86]

On 6 November 2023, the Rokeby Venus was again attacked, by two Just Stop Oil activists who smashed its protective glass with hammers.[87][88]

List of directors[edit]

Directors[89][note 6]
Name Tenure
Sir Charles Lock Eastlake 1855–1865
Sir William Boxall 1866–1874
Sir Frederic William Burton 1874–1894
Sir Edward Poynter 1894–1904
Sir Charles Holroyd 1906–1916
Sir Charles Holmes 1916–1928
Sir Augustus Daniel 1929–1933
Sir Kenneth Clark 1934–1945
Sir Philip Hendy 1946–1967
Sir Martin Davies 1968–1973
Sir Michael Levey 1973–1986
Neil MacGregor OM 1987–2002
Sir Charles Saumarez Smith 2002–2007
Sir Nicholas Penny 2008–2015
Gabriele Finaldi 2015–present

Collection highlights[edit]

Transport connections[edit]

Service Station/stop Lines/routes served Distance
from National Gallery
London Buses London Buses Trafalgar Square / Charing Cross Station Disabled access 24, 29, 176
Trafalgar Square Disabled access 6, 9, 13, 15,139
Trafalgar Square / Charing Cross Station Disabled access 3, 12, 88, 159, 453
Trafalgar Square Disabled access 3, 6, 12, 13, 15, 23, 88, 139, 159, 453
London Underground London Underground Charing Cross Bakerloo line
Northern line
Embankment Bakerloo line
Circle line
District line
Northern line
0.3-mile walk[90]
National Rail National Rail Charing Cross Disabled access Southeastern (train operating company) 0.2-mile walk[91]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sculptures and applied art are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum houses earlier art, non-Western art, prints and drawings, and art of a later date is at Tate Modern. Some British art is in the National Gallery, but the National Collection of British Art is mainly in Tate Britain.
  2. ^ The opening date is said to have been 10 May 1824, but there is a record of a visit by Agar Ellis on 5 May during which he met the Keeper, William Seguier, who remarked that opening the gallery to the public free of charge had already proved to be a success, "and that all the people are very orderly and well-behaved". (Smith 2009, p. 27)
  3. ^ St Martin's Workhouse (to the east) was cleared for the construction of E. M. Barry's extension, whereas St George's Barracks stayed until 1911, supposedly because of the need for troops to be at hand to quell disturbances in Trafalgar Square. (Conlin 2006, p. 401) Wilkins had hoped for more land to the south, but was denied it as building there would have obscured the view of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
  4. ^ They are as follows: above the main entrance, a blank roundel (originally to feature the Duke of Wellington's face) flanked by two female figures (personifications of Europe and Asia/India, sites of his campaigns) and high up on the eastern façade, Minerva by John Flaxman, originally Britannia.
  5. ^ Summerson's "mantelpiece" comparison inspired the title of Conlin's 2006 history of the National Gallery, The Nation's Mantelpiece (op. cit.).
  6. ^ The role of director was created in 1855, 31 years after the gallery's founding.



