Trafalgar Square Redux 9 – The National Gallery

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time. Streets ahead.


It’s February 19th, 2024 and we’re going back to Trafalgar Square. To the National Gallery. And for this London calling podcast all three constituent parts are woven together. They’re all cut from the same cloth. P for Pin – the news story pinned to the start of the podcast is about the National Gallery. As is R for Random – our Random factoid that’s always the second element of the London Walks podcast. It, too, is a National Gallery tidbit. And ditto O for Ongoing. The milestone pointing ahead of us, To London. Today’s Ongoing is also a National Gallery story.

Ok, pin first. The news story. Archaeologists have just announced that excavations underneath the National Gallery show that the urban centre of Saxon London extended further west than previously thought. The archaeological dig unearthed a hearth, postholes, stakeholes, pits, ditches and levelling deposits. The hearth was radiocarbon dated to 669 to 774 AD. Early Anglo-Saxon London is known as Londonwich. It’s a different London from Londinium, Roman London. Roman London was over in what we call The City today. Where St Paul’s and Guildhall and the Bank of England are. The financial district. Roman London was abandoned in the 5th century. When the Anglo-Saxons pitched up they established a settlement where the Strand and Covent Garden are today. That was Lundenwic, Anglo-Saxon London. And until this recent archaeological excavation under part of the National Gallery it was thought that the western end of Lundenwic was a hundred yards east or so of Trafalgar Square. The findings from the National Gallery excavation show beyond a doubt that Lundenwic covered a wider area than previously thought, that the National Gallery stands on its western boundary. If you’re a London obsessive – and there’s something wrong with you if you’re not – it’s going to be really satisfying to be in the National Gallery looking at a Rembrandt or Turner and suddenly entertain the passing thought, ‘beneath where I’m standing Anglo-Saxons were warming themselves at a hearth 1400 years ago.’

Ok. Moving on. Our Random. Much loved today, the National Gallery came in for a lot of stick in its early days.

Dickens gave it a good verbal flaying. He said,

“this unhappy structure may be said to have everything it ought not to have, and nothing which it ought to have. It possesses windows without glass, a cupola without size, a portico without height, pepper boxes without pepper, and the finest site in Europe without anything to show upon it.”

The pepper boxes without pepper were of course the architectural echo of the foul air vents that rose from the roof of the Royal Mews that stood there previously. I went over that ground in the late January podcast, Trafalgar Square Redux 7.

Now famously Londoners are good at coming up with clever, apt, witty nicknames for London buildings. By way of example, The Gherkin, also known as The Suppository, the nicknames Londoners have bestowed on the Swiss Re building in the City of London. In the same area, the Fenchurch Building has been dubbed the walkie-talkie. Also in the City, the Leadenhall Building is known as the Cheesegrater. Over the river, the Shard of course. As names go that cuts right through in ways that its official name, London Bridge Tower, can’t lay a glove on. And then there’s the 52-storey tower just over the river from Blackfriars station. It’s been called the Tummy or the Pregnant Tower. Though the nickname that gets my vote is the Kardashian. I see the building as having a big rump rather than a baby bump.

Anyway, yes, not so far off now from its 200th birthday, the National Gallery, in its early days, got the same treatment. Because of its roofline it was known, derisively, as the National Cruet Stand. National Cruet Stand was just one sling of outrageous fortune. People also said the roof looked like a clock and vases on a suburban mantlepiece.

Poor William Wilkins, the architect. The building’s shortcomings ruined his reputation. The storm of criticism was so severe some say it crushed his spirit and hastened his death. He died on August 31st, 1839, his 61st birthday. Just over a year after the building was finished.

The National Gallery opened on April 9th, 1838. I was curious about when it first attracted that jeering, oozing with contempt nickname, National Cruet Stand. Turns out the National Gallery was coming in for that stick even before it was finished. The earliest printed reference popped up in the London News on Sunday, April 9th, 1837. That’s exactly a year before the National Gallery opened. And what a hiding the London News gave the structure, in that short sentence. It’s not just the first use of that derisive nickname National Cruet Stand. The London News doubled down, calling the cupola a “large sugar-castor.”

