What can the National Gallery offer Britain as it turns 200?

What can the National Gallery offer Britain as it turns 200?

“We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill said of the House of Commons. This is true too of the National Gallery, the single building most emblematic of British cultural life.

The gallery celebrates its 200th birthday on May 10 with the launch of the year-long project NG200. This includes the blockbuster exhibition Van Gogh: Poets and Lovers; Jeremy Deller’s “The Triumph of Art”, a commission with communities nationwide, gathering “countless instances of joy and art in activism” and culminating in a performance in Trafalgar Square; and upgrading the Sainsbury Wing — home to the gallery’s early Renaissance paintings — “to improve the welcome we provide”.

From high art to the insistence on inclusiveness and outreach, the programme is characteristic of the distinctive, finely tuned balancing act between continuity and change that has marked this museum’s history.

Four schoolboys sit or lie on the gallery floor, looking a paintings on the wall
Children on a school trip study paintings including Hogarth’s ‘The Graham Children’ © Alamy
Three young men hold up a large framed painting against the gallery wall as a guard looks on
Hanging paintings in the New Gallery in 1911 © Getty Images

“We have the enormous responsibility of handing on to future generations a legacy of extraordinary importance — the building and the paintings, of course, but also the deposit of knowledge that comes with the gallery, the tradition of openness and accessibility, the sense that it belongs to everyone,” director Gabriele Finaldi tells me.

“By the time the National Gallery was established in 1824, numerous European nations already had flourishing public art galleries,” he explains. “National pride was at stake but there was also the ambition to create an institution which would provide public benefit.” 

In 1824, Parliament purchased 38 pictures from businessman John Julius Angerstein’s estate, exhibited in his Pall Mall home. These stellar paintings — Raphael’s foundational power portrait “Pope Julius II” (1511); Rubens’ tumultuous “Rape of the Sabine Women” (c1635-40); Claude’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” (1648), which stirred Turner to tears — became the nucleus of the National Gallery collection.

A portrait of a man and a woman standing holding hands. He holds up one hand, she rests a hand on her pregnant belly
‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck (1434), one of the works most viewed online © Photo: The National Gallery London.
Van Gogh is depicted in vivid brushstrokes standing, easel in hand. He has red-blond hair and beard
‘Self-Portrait’ by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © National Gallery of Art, Washington

They truly entered the public sphere in 1838, when the gallery moved to Trafalgar Square, the site chosen — against counterarguments favouring Kensington’s greener, bigger spaces — for accessibility to all social classes, from both East and West ends. This aim was written into William Wilkins’ gracefully restrained, modestly scaled neoclassical building, speaking authority without intimidation. It contrasted starkly with the autocratic connotations of Europe’s royal palaces — the Louvre, Prado, Hermitage — already functioning as national museums, based on vast princely holdings.

“To give the people an ennobling enjoyment”, Victorian parliaments funded the expanding collection. Now numbering 2,300 works, it remains smaller than many European equivalents, and boasts neither destination pictures — such as the Louvre’s “Mona Lisa” (c1503-1519), the Prado’s “Las Meninas” (1799) — nor national identity, as with the Rijksmuseum’s Dutch pictures or the Italian Renaissance at Rome’s Galleria Borghese. But a pluralist acquisitions approach triumphed: no group of paintings anywhere distils the history of western art with such mastery and charm.

What can the National Gallery, this cultural asset rooted in Enlightenment and Victorian ideals of social progress, offer Britain and the world as it enters its third century? Demand for and understanding of art is infinitely more complex than in 1824, creating four key challenges. First, although Renaissance painting remains in art lovers’ hearts — the most attended show in the gallery is Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (2011), with 320,000 visitors; the top viewed online works are Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” and Holbein’s “Ambassadors” (1533) — what constitutes visual art is now a bigger thing, reaching beyond walls and galleries, as Deller’s NG200 commission demonstrates.

