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Gallery then and now

Step back in time and discover more about the Gallery's history - from its very first Director, through the Blitz, to the present day.

More from Gallery then and now (4 videos)

  • Transcript

    Written and narrated by Alan Crookham

    The Sainsbury Wing was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 July 1991.  Intended as a new home for the National Gallery’s world-class collection of early Renaissance paintings, its opening was a moment of celebration, both for the Gallery and the donors who had so generously funded the project.  However, the prospects for the site had not always been so propitious.

    Its former occupant, Hampton’s Furniture Store, was destroyed by fire during the Blitz in 1940 and, although a temporary shop re-opened on the site after the war, by the late 1950s the area had become a waste-ground.

    In 1958 the Government acquired the Hampton Site as a possible location for an extension to the National Gallery, but plans to develop the plot came to nothing and it remained empty – an old bomb site which was destined to be no more than a car park for decades to come.

    It was only in 1981 that an agreement was finally reached which enabled the Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, to launch a competition for the design of the new extension.

    Seven entries were shortlisted:

    • Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK)
    • Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners
    • Covell Matthews Wheatley
    • Skidmore, Owings and Merrill
    • Raymond Spratley Partnership
    • Arup Associates
    • Richard Rogers

    The winning architects were ABK, but their revised design stirred up controversy when in May 1984 Prince Charles criticised it as a ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’

    Prince Charles’s view was echoed by many among the general public and in the Press.  Ultimately, the ABK design was refused planning permission in September 1984 and the proposal to extend the National Gallery came to a halt.

    A halt, that is, until April 1985 when the generosity of the three Sainsbury brothers – Simon, John and Timothy – revived the proposed extension after it was announced that the Sainsburys would fund a new wing entirely for the use of the Gallery.

    A new search for an architect began and a shortlist of six was drawn up:

    • Harry Cobb
    • Colquhoun and Miller
    • Jeremy Dixon
    • Piers Gough
    • James Stirling
    • Robert Venturi

    It was Venturi who was revealed to the world as the National Gallery’s preferred architect in January 1986.

    Venturi perfected his designs according to the Gallery’s brief, paying particular care to ensure that the space would be appropriate for the early Renaissance paintings. The difficulties faced by the architects are explained here by the Gallery’s director Nicholas Penny.

    Nicholas Penny: One of the problems that one has hanging the earliest paintings in the National Gallery is that they are some of the largest pictures – the great altarpieces – and some of the smallest, those that come from domestic chests and small devotional paintings intended to be looked at in private. And the architects have solved the problem that we have in displaying these works by having very large openings so you are always aware when you are in one room of a sequence of rooms beyond – and so this great sequence of rooms recalls the space of a great church without in any way imitating it. And that suits great altarpieces very well. They can be seen from afar and you feel they have something of the ecclesiastical context from which they were removed. But at the same time the plan of these galleries as individual rooms is quite small and I think it’s very conducive to the contemplation of small works of art.

    Narrator: In January of the following year construction began, with the ceremony to lay the foundation stone of the Sainsbury Wing, taking place in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales on 30 March. The reinforced concrete structure was completed the following year and marked by the event known as the Topping Out ceremony.  The structure was then made weathertight before work began on finishing the inside of the building, and the whole was unveiled in December 1990 and finally opened to the public by Queen Elizabeth II the following July.

    From the outset, the Sainsbury Wing had been planned as a space where the Gallery could breathe new life into the display of its outstanding collection of early Renaissance paintings.  The public could now view the earliest paintings in the collection in a broadly chronological sequence in which pictures from southern and northern Europe were no longer separated but were placed in adjoining rooms. These paintings, mostly religious and devotional pictures or early portraiture, could now be enjoyed in a series of galleries whose interiors are reminiscent of the Italian churches in which many of them would originally have been housed.

    Twenty years after it first opened, externally the Sainsbury Wing has become part of the fabric of Trafalgar Square, while inside it continues to fulfil its role as a fitting home for one of the world’s greatest collections of early Renaissance paintings.

    Building history

    The Sainsbury Wing: Celebrating 20 Years

    About the video:

     

    The Sainsbury Wing, home for one of the world’s greatest collections of early Renaissance paintings, celebrated its 20th anniversary in July 2011.

     

    Find out more about the 20th Anniversary of The Sainsbury Wing (1991 - 2011).

    About the video:

     

    The Sainsbury Wing, home for one of the world’s greatest collections of early Renaissance paintings, celebrated its 20th anniversary in July 2011.

     

    Find out more about the 20th Anniversary of The Sainsbury Wing (1991 - 2011).

    Read More
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    Building history

    The Sainsbury Wing: Celebrating 20 Years

    Movie
  • Transcript

    Narrated by Susanna Avery-Quash

    The National Gallery is world-famous for its collection of western European art, but when we wander round the galleries, do we stop to consider why the pictures we see were acquired; how they got to Trafalgar Square; why they are displayed in the way they are; or how they came to receive their attributions to particular artists?

    Such questions are certainly worth a moment’s thought for their answers open up central aspects of the life and function of the National Gallery, and reveal just how much we owe to one individual, who transformed the fortunes of this institution.