  1. ^ "British Museum is the most-visited UK attraction again". BBC News. 18 March 2024. Retrieved 18 March 2024.
  2. ^ "Our history | About us | National Gallery, London". www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  3. ^ "Constitution". The National Gallery. Archived from the original on 6 April 2010.
  4. ^ Gentili, Barcham & Whiteley 2000, p. 7.
  5. ^ Chilvers, Ian (2003). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Oxford Oxford University Press, p. 413. The formula was used by Michael Levey, later the gallery's eleventh director, for the title of a popular survey of European painting: Levey, Michael (1972). From Giotto to Cézanne: A Concise History of Painting. London: Thames and Hudson
  6. ^ Potterton 1977, p. 8.
  7. ^ a b c Taylor 1999, pp. 29–30.
  8. ^ Moore, Andrew (2 October 1996). "Sir Robert Walpole's pictures in Russia". Magazine Antiques. Archived from the original on 16 October 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  9. ^ Penny 2008, p. 466.
  10. ^ Fullerton, Peter (1979). Some aspects of the early years of the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom 1805–1825. MA dissertation, Courtauld Institute of Art., p. 37
  11. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 45.
  12. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 51.
  13. ^ Crookham 2009, p. 43.
  14. ^ a b Taylor 1999, pp. 36–37.
  15. ^ a b 'Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery', Survey of London: volume 20: St Martin-in-the-Fields, pt III: Trafalgar Square & Neighbourhood (1940), pp. 15–18. Date accessed: 15 December 2009.
  16. ^ MacGregor 2004, p. 30.
  17. ^ Quoted in Langmuir 2005, p. 11
  18. ^ Robertson, David (2004). "Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock (1793–1865)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ Grove Dictionary of Art, Vol. 9, p. 683
  20. ^ Bomford 1997, p. 7.
  21. ^ a b c Baker, Christopher and Henry, Tom (2001). "A short history of the National Gallery" in The National Gallery: Complete Illustrated Catalogue. London: National Gallery Company, pp. x–xix
  22. ^ Crookham 2012, p. 56.
  23. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 72–73.
  24. ^ Conlin 2006, pp. 87–89.
  25. ^ Smith 2009, p. 93.
  26. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 107.
  27. ^ "The Mond Bequest". National Gallery. Archived from the original on 2 November 2005.
  28. ^ Quoted in Conlin 2006, p. 131
  29. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 132.
  30. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 131.
  31. ^ "Scenes from Tebaldeo's Eclogues". National Gallery. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  32. ^ Bosman 2008, p. 25.
  33. ^ MacGregor 2004, p. 43.
  34. ^ "The Gallery in wartime". The National Gallery. Retrieved 11 November 2023.
  35. ^ Bosman 2008, p. 79.
  36. ^ "The Myra Hess concerts". The National Gallery-History. The National Gallery. Retrieved 11 November 2023.
  37. ^ Bosman 2008, p. 35.
  38. ^ Farr, Dennis (2006). "Empathy for Art and Artists: Lillian Browse, 1906–2005". Newsletter of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Issue 21: Spring 2006. Accessed March 2012. Archived 7 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ Clark, Sir Kenneth (1942). Exhibition of Paintings by Sir William Nicholson and Jack B. Yeats, exhibition catalogue. London: National Gallery.
  40. ^ Reed, Patricia (2011). William Nicholson: Catalogue raisonné of the Oil Paintings. London; New Haven: Modern Art Press, Yale University Press. ISBN 978 0 300 17054 2. pp. 636–638
  41. ^ Bosman 2008, pp. 91–93.
  42. ^ Bosman 2008, p. 99.
  43. ^ Walden 2004, p. 176.
  44. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 429.
  45. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 435.
  46. ^ "Sir Denis Mahon". Cronaca. 23 February 2003. Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
  47. ^ a b Gaskell 2000, pp. 179–182.
  48. ^ "About | Jock McFadyen".
  49. ^ Bailey, Martin (2 November 2005). "National Gallery may start acquiring 20th-century art". The Art Newspaper. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  50. ^ Gayford, Martin (23 April 2007). "Wanted – National Gallery Chief to Muster Cash". Archived from the original on 19 October 2008. Retrieved 21 March 2009. {{cite news}}: Unknown parameter |= ignored (help)
  51. ^ Malik, Shiv (10 October 2012). "Arms manufacturer halts National Gallery sponsorship after protests". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  52. ^ Jaschik, Scott (12 February 2014). "Randolph sale of art to National Gallery sparks criticism". Inside Higher Ed. Archived from the original on 28 December 2014. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  53. ^ Khomami, Nadia (6 April 2018). "National Gallery's £22 ticket revives debate over exhibition prices". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  54. ^ "Ms A Braine and others v The National Gallery: 2201625/2018". GOV.UK.
  55. ^ "National Gallery group win workers' rights". BBC News. 1 March 2019.
  56. ^ Bowcott, Owen (1 March 2019). "National Gallery lecturers win right to be recognised as workers". The Guardian.
  57. ^ "No artful dodge for UK National Gallery at gig tribunal". globallegalpost.com.
  58. ^ "NG200". www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Retrieved 21 May 2024.
  59. ^ Historic England. "National Gallery (1066236)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  60. ^ Liscombe 1980, pp. 180–182.
  61. ^ a b Summerson 1962, pp. 208–209.
  62. ^ Grove Dictionary of Art, Vol. 33, p. 192.
  63. ^ Smith 2009, p. 49.
  64. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 60.
  65. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 367.
  66. ^ a b Smith 2009, p. 50.
  67. ^ Conlin 2006, pp. 384–385.
  68. ^ Barker & Hyde 1982, pp. 116–117.
  69. ^ Conlin 2006, p. 396.
  70. ^ a b Conlin 2006, p. 399.
  71. ^ Conlin 2006, pp. 404–405.
  72. ^ Oliver 2004, p. 54.
  73. ^ See for example National Gallery (corporate author) (1974). The Working of the National Gallery. London: National Gallery Publishing, p. 8: "the National Gallery has suffered from the visual pretentiousness of its 19th century buildings". The modernist North Galleries opened the following year.
  74. ^ They were restored only in 2005. Jury, Louise (14 June 2004). "A Victorian masterpiece emerges from beneath the whitewash". The Independent. Archived from the original on 16 October 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  75. ^ Historic England. "Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery (1451082)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  76. ^ "A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Royal Gala Evening at Hampton Court Palace". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 16 June 2007.
  77. ^ "Prince's new architecture blast". BBC News. 21 February 2005. Retrieved 16 June 2007.
  78. ^ "No cash for 'highest slum'". BBC News. 9 February 2001. Retrieved 16 June 2007.
  79. ^ "AD Classics: Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery London / Venturi Scott Brown". ArchDaily. 3 October 2018. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  80. ^ Matt Hickman (8 April 2021), Selldorf Architects among six shortlisted firms for National Gallery revamp in London The Architect's Newspaper.
  81. ^ "Excavation Reveals Ancient Town Beneath London's National Gallery". Artnet. 18 February 2024. Retrieved 11 March 2024.
  82. ^ Spalding 1998, p. 39.
  83. ^ Iqbal, Nosheen; Jonze, Tim (22 January 2020). "In pictures: The greatest art heists in history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  84. ^ Serpell, Nick (14 November 2017). "The QC, Lady Chatterley and nude Romans". BBC News.
  85. ^ "Restoring a Leonardo Drawing That Was Hit by a Shotgun Blast". The New York Times. 8 November 1988.
  86. ^ a b Harris, Gareth (14 October 2022). "Van Gogh's Sunflowers covered in tomato soup by eco activists". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 14 October 2022.
  87. ^ Holl-Allen, Genevieve (6 November 2023). "Just Stop Oil protesters smash National Gallery painting". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 6 November 2023.
  88. ^ "Just Stop Oil protesters smash National Gallery painting". The Independent. 6 November 2023. Retrieved 6 November 2023.
  89. ^ "Directors". The National Gallery. Retrieved 17 August 2020.
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  91. ^ "Google Maps". Google Maps.