In a brick-walled space, one man holds the frame of a very large portrait while two other men inspect it
Paintings from the collection (including Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, seen here) were kept for safekeeping in a disused slate mine in Wales during the second world war © Getty Images

Second, art operates in global not national contexts; competition to acquire and exhibit it comes from all continents. Yet in Britain there is also pressure to decentralise; regional English galleries are weaker than in France, Italy and Germany. Third, millions more people encounter the gallery’s masterpieces virtually than actually.

Partly as a result, in-person visitor numbers recently halved — from 6mn in 2019 to 3mn in 2023. Specifically, Finaldi admits, “the pandemic left us with a crisis . . . and brought with it significant changes to people’s lives and habits . . . We want to be perceived as the gallery for the nation . . . That means rethinking our programmes, where we focus our research, and how we interact with people.”

One response is taking art to the people rather than bringing people to the art. Botticelli to Van Gogh, the gallery’s tour to Shanghai Museum in 2023, was its best-attended special exhibition ever — 420,000 visitors. As for levelling up, NG200’s “National Treasures” will send a dozen core paintings travelling. Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus” (1601) goes to Belfast, shown with Cornelia Parker’s films. Velázquez’s nude “The Rokeby Venus” (1647-51) visits Liverpool for a display “challenging traditional readings by setting it alongside artworks by women and non-binary artists”. Dance company Junk Ensemble welcomes Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (c1615-17) to Birmingham by performing tableaux mirroring her compositions.

Painting of a woman who wears a turban on her head and holds a martyr’s palm in one hand, her other hand resting on a broken, spiked wheel
Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (c1615-17) © Photo: The National Gallery, London

Such ventures demonstrate a fourth, recent seismic challenge: gender politics conditions curatorial choices. A landmark was the 2018 purchase of Gentileschi’s transfixing “Self Portrait”, pivotal to transforming assumptions about Renaissance women’s contribution.

Only 21 paintings in the National Gallery are by women — a staggeringly low number, even given that the collection inevitably reflects historic male dominance. How to confront that? In two pioneering exhibitions in 2023, women reimagined art history’s patriarchal narratives. Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden showed her tremendous mural of female figures, some modelled on gallery staff, enacting contemporary stories of maternity, women’s education, friendship and art-making, inspired by Crivelli’s “Annunciation” and “Madonna of the Swallow”.

In Nalini Malani: My Reality Is Different, the Karachi-born video artist’s self-styled “despoiling or desecrating” films layered images from Old Masters with subverting animation figures, critiquing racism, misogyny and the male gaze in paintings including Bronzino’s sexy “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” (c1545) and Veronese’s “The Family of Darius Before Alexander” (1565-7), narrating the Greek warrior’s invasion of Asia. I thought Malani’s piece hectoring, puerile, but applaud the Contemporary Programme inviting living artists to respond to the collection.

Layered, abstracted images of women, the central one resting her head on her arm. Below, a young girl looks on
An image from ‘Nalini Malani: My Reality Is Different’ © Alamy
Images of mostly women - one holding a baby by a fountain, one sitting with children playing. Another seems to be gathering grain, and another leans over the prone figure of a man
Detail of Paula Rego’s ‘Crivelli’s Garden’ (1990-91) © Ostrich Arts

As well as a home for beautiful art, Finaldi wants the gallery to be somewhere people “come and think about the great questions of our time, and about how the present is connected to the past”. “Crivelli’s Garden” helps us do that. Until the current reconstruction, it hung in the restaurant; plans for it are uncertain, but when the reconfigured Sainsbury Wing reopens in 2025, Rego’s 10-metre mural must be prominent and enduring.

Architectural historian John Summerson once likened Wilkins’ facade with its small dome and turrets to “a clock and vases on a mantelpiece”; the domestic allusion, intended critically, implied how at home visitors feel here. In two centuries, this building and its decor, as well as its collections, have welcomed so many diverse individual contributions — Edward Barry’s sumptuous enfilade of galleries around the Octagon room (1876); Boris Anrep’s Deco floor mosaics featuring Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell as muses; the Sainsbury Wing (1991), still debated as compromise pastiche or postmodern icon. What a magnificent palimpsest of British taste, adaptability and co-operative energy — an ever-evolving story of what art and a museum can be.