    The person in question is Sir Charles Eastlake, who was the National Gallery’s first Director for a decade from 1855.

    Born in 1793 in Plymouth, he had ambitions to become a great painter. Having trained in London at the Royal Academy Schools, at that time in the wing adjacent to the National Gallery, he went to Rome in 1816 where he ended up staying for the next 14 years. Eastlake travelled widely in Europe, especially in Italy, acquiring a detailed knowledge of western European art and mixing with some of the leading European painters and thinkers about art.

    He also began to acquire a reputation as a significant painter. His early bandit scenes helped to make his name, while his later religious works were esteemed at the end of his career. But Eastlake’s art could not compare, for instance, with the work of his friends the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence and the landscape artist Turner. Ultimately, Eastlake’s reputation as a painter, though good, was never stellar.

    Scholarly and meticulous, with a good organisational sense, Eastlake, on his return to London in 1830, soon came to the notice of those interested in promoting the arts in the public sphere, including the politician Sir Robert Peel and also Prince Albert. Consequently, in 1841 Eastlake became Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission, with responsibility for finding artists to paint murals to decorate the new Houses of Parliament.

    With his reputation ever rising, Eastlake was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1850 and five years later, in 1855, he became the National Gallery’s first Director, at which point he abandoned his career as a painter. At the National Gallery, Eastlake concentrated his efforts on filling the gaps in the collection, because he wished to see it become fully representative of the story of western European art.

    Initially he focused his efforts on acquiring early Italian pictures. To this end, and with an annual picture-purchasing grant of £10,000, he spent each summer abroad. 

    He often travelled with his feisty wife, the writer and art-critic, Lady Elizabeth, his manservant Nicholas Tucker, and the Gallery’s Travelling Agent, Otto Mundler. His journeys involved much discomfort: after all damp, flea-ridden beds, unpalatable food, and long, jolting carriage journeys were par for the course in the mid-19th century.

    Eastlake kept a series of Travel Notebooks in which he recorded the places visited and the pictures seen. He constantly put his mind to matters of authentication, using novel methods of research into artists’ techniques to assist him. His negotiations involved him in persuading hesitant owners or wily dealers to part with pictures at reasonable prices. The record speaks for itself: in a single decade Eastlake acquired over 150 pictures for the nation. 

    Once the pictures had reached London, Eastlake ensured they were well displayed.  Bearing in mind new trends in European museums, he no longer showed the pictures as they had been at the National Gallery’s first home, 100 Pall Mall, in random order, densely arranged, and without any information.

    Instead, from 1856 for the very first time, core information was supplied via an early form of labelling, and detailed, scholarly catalogues were also published. To allow individual schools of art to be enjoyed on their own merits, Eastlake started to hang pictures by their country of origin and in chronological order, and he thought too about how pictures should be framed and lit and against what colour background they should be displayed.  

    Perhaps surprisingly, this slight, frail and grave man was the formative influence in the creation of the modern National Gallery.  Yet as a painter, scholar, and ultimately connoisseur, Eastlake’s many-sidedness contributed to the greatness of his achievement. His legacy is most visible in the pictures on display, but his thinking about art and how it should be displayed should not be forgotten for it foreshadowed in important ways the work the Gallery undertakes today to care for and promote interest in its pictures.

    Exhibition film

    Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery

    About the video:

     

    An introduction to the exhibition Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery with curator Susanna Avery-Quash.

     

    From acquiring over 150 works for the collection during his decade-long directorship, to introducing innovative approaches to organising the display of paintings in the Gallery space, discover how much is owed to Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, the Gallery's first Director.

     

    Find out more about Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, the National Gallery's first Director (1855–1865)

    About the video:

     

    An introduction to the exhibition Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery with curator Susanna Avery-Quash.

     

    From acquiring over 150 works for the collection during his decade-long directorship, to introducing innovative approaches to organising the display of paintings in the Gallery space, discover how much is owed to Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, the Gallery's first Director.

     

    Find out more about Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, the National Gallery's first Director (1855–1865)

    Read More
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    Exhibition film

    Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery

    Movie
  • Gallery in wartime

    Take a wartime view of the National Gallery

    About the video:

     

    Take a view of the empty Gallery during wartime, when the paintings were removed

     

    Find out more about the Gallery in wartime

    About the video:

     

    Take a view of the empty Gallery during wartime, when the paintings were removed

     

    Find out more about the Gallery in wartime

    Read More
     thumbnail00:28

    Gallery in wartime

    Take a wartime view of the National Gallery

    Movie
  • Gallery in wartime

    Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, attends a Myra Hess concert

    About the video:

     

    The Myra Hess concerts were often attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother), who was amongst the first to visit a concert at the Gallery.

     

    Find out more about the Myra Hess concerts

     

    More about the Gallery in wartime

    About the video:

     

    The Myra Hess concerts were often attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother), who was amongst the first to visit a concert at the Gallery.

     

    Find out more about the Myra Hess concerts

     

    More about the Gallery in wartime

    Read More
     thumbnail01:35

    Gallery in wartime

    Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, attends a Myra Hess concert

    Movie
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