Established in 1824, the National Gallery was established a response to the increase of art purchases by the British government. The first building used for it was No. 100 Pall Mall, the former townhouse of the late John Julius Angerstein, whose estate also contributed to the Gallery’s collection. Construction on the current Gallery building began in 1832 and was completed in 1838, at which time the collection was moved from Angerstein’s house. Today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations not only in London, but the entire world. So what facts can we pull from its galleries?
The Art of Numbers
As of this year the Gallery will be 191 years old. It received 6,031,574 visitors in 2013, which was a 14% increase from 2012. In popularity, it is 2nd only to the British museum within the UK and ranked 7th in the world.
The first collection purchased for the gallery came from Angerstein’s estate, for which the British government paid £57,000. The collection now consists of over 2,300 different works of art.
Art for Everyone
One of the most important aspects of the National Gallery, from its very inception, has been its accessibility to the public. Admission was and continues to be free of charge, and the Gallery largely funds itself from donations, investments, and grants, as well as other income sources. Total income for 2013/2014 was £34.4 million.
For the first twenty years of its life, there was not much organisation of the Gallery at all. The staff was relatively small and the Keeper of the Gallery was largely responsible for its administration. Important decisions were made by a Board of Trustees that didn’t meet regularly. Eventually, complaints about the Gallery’s organisation led to a government enquiry and the creation of a Director position in 1855. By the 1960s, the Keeper position mostly served as a curator, while the Director is responsible for day-to-day administration. The current Director is Dr. Nicholas Penny, who was also the Keeper from 1998-2002.
Another goal of the National Gallery is to promote learning about art. The Royal Academy of Arts was once housed in the National Gallery building at Trafalgar Square. Even though the Academy moved into its own building in 1869, the Gallery remains committed to education, opening itself to students and scholars for research, seminars, and more.
To avoid the destruction of the nation’s treasures during World War II, plans were already in place to move the collection as early as 1938. After the signing of the Munich Accord, the paintings were moved back to the Gallery from Wales, but when war broke out for real in 1939, the paintings were moved again 10 days before war was declared.
While there was once talk in 1869 of completely rebuilding the gallery, it was decided instead to add another gallery, which was completed in 1876 and added seven new rooms to the Gallery. Another wing, the Sainsbury Wing, was constructed in 1985 and completed in 1991, funded by Lord Sainsbury and his brothers. Today the Gallery has a total floor area of 46,396 square metres.
Art in Suffrage
As the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the century grew increasingly frustrated by Parliament’s unwillingness to act, some suffragettes turned to more violent means of expressing their anger at the patriarchal system, including acts of vandalism and arson. One such suffragette, Mary Richardson, smuggled a meat cleaver into the Gallery and used it to slash the Rokeby Venus by Diego Valesquez.
Some of the first pieces of art to great visitors are the mosaics built by Boris Anrep between 1928 and 1933 in the vestibule of the Main Hall. He added another in 1952 depicting “The Modern Virtues” that included many famous faces, including Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, and Virginia Woolf.
An Unexpected Sculpture
While you might expect to see a statue of King James II on the Gallery’s lawns, there is also one of American President George Washington. It was a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the National Gallery in 1921.