The Building of the National Gallery

'The edifice is hardly a fine one in itself, nor is it considered in any sense adequate to its national object. Most persons agree that the main front is too much cut up in petty detail, and some have even nicknamed it "the National Cruet-Stand", evidently suggested by the pepperbox-shaped cupolas with which it is crowned."

(From a 19th Century magazine)

William Wilkins, the architect, had several problems, due to a series of exacting conditions on the nature of the building:

Despite the cost limitation, it was important that such a nationally important building should be suitably grand. Fortunately, some excellently grand columns were available, from the nearby recently demolished Carlton House. So a final condition on the architect was that his design should incorporate these pillars. With all these constraints, the architect must be excused a few faults.

The constraint that did not hold, in the end, was the cost one, and in typical architect's fashion, Wilkins felt able to breezily ignore it, coming up with a final bill of around 75,000 pounds. From the very beginning, the gallery was too small. By the late 1840s a lively debate was in progress as to what to do. In 1848 Lord Russell, Sir Robert Peel, Hume and other worthies of the House of Commons declared they were unanimously concurred in the opinion that the gallery should be enlarged. By 1850 these same gentlemen, acting on a different committee, advised against actually spending any money to accomplish this. They did coyly suggest that perhaps the pictures ought to be moved somewhere less dusty outside central London - a laudable early consideration of picture conservation. Architects and others were quick to come up with solutions:

Land was eventually bought in Kensington Gore, opposite Hyde Park, using 167,000 voted for the purpose and adding in the profits from the Great Exhibition. This was to be the site of Albertopolis, but when it came to the National Gallery, in the end the House of Commons voted against moving it. So it had to stay in Trafalgar Square.

If the paintings could not be moved, then at least the people could be - the Royal Academy was eased out by 1868, taking up residence in Burlington House, whose destruction had been contemplated not so many years before. It was also decided that part of the National Collection of Paintings could be moved, and the Vernon and Sheepshanks Collections were removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. By the end of the century, the British Collection had been transferred to the new Tate Gallery, sans the Vernon and Sheepshanks Collections which the V&A were loth to give up, and with it the continuous trickle of new British works purchased under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. In more recent years, as the collection expanded again, the National Gallery reserve collection was displayed in the basement of the building. The carpark site next to the building was mooted as a suitable extension site, but the cost proved too great. Various ideas were put forward, with the voices of Barbarism arguing for a 'gallery with modern offices above'. Fortunately, Messrs Sainsbury's, the owners of the supermarket chain, in the spirit of Victorian philanthropism, finally paid for the construction of a wholly art-devoted addition. The architect chosen was Venturi, who opted for a facade fitting in with the existing architecture so far as was possible within a modern design. The new addition was opened in the early 1990s and holds the collection of Italian religious works of art - which before had mostly languished in the basement along with the reserve collection. The new galleries tend to the small and intimate rather than the large and grand. A criticism would be that the modern nature of the extension required an entrance hall, restaurant, lecture hall, extra shop and other accoutrements of overly generous size, when they could have been made more modest and the picture galleries larger. On the other hand, the large granite staircase is quite grand, and there is a good interconnecting passage to the older buildings where one can sit and look at the people passing underneath.

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Royal Academy // Art in London // Background Information // Trafalgar Square