Galleries – from long to national

Imagine a large palatial house, built to accommodate one family and a couple hundred servants. While the servants toil, the wealthy occupants have plenty of time on their hands. They would hunt, dine, make music, invite guests and entertain. On a rainy day, the ladies would walk up and down the long gallery, exercising and gossiping
The gallery would present the best place to show off the family’s paintings, the portraits of ancestors and current occupants, like photographs in an album. Imagine the pride in knowing you can afford to have the best artists paint you and your property, the parks and gardens, the horses and pets even.
Those artists are known as the Old Masters, and these days you’ll likely find many of their artworks homed in a different kind of gallery – the national galleries. When the aristocracy lost power and wealth, their families’ collections of landscapes and portraits were sold to maintain the properties. What was left, the individual works, might be donated or loaned, supplementing the growing national collections.
There is another type of gallery. The modern commercial art gallery, established to sell and promote artists, relies on the reputation of the artist or dealer to make an impression. Artists are often local, their status unknown, the ambitions unrealised. In years to come, who knows…
The prestigious museum galleries put great emphasis on the provenance of an object. Proving an artwork is an original piece and not a fake or copy can take years of persuading the experts.

There were several attempts to set up a national art gallery in England. While sovereign states in Europe were nationalising collections, the United Kingdom’s royal collection of art remained a private one in the palaces. Other collections existed, and when they came up for sale, there would be competition between the countries. The British government in 1777 failed to buy one such art collection, so Catherine the Great snapped it up and put it in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
It wasn’t until 1823 the British government finally a acquired a collection, the Angerstein, and in 1824 the National galley was opened in Angerstein’s townhouse. Not exactly the spacious long gallery of old houses. It was a bit embarrassing.
The new building next to Trafalgar Square began in 1832, a pivotal location, the transection of the wealthy West End and poorer East London. The collection grew, especially in the 20th Century when the agricultural crisis resulted in the rich landed gentry selling off their paintings.
The Wilkins building, with its necessary Classical columns, wasn’t an easy construction project. Only one room deep, pinned in by a workhouse and barracks, the critics hammered it: ‘little gin shop of a building’ (Thackeray).
(Oh dear.)
Extensions were added including a dome. Then the controversial Sainsbury Wing in 1991, described by Prince Charles as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’. But the prince is used to the long galleries of Buckingham Palace.
The National Gallery might have had a slow, difficult start, but it has overcome these because of those Old Masters, and new ones. You can go on a virtual tour and find out for yourself, then pop next door to the National Portrait Gallery (fab for finding the famous historical Brits.)
Galleries, once for the elite and wealthy, are now numerous, whether in a small seaside town, or national capital. You never known, a small purchase might in years to come be viewed as a prized artwork is an important public gallery.

Do you own any artwork?



  1. I enjoy going to art galleries. It is a long time since I visited the London galleries. I was able to see the Buckingham Palace galleries, when I visited the Coronation Exhibition in 2013. The audio narrative to the tour included a welcome from Prince Charles.

    Good(ness) #AtoZChallenge

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a long time since I’ve been to London galleries. I’ve been to New York more recently.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much for telling the history of the National Gallery. We visited it several times when being in London but didn’t know about its history.
    Thanks for sharing.
    All the best.
    Keep well
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You may recall that I nearly fell down the stairs at the Ashmolean. Well, at the National Gallery, I fell flat on my face as I walked in the door.

    On the upside, I was really happy to see van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” and Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emaus” in person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad there was an upside to your falling down. If you read my Fitzwilliam post, you’ll see it could have been much worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve visited both the National Galleries, could spend days wandering round them both. My partner does enough painting that we could turn our house into a gallery!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps you could put on an exhibition?


  5. Wendy Janes · · Reply

    Fascinating – makes me long to hop on a train up to London to visit the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery again. Maybe one day soon… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to hop on to London but now plans at the moment.


  6. Loved both galleries when I visited a long time ago now. I have bought a couple of originals. Nothing big and probably nothing valuable but they both “spoke” to me as people like to say. One is an ink painting of a black cat doing what black cats like to do. The other is of the wonderful Blue Mountains which I miss very much. Thanks for the history lesson. I had no idea.


  7. So interesting to learn how national galleries developed in the UK. There are a couple of decent art galleries, operated by cities they’re in that I enjoy going to with artwork by well-known artists. We’ve had some visiting exhibitions come through also. I like the idea of art belonging to the people, housed in a public place for all to enjoy.

    My “G” Jethro Tull song is here:

    A2Z 2021 Jethro Tull Songs Day 7 – Glory Row from War Child (1974)


  8. I won’t have any art hanging on my walls that isn’t original — this is because there are so many artists in little local art shows, not famous, not expensive, but still so talented, that you do not need to be rich to own original art. You should buy art not because it’s worth a lot of money but because it’s worth a lot to you, because you love it! And supporting artists is always deeply appreciated. (I am myself an artist, so that also makes it easier — I can always make something of my own to fill a space on the wall. but mostly I try to buy from fellow artists at shows.)
    Black and White: G for Gont


    1. I only have original art in my home too; my own or by somebody in my family. But nothing painted, I can’t paint. I don’t have much wall space unfortunately.


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