The National Gallery, located on Trafalgar Square, houses over 2300 artworks from the 13th to the 20th century, and although it is small in size (at least in comparison with other national galleries in Europe), its collection is encyclopaedic in scope, presenting most major developments in Western painting.
The admission to the gallery is free. It houses works of such prominent artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Turner, Delacroix, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir or van Gogh.
The late 18th century saw the nationalisation of royal or princely art collections across mainland Europe; Great Britain, however, did not follow the continental model. Two-thirds of the entire collection came from private donators and the remaining part was obtained by museum directors from various sources.
The widespread call for a public gallery in the 18th century resulted in the opening of the National Gallery at Pall Mall (Westminster) in 1824. It was, however, frequently overcrowded and hot. Additionally, its diminutive size in comparison with the Louvre in Paris was the cause of common embarrassment. In 1832 construction of a new building designed by William Wilkins, was undertaken on the site of the King’s Mews in an area that had been transformed over the 1820s into Trafalgar Square. The location was significant – it was between the wealthy West End and poorer areas to the east. The building was the object of public ridicule even before its completion. The Gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors, notably Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, and by private donations. In all, Eastlake bought 148 pictures abroad and 46 in Britain.
The Gallery’s lack of space remained acute in this period. This resulted in the creation of the National Gallery of British Art (the Tate Gallery) in 1897. Works by artists born after 1790 were moved to the new gallery on Millbank. The agricultural crisis at the turn of the 20th century caused many aristocratic families to sell their paintings, but the British national collections were priced out of the market by American plutocrats. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II the paintings were evacuated to various locations in Wales, including Penrhyn Castle and the university colleges of Bangor and Aberystwyth. In the post-war years acquisitions have become increasingly difficult for the National Gallery, as the prices for old masters – and even for the Impressionists and Post-impressionists – have risen beyond its means.
The present building of the National Gallery was designed by William Wilkins and constructed from 1832 to 1838. Only the façade onto Trafalgar Square remains essentially unchanged as the building has been expanded piecemeal throughout its history. The building has been criticised for its aesthetics even before it was finished.
Wilkins had hoped to build a ‘Temple of the Arts, nurturing contemporary art through historical example’, but the commission was blighted by parsimony and compromise, and the resulting building was deemed a failure in almost all respects. The site only allowed for the building to be one room deep, as a workhouse and barracks laid immediately behind. The portico incorporated columns from the demolished Carlton House and their relative shortness resulted in an elevation that was deemed excessively low. Also the sculptures on the façade are recycled as they were originally intended for Nash’s Marble Arch, but were abandoned due to his financial problems. The first significant alteration made to the building was the single long gallery added by Sir James Pennethorne in 1861. Ornately decorated in comparison with the rooms by Wilkins, it nonetheless worsened the cramped conditions inside the building, as it was built over the original entrance hall. The workhouse and Pennethorne’s gallery were later demolished and extended northwards of the main entrance. In the 20th century the building experienced its first modernisation and then Victorian restoration tendencies. The most important addition to the building in recent years has been the Sainsbury Wing, designed by postmodernist architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to house the collection of Renaissance paintings, and built in 1991. In contrast with the rich ornamentation of the main building, the galleries in the Sainsbury Wing are pared-down and intimate, to suit the smaller scale of many of the paintings.