National Gallery, London

From Academic Kids

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The National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

The National Gallery is an art gallery in London, located on the north side of Trafalgar Square. It holds the National Collection of Art from 1250 to 1900 (subsequent art from the National Collection is housed in Tate Modern). Some British art is included, but the National Collection of British art from this period is mainly in Tate Britain. The collection of 2,300 paintings belongs to the British public, and entry to the main collection is free, though there are charges for entry to special exhibitions. (There is, however, a suggested minimum voluntary donation, paradoxically advertised as helping to keep the Gallery free of charge.)


The Collection

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The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello

Paintings in the National Gallery include:

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Les Grandes Beigneuses by Paul Czanne


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The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, the first painting to enter the National Gallery

The National Gallery was established in 1824, when the art collection of the Russian migr banker John Julius Angerstein was bought by the British government. For the first 14 years of its existence it had to exist in temporary accommodation in Angerstein's former townhouse on 100 Pall Mall. There followed further gifts, by Sir George Beaumont and the Rev. William Holwell Carr, on the condition that a more suitable building was found to house the national collecton, which came in 1838. 15th- and 16th-century Italian paintings were at the core of the new national collection and for the next 30 years the Trustees' independent acquisitions were mainly limited to works by High Renaissance masters.

In the mid-19th collecting tastes changed and the first appointed director, Sir Charles Eastlake, used his absolute authority in the choice of acquisitions to buy works by earlier Italian and Northern masters. The third director, Sir Frederic Burton, laid the foundations of the collection of 18th-century art and made several outstanding purchases from English private collections, including The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. As the National Gallery continued to grow many of the British paintings were transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1897.

In 1906 Velzquez's 'Rokeby Venus', the first high-profile acquisition by the National Art Collections Fund, was the first of many artworks bought by the Fund for the National Gallery. The canvas was slashed in 1914 by the militant suffragette Mary Richardson in protest against the mistreatment of women. During the 19th century the National Gallery contained no works by a contemporary artist, but this situation was belatedly amended by Sir Hugh Lane's bequest of Impressionist paintings in 1917. A fund for the purchase of modern paintings established by Samuel Courtauld in 1924 bought Seurat's Bathers at Asnires and other notable modern works for the nation. At the outbreak of World War II the paintings were exiled to safety in a quarry above the town of Ffestiniog in North Wales while the building was used as a concert hall.

Recent benefactors to the National Gallery have included Lord Sainsbury, after whom the Sainsbury Wing is named, Lord Rothschild and Sir Paul Getty.

The Building

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The National Gallery at night, illuminated for an event to promote the launch of a Pepsi commercial

The building on Trafalgar Square was begun in 1837 by William Wilkins. Wilkins's creativity faced a number of constraints, not least having to incorporate columns from the portico of the demolished Carlton House into his faade. Required to house both the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, the building was too small from the beginning. The Royal Academy moved to its present home in Burlington House in 1868, but still the collection continued to grow and required more space. Between 1872 and 1876 an East Wing was added by the classical architect Edward Middleton Barry, and his octagonal vestibule remains the grandest part of the Victorian building. Despite continually being added to piecemeal throughout the following century, the symmetrical plan envisaged by Barry has remained remarkably intact.

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The link between Venturi's Sainsbury Wing and the Wilkins Building, seen from the rear

The most important addition to the building in recent years has been the Sainsbury Wing, designed by the leading postmodernist architect Robert Venturi to house the collection of renaissance paintings and built in 1991. Building on the site had been delayed after Prince Charles infamously denounced a design for an ultra-modern extension to the gallery by the architects Ahrends, Burton and Koralek ( as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an elegant and much-loved friend". It is unsurprising, then, that the Sainsbury Wing is subdued by Venturi's standards, blending in with the Wilkins faade. Although the Sainsbury Wing was a critical success at the time of its opening, as the National Gallery has begun to mount ever more ambitious exhibitions some critics now consider the exhibition galleries in the basement to be too small.

Following the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, the Gallery is currently engaged in a 'masterplan' to convert the vacated office space on the ground floor into public space. The plan will also fill in disused courtyards and make use of land acquired from the adjoining National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road, which it gave to National Gallery in exchange for land for its 2000 extension. The first phase, the East Wing Project designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, opened to the public in 2004. This provided a new ground level entrance from Trafalgar Square.


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The National Gallery, with Sainsbury Wing at far left

Associate Artists

Since 1989 the gallery has run a scheme that gives a studio to contemporary artists to create work based on the permanent collection. They usually hold the position of associate artist for two years and are given an exhibition in the National Gallery at the end of their tenure. There have been six associate artists so far:

Other information

Nearest London Underground stations:

External links

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