Standing gracefully like an ancient Greco-Roman temple with magnificent columns and iconic beauty and housing the nation’s invaluable collection of Western European painting from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, the National Gallery, located in Trafalgar Square in central London, tells the story of Western European painting.
Although the building was completed in 1838, the National Gallery was founded more than a decade ago, in 1824, after the British government bought a collection of 38 paintings from the estate of the merchant John Julius Angerstein and the collection was first exhibited on 10 May of that year in the townhouse of Angerstein, located at 100 Pall Mall. Subsequently, with the addition of new collections, it became necessary to properly accommodate the paintings in a more spacious building, especially since the gallery was found to be overcrowded and hot and its diminutive size was a cause of national embarrassment. Construction of a new building for the purpose began in 1832 under the Greek revival architect William Wilkins in Charing Cross, on the site of the King’s Mews, the collection of the equestrian stables of the British Royal Family, which by 1820s was transformed into Trafalgar Square. The location of the building was significantly chosen between the wealthy West End and poorer areas to the east, fulfilling the aim to have an art museum easily accessible by all the members of the society, regardless of class. Nevertheless, after the completion of the neoclassical building, the National Gallery was reopened in the new building to the public in 1838.
Although William Wilkins, the architect of the project, conceived the vision to create a Temple of the Arts, fostering contemporary art through historical example, the site allotted for the building could accommodate only one room, while a workhouse and a barracks lay immediately behind.
Moreover, the commission was impaired and spoilt by financial crunch and the consequent compromise. Even, the building was constrained to incorporate old columns from the demolished Carlton House, the former town residence of King George IV. But the relative shortness of the columnsresulted in an immensely lower elevation, which miserably failed to provide Trafalgar Square with its desired commanding focal point to the north. As a version of the design had been leaked in print media in 1833, the building was the object of public ridicule before it had even been completed.
Subsequently, the building was enlarged several times, in 1860, 1876, 1886, and 1975. However, the first significant alteration of the building was done in 1860-1861 by Sir James Pennethorne, who added the long gallery, worsening the cramped conditions inside the building as it was built over the original entrance hall.
Nevertheless, the gallery, added by Pennethorne, was demolished during the next phase of the renovation of the building, extending northwards of the main entrance by Sir John Taylor. But the Sainsbury Wing, added by the American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in 1991, is the most important addition to the building and is considered to be one of the most elegant, refined andsophisticated wings that managed to bridge the English Classism, modernism and contemporary construction. Since 1856, the historical portraits housed in the National Portrait Gallery were under the responsibility of the National Galleryand modern British art was also displayed at the National Gallery till 1897, when the Tate Gallery was opened.
In continental Europe, art museums were formed by acquiring the royal collection by the state. However, the National Gallery was founded after the British government bought a private collection of only 38 paintings and expanded mainly through private donations, as the British Royal Collection still remains in the possession of the British sovereign. Although its collection of paintings is comparatively smaller than the other renowned museums, it is regarded as the most representative of European works in the world and outside of Italy, its collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, enriched with works by most of the great Florentine and Venetian masters, is rather unrivalled.
The National Gallery’s splendid collection of over 2,300 paintings includes works by various reputed British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Flemish painters, represented by the legendary Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, as well as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Rubens. The Virgin of the Rocks by Da Vinci, The Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael, Diana and Callisto by Titian, Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, Venus at her Mirror by Diego Velázquez, Sunflowers by Van Gogh, are few to name among its amazing collection.
Apart from the spectacular paintings, the National Gallery also houses several magnificent statues of Roman rulers, Greek heroes and legendary figures, as well as a well-built statue of King James II. However, perhaps the most surprising statue housed in the Gallery is that of the American President George Washington, known to be a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the National Gallery in the year 1921.
Just before the outbreak of the Second Great War, the invaluable paintings housed in the gallery were evacuated to different locations in Wales. But during the Battle of France in 1940, when British and French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk, there were discussions about moving the paintings to Canada. However, Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, vehemently opposed the idea and strongly declared that the paintings could be buried in caves or cellars, but not a single picture should leave the islands. Finally, a slate quarry at Manod, in North Wales, was requisitioned for the use of the Gallery. To accommodate the largest paintings in the Manod mine, the entrance was enlarged by using explosives and several small brick ‘bungalows’ were built within the caverns to protect the paintings from variations in humidity and temperature. The paintings were safely transported to Wales by trucks, packed in special cases and the whole collection had been rehabilitated in its new subterranean home by the summer of 1941, where it had to stay for the next four years.