Although museums and art galleries are recent inventions, the collection and display of prized objects has a long history. From ancient times people have collected objects thought to have special powers. Effigies of gods, relics of saints, and skulls of deceased ancestors are typical examples. Usually these collections were jealously guarded, and were the province of the wealthy and powerful.
The Louvre in Paris was the first truly public art museum, with origins in the late eighteenth century French Revolution. The idea was to make looted aristocratic treasures available for public view. While notions of public access to great art seem laudable today, reaction against the French Revolution's violent excesses delayed such developments in Britain. Only in 1824 did the National Gallery open, and even then it would be decades before funding and political support would allow the National Gallery to even begin to rival the Louvre. The original collection of paintings, donated by banker John Julius Angerstein, was displayed at Angerstein's house in Pall Mall. Like the Louvre the National Gallery aspired to egalitarian ideals. It's location in Trafalgar Square was chosen because it seemed convenient both for rich visitors coming from the West End, and poor visitors coming from the East End.
The National Gallery now displays thousands of paintings spanning the history of Western art from 1250. 1250 was the date when art began to be given consideration in its own right, rather than existing as an extension of Christianity. Before this date we rarely know the names of artists. But late in the thirteenth century a name emerges, that of Italian painter and architect Giotto di Bondone. It was from Giotto's lifetime that art began to be considered important, and artists began a slow evolution which left their church confines behind. Now of course art seems to have come to rest in places like the grand church-like National Gallery. With such a long history of struggling to leave the confines of overarching institutions, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the more argumentative modern artists have turned on museums and art galleries. Filippo Marinetti made his feelings quite clear when he wrote his Futurist Manifesto in 1909: "Museums: cemeteries!... identical surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another"(quoted Tate Modern The Handbook ed Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson P29). Within the National Gallery is displayed the work of artists who continually went out and showed that art could exist anywhere. An artist like John Constable, regarded as cosily respectable now, caused a stir during his lifetime by sitting in the English countryside painting hay wagons."My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane" he once wrote.
But for all this argumentative rebellion, and claims that art lies anywhere, we instinctively want to separate off what we feel is special. Pictures are put in frames, and then in museums. The desire for orderliness exists alongside an equally strong desire to break free from such confines. And the National Gallery itself was rather rebellious once, with its shocking notion that some provision should be made for people of the East End. In a sense the old Gallery's original spirit is reflected today in the wonderful Tate Modern housed in Gilbert Scott's Bankside power station. Tate Modern's power station setting has very different connotations to the National Gallery's august grandeur, but each in their time set out to do a similar thing, to widen the scope of art. Why not visit one and then the other. From the National Gallery walk down Northumberland Avenue to the Thames and cross via the Hungerford footbridge. Then take a short walk east along the Thames path to the Tate Modern.
Film enthusiasts may be interested to know that the National Gallery features in the 1986 film A Room With A View.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
Directions: The National Gallery is on the north side of Trafalgar Square in central London. The nearest Underground Station is at Charing Cross, a few minutes walk away in the Strand. Click here for an interactive map centred on the National Gallery.
Access: There is level access to all areas. Adapted toilet facilities are available. Sign language lectures and talks are organised. For people with sight difficulties there are "Art Through Words" events - for details use contact details below. Large print information is available on request from Gallery Assistants. A dispenser at the Gallery entrance supplies large print labels for most temporary exhibitions. Audio guides are available, with commentaries on over a thousand individual paintings, and on particular themes.
telephone: 020 7747 2885