The insurance broker, art collector and philanthropist John Julius Angerstein (1735–1823) was born in St Petersburg to a German family who had settled in Russia. He emigrated to England in about 1749. He was twice married and had two children. He lived in Greenwich in south-east London in a suburban villa named ‘Woodlands’. He also had a London town house at 100 Pall Mall.
He amassed a fortune partly from a career in the City of London. He helped to develop Lloyd’s as a great insurance house, becoming its chairman between 1790 and 1796. Ongoing research by the National Gallery is exploring Angerstein’s connections to the slave economy, particularly in relation to marine insurance.
Over time he became friends with many of the most prominent men of the day. This list included
- King George III
- William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister)
- Nelson (naval hero)
- Samuel Johnson (writer)
- David Garrick (actor and playwright)
Many men whose wealth came from commercial activities engaged in cultural pursuits and philanthropy as a means of being accepted in society as gentlemen.
Angerstein was involved with the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor which was founded in 1786. This organisation supported impoverished African and Asian people in the capital. It launched a scheme to send Black Londoners to Sierra Leone to establish a colony. The Committee’s membership included both those with interests in the slave economy as well as abolitionists, and they expressed different views about the organisation’s work.
Angerstein was the Vice-President of the London Institution, a non-denominational foundation which was established in 1806. Its purpose was 'to promote the diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts', making education more accessible. Like the Committee, the founders and managers of the Institution also included both pro and anti-slavery supporters.
The Angerstein collection and the foundation of the Gallery
Angerstein started collecting art about 1790 with help from the painters Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin West. One of his early purchases, the Rape of the Sabine Women by Rubens, was to prove typical of his collecting habits. He tended towards figure paintings by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, the Carrracci, van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Sebastiano del Piombo, whose Raising of Lazarus (bought at the Orléans Collection sale in 1798) became the highlight of the collection.
In 1794, he bought Aelbert Cuyp’s Hilly Landscape with Figures, one of his more unusual early purchases. Angerstein also liked classical landscapes, a superb example being Claude Lorrain’s Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba.
He was also keen on William Hogarth’s work. He owned the artist’s ‘Self-portrait with a Pug’ (now London, Tate) as well as the Marriage à la Mode series. He also purchased some pictures by Henry Fuseli.
On Angerstein’s death in 1823, the British Government purchased 38 pictures from his collection and took over the lease of his Pall Mall town house. The public was able to view the collection here before the modern Gallery was constructed in Trafalgar Square. Angerstein’s 38 paintings formed the nucleus of the National Gallery when it was founded in 1824.