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Room 32 reopens to the public after a 21-month refurbishment

Issued July 2020

Room 32 – the largest and one of the most visited rooms of the National Gallery displaying 17th-century Italian paintings by artists including Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Guido Reni and Guercino – will reopen with an enriched rehang in July 2020 after a 21-month refurbishment project as ‘The Julia and Hans Rausing Room’.

The purpose of this major renovation programme, made possible through the generous support of Julia and Hans Rausing, was to reinstate the original decorative scheme of its architect, Edward M Barry (1830–1880), as seen in Giuseppe Gabrielli's painting of 1886 (on loan from the Government Art Collection). The dark red wall cloth, ornate painted frieze and lunettes, whose designs alternate winged lions with dolphins, have all been reinstated according to the original colour scheme. Completely new air conditioning and lighting systems have also been installed.

In 2017–18, a specialist conservator took approximately two hundred paint samples from the upper architectural elements, revealing the complex palette of Barry’s original decorative scheme beneath the white overpaint. At the centre of each of the 20 lunettes, the name of an artist was revealed: these are mostly Italian, though van Eyck, Holbein, Rubens and Rembrandt are also included. The decision was taken to faithfully reconstruct these lunettes: their designs were traced, cut out and painted with colours matching the original pigments. One exception is the lunette dedicated to Titian, above the south doorway, which was uncovered completely and restored. As well as reinstating the dark red cloth to the walls, the ornate painted frieze has been put back and the plaster decoration tip-gilded with 23.5 carat gold leaf.

The paintings that form part of the Italian Baroque collection have been reinstated to great effect. Their dynamic compositions, dramatic lighting, vivid use of colour and intense expression of emotion are all characteristics of the Baroque. Many of the paintings in the room were commissioned to adorn the palaces of wealthy patrons in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Naples and Genoa. One notable exception is Guido Reni’s vast altarpiece, The Adoration of the Shepherds (about 1640), which hangs as the room’s focal point in the centre. Powerfully naturalistic paintings by the revolutionary artist Caravaggio – Boy bitten by a Lizard (about 1594–5), The Supper at Emmaus (1601) and Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609–10) – hang alongside more classicising works by Guido Reni and Guercino, among others.

The breadth and quality of the Italian Baroque collection were greatly enhanced in 2013 by the bequest of 25 paintings from the collection of the distinguished art historian Sir Denis Mahon (1910–2011), which were presented to the National Gallery through Art Fund. In recent times significant additions have been made to the collection, namely Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615–17) in 2018 and, in January 2020, the imposing canvas of The Finding of Moses (early 1630s) by her father Orazio Gentileschi. Among the exciting new things to see are the recently conserved Lot and his Daughters (about 1615–16) by Guido Reni and Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s Portrait of Cardinal Marco Gallo, (1681–3) which has been reframed in an Italian 17th-century frame.

Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings says ‘As curator of this area, it has been thrilling to follow the refurbishment of the room and plan the redisplay of the Italian Baroque paintings. One of the most satisfying moments was hