TAITMAIL Nationalising the National
As del Piombo’s massive and newly cleaned The Raising of Lazarus - the first picture in the collection in 1824 with the accession number NG1 – loomed from the wall, Gabriele Finaldi announced this week that to mark its 200th birthday the National Gallery was at long last going to live up to its title. It’s going national.
The National has raised most of the £95m budget it is going to mark the bicentenary with, and some of the best loved images on its Trafalgar Square walls home will be leaving to tour the nations and regions. There is to be a year long celebration starting in May 2024.
But this is no “levelling-up” political gesture, because the bulk of that money is being spent at home. Work has already begun on making the sprawling building more public friendly in its biggest capital development 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 the outstanding holding of Sir Robert Walpole was offered to the nation. The government dithered, and by the time it had decided graciously to accept it, it had already been snapped up by Catherine the Great to be the core 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.
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 quality.
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, Rembrandt 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. 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 National Gallery on 19 May 1824.
But the Pall Mall building was too pokey, unfavourably compared with Paris’s palatial Louvre. It moved a few doors up Pall Mall, and then to Carlton House Terrace to accommodation that was hardly more spacious. 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 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 concerts.
After the war there was tinkering with the Wilkins building, but in the 1980s the three grocer Sainsbury brothers made a donation that enabled the building of a new wing, on a former car park site. 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 spacious 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.
The comfort and ease of financial supporters of the gallery – it has to raise half of its income – has been neglected, Finaldi believes, and the reshaping of the interior and the bringing into play of underused back buildings will allow for a “Supporters’ House” within the old building, as well as a new research centre with its own entrance.
So much for levelling up. “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.”
But 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 and will use it to explore themes of industry and nostalgia; York Art Gallery gets Monet’s The Water Lily Pond and has commissioned a contemporary artist for a new work taking inspiration from it; Renoir’s Umbrellas goes to Leicester Museum & Gallery where it will go alongside a sound and animation installation bringing it to life; Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam will get Botticelli’s Venus and Mars to show with other Renaissance works and interrogate nudity, gender and setting; Oxford’s Ashmolean will have the 14th century Wilton Diptych to build an exhibition around it about iconography; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery will use Rembrandt’s Self Portrait to inspire young visitors to imagine what they would look like at 35; The Ikon in Birmingham has commissioned a contemporary artist to respond to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria; Constable’s The Hay Wain will go to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to help show how art is responding to the climate crisis; the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth will use Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard to tell the story of how the National Gallery’s collection was moved to the Welsh hillsides in the Second World War; the Walker in Liverpool will get Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, the famous nude (yes, this is she), to challenge traditional readings of it; Ulster Museum gets another Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, to show in natural light beside other works from its collection; and Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal will be at National Galleries Scotland in Edinburgh to be seen with their own Dutch and Flemish paintings.
So some of our most famous pictures which most of the population that owns them can never see go on what the NG calls its Road Trip, funded by donors including Garfield Weston and with digital content provided by Bloomberg. And, here’s the point, these new partnerships will be perpetuated after the year’s celebrations are over, Finaldi said, collaborating in education programmes, workshops and outreach programmes s web as loans. Phil Grabsky’s Exhibitions on Screen will make a feature film for cinemas across the nation.
The culture secretary who crassly told the Arts Council to stop most of its London funding for levelling-up purposes which might yet close ENO has already been consigned to a footnote of history. But properly considered and professionally executed programmes that make a nationally owned collection truly nationally enjoyed will be here for generations.