Poor William Wilkins. You really hope the London News wasn’t on his breakfast table that Sunday morning. Here’s the blast from the London News flamethrower.

“The completion of the large sugar-castor in the centre of the national cruet stand at Charing-cross, proceeds as slowly as if the genius of good taste actually undid in the night what its opposite effected during the day.”

So you see, they’re also finding fault with the delays in getting the building finished.

And at no little risk of belabouring the obvious, the opposite of the genius of good taste is the genius of bad taste.

Here endeth today’s Random.

Time for the main event, the main course – the Ongoing. Our engagement with London. Time to wander. And wonder. Wander to the National Gallery. And walk around it. Take a good look at it. Make the familiar…new.

Poor William Wilkins. He got the stick. But he was just carrying out orders. The powers that be told him, “build us a picture gallery and hey you can do it anyway you want. Providing you do it with these six provisos. Needless to say, the six provisos turned out to be a straitjacket.

Proviso One I tackled in that earlier podcast. The roofline had to echo the roofline of the Royal Mews that had previously occupied the site. Thus what Dickens called pepper pots without pepper. They were a visual echo of the foul air vents that stood at either end of the mews.

Proviso two: the roof-line of the National Gallery couldn’t be higher than the roof-line of the old church, St Martin in the Fields, just over the way. If it was death by six cuts, that was the second slash. Wilkins wanted the National Gallery to have a second storey. It would have made it more spacious – they could hang more paintings – and more imposing, grander, more assured. But it wasn’t to be. No, you can’t give it any height.

The third proviso was “build it further back than the mews, so it doesn’t block the view.” Block the view to the admittedly handsome, columned, pedimented front of the church.

Fourth proviso, there’s got to be room behind it for a new barracks. So not only could Wilkins not go up, he also couldn’t go deep. The National Gallery had to be thin, almost emaciated.

Fifth proviso, build us a building that makes use of the Carlton House columns. Carlton House was the town residence of King George IV. The most extravagant, prodigal and feckless of all British monarchs he’d got it into his head that neither the official royal residence of St James’ Palace nor his parents’ house Buckingham House – the future Buckingham Palace – was suitable for his needs. So he had Carlton House built. It was the most tremendous mansion. It stood where Carlton House terrace stands today. Carlton House Terrace is there because in no time at all George IV decided that, like St James’ Palace and Buckingham House, Carlton House also wasn’t up to snuff. It was demolished. The columns that fronted it were very fine. It seemed a shame to break them up. They said, “got it, we can repurpose them – we’ll get that architect to make use of them in that new National Gallery he’s designing.” So, yes, he had to find a use for them, had to design his building to accommodate the Carlton House columns. And there they are. But here’s a bit of London Walks fun for you. The National Gallery gets millions of visitors every year.

And there is of course an equestrian statue of George IV right out front, in Trafalgar Square. You’ll be the select few. None of those millions of visitors will know what you know. Which is, if you’re standing on the portico of the National Gallery, with those columns right in front of you, standing there looking at George IV, well, behind those columns,

when they were on the front of Carlton House, behind those columns was where the first proclamation of George IV’s accession was made on that January day in 1820. That’s fun to know.

And so we come to the sixth proviso. The final proviso. Had to do with the length of the building. Wilkins was told he had to leave a right of way for the public up one side of the Gallery and a passage for the Guards to get to their barracks up the other side.

Poor Wilkins. He couldn’t go tall. He couldn’t go deep. He couldn’t go long. The powers that be told him, “you’ve got carte blanche, you design it how you want, you just make sure it’s got the dimensions of a suburban mantelpiece.

You know, something that resembles a suburban mantelpiece with a clock and a couple of vases on it.


You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.m

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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