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).
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?