Today (April 9) in London History – the National Gallery

The National Gallery opened on April 9th, 1938. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London Calling. Let’s narrow that down. This is London Walks calling. Narrow it down still further, this is the Today in London History podcast. As usual, we’ll start with a Today in London recommendation. 

Download Helena’s July 22nd, 2020 podcast. It’s titled Two Famous National Gallery Paintings. The two paintings are The Graham Children by William Hogarth and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby.  

Download them. Go to the National Gallery. Take up a position in front of those paintings – the Hogarth first, then the Wright – and let Helena tell you about them, tell you what to look for and what it means. See them with her eyes. It’ll make for a rewarding, exhilarating twenty minutes.

Ok, Today in London History.

April 9, 1838. Hugely important day in London’s history.

The day the National Gallery opened.

The birthday of the greatest art gallery in the world. It wasn’t the greatest art gallery in the world on that April day in 1838. It would have to wait – and the world would have to wait – nearly a century before the NG climbed that Everest. But I’ll come to that. That’s certainly a tale worth telling.

First, the nascent collection.That, after all, is the heart of the matter. And then a couple of the principals. And finally a bit of London Walks spadework about the building and its setting.

We have a Russian to thank for the National Gallery. John Julius Angerstein. He was born in St. Petersburg. His father was an English merchant. His mother – well, that is the 64 rouble question. Family tradition has it that his mother was Empress Anna of Russia. Perhaps even better, it was rumoured that Catherine the Great was his mother. Yes, that Catherine the Great, German-born Empress Regnant of Russia. The ancestor of Prince Charles. The owner of 500,000 serfs. Let alone the owner of a prodigious sexual appetite that extended, some said, to carnal relations with Dudley. Dudley was Catherine’s favourite horse and her maids were said to have claimed that the two of them spent too much unsupervised time together. 

Well, try and follow that act, National Gallery.

But seriously – whoever mummy was – and the best guess is that she was Baroness von Prinzen, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine the Great, anyone whoever mummy was, John Julius Angerstein grew up to become a very successful City of London businessman. Insurance – marine insurance in particular – was his field. And, yes, what follows from that is the National Gallery, like the Tate, is probably tarred by that terrible brush. Yes, that’s right –there’s been a great deal of speculation that Angerstein’s firm insured slave ships.

Anyway, he was also an art connoIssieur and collector.

What concentrated parliamentary and royal minds was Angerstein’s death and the subsequent announcement that his fabulous collection would go under the auctioneer’s hammer. It ran to 38 masterpieces, including works by Titian, Claude, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. The necessary steps were taken, the money raised and the paintings were bought for the nation. And voila – that was the nucleus of the National Gallery collection. In its first incarnation, the National Gallery opened to the public on May 10th, 1824. The paintings were initially housed in Angerstein’s former townhouse at 100 Pall Mall. 

Always acutely sensitive to these things, it bothered the powers that be no end that Britain’s national gallery was diminutive compared to the Louvre. So a proper new gallery – of at least a respectable size – had to be built. One suggestion was that William Kent’s Great Mews on the north side of what would become Trafalgar Square be converted into an art gallery. That idea didn’t pass muster and in the end the Great Mews was demolished and the National Gallery we know today – a purpose-built gallery – was erected on the site. The National Gallery architect was William Wilkins. I know him well. Well, in a sense I know him. He was the architect of the main building at University College London – my college. 

By and large he was given carte blanche. The powers that be did say, we’d like you to reuse the columns from Carlton House for the front of the building. And make sure the roofline is the same height as that of St. Martin in the Fields over the way. And do build it far enough back so there’s a clear view of the front of St Martin in the Fields. And keep it narrow, so there’ll be room behind it for a barracks. Oh and be sure to allow for a right of way for the public up the east side and a passage for the Guards at the other end. And the roofline, it should resemble the roofline of the Great Mews. With a balustrade to match the balustrade on St Martin’s. And your idea of a brick facade that’ll never do – it has to be Portland Stone. Otherwise, design away. You’re the architect, get on with it. 

The sixth of those restrictions – the National Gallery’s roofline must recall the roofline of the Great Mews – explains those curious structures – Dickens called them “pepper pots without pepper” toward the two ends of the roof. But I think I’ll keep my powder dry about the specifics. Come on a walk with me and all will be revealed.

Now how do we get from a townhouse on Pall Mall – a townhouse dwarfed by the Louvre – to the greatest art gallery on the planet. Not the largest – but definitely the greatest. We have to leap forward to 1934. The National Gallery has a new director. He’s a very young man. Just 31. His name is Kenneth Clark. He’s the hero of the National Gallery story. He’s the man who turned the National Gallery into the greatest art gallery in the world. Before he got there it was stuffy, it was off-putting – it was much more for dry as dust academics than it was for you and me. Kenneth Clark changed all that. In today’s parlance, he made it user friendly. He had a brilliant acquisitions policy. He worked wonders. So you want to do National Gallery dates the two aces to play are April 9th, 1838 – the day the National Gallery opened in its new building in Trafalgar Square – and 96 years later, the day that young man named Kenneth Clark went bounding up the front steps, the newly appointed director of the National Gallery.

Kenneth Clark, he’s a larger than life character. And he made a huge difference to the life of the city we all love. That’s a potent combination. So I’m going to honour him here by winding this podcast up with an anecdote. His family were shockingly wealthy. They had a castle in Scotland with God knows how many acres. They had a townhouse in Mayfair. Kenneth Clark was born there, 32 Grosvenor Square. They had a fleet of yachts. For most of us one yacht is enough yachts – but not so, Kenneth Clark’s family. They had a fleet of them. They had a chain of hotels in, wait for it, the Riviera. They had a huge spread in Suffolk. Well, you get the idea. Kenneth Clark said of his family, “my family, they were the idle rich. There may have been few families that were richer than mine. There were none that were idler.” Ok, ‘fess up time. That’s a favourite story and I tell it at a favourite spot at a favourite time on my favourite walk. That’d be Sunday morning when we’re in front of Capo di Monte, Kenneth Clark’s beautiful old house on the edge of the West Heath up in Hampstead. On my Hampstead walk, needless to say. 

And that’s all for tonight from London. As the pilot fraternity says, here’s to blue skies and tailwinds for all of you. See you tomorrow. 

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