General sources[edit]

  • Barker, Felix; Hyde, Ralph (1982). London As It Might Have Been. London: John Murray.
  • Bomford, David (1997). Conservation of Paintings. London: National Gallery Company.
  • Bosman, Suzanne (2008). The National Gallery in Wartime. London: National Gallery Company.
  • Conlin, Jonathan (2006). The Nation's Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery. London: Pallas Athene.
  • Crookham, Alan (2009). The National Gallery. An Illustrated History. London: National Gallery Company.
  • ——— (2012). "The Turner Bequest at the National Gallery". In Warrell, Ian (ed.). Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 51–65.
  • Gaskell, Ivan (2000). Vermeer's Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums. London: Reaktion.
  • Gentili, Augusto; Barcham, William; Whiteley, Linda (2000). Paintings in the National Gallery. London: Little, Brown & Co.
  • Jencks, Charles (1991). Post-Modern Triumphs in London. London and New York: Academy Editions, St. Martin's Press.
  • Langmuir, Erika (2005). The National Gallery Companion Guide. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Liscombe, R. W. (1980). William Wilkins, 1778–1839. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • MacGregor, Neil (2004). "A Pentecost in Trafalgar Square". In Cuno, James (ed.). Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. Princeton and Cambridge: Princeton University Press and Harvard University Art Museums. pp. 27–49.
  • Oliver, Lois (2004). Boris Anrep: The National Gallery Mosaics. London: National Gallery Company.
  • Penny, Nicholas (2008). National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume II, Venice 1540–1600. London: National Gallery Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85709-913-3.
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus; Bradley, Simon (2003). The Buildings of England London 6: Westminster. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Potterton, Homan (1977). The National Gallery, London. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Shenton, Caroline (2021). National Treasures: Saving the Nation's Art in World War II (Hardback). London: John Murray. ISBN 978-1-529-38743-8.
  • Smith, Charles Saumarez (2009). The National Gallery: A Short History. London: Frances Lincoln Limited.
  • Spalding, Frances (1998). The Tate: A History. London: Tate Gallery Publishing.
  • Summerson, John (1962). Georgian London. London: Penguin.
  • Taylor, Brandon (1999). Art for the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747–2001. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Walden, Sarah (2004). The Ravished Image: An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks. London: Gibson Square.
  • Whitehead, Christopher (2005). The Public Art Museum in Nineteenth Century Britain. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

External links[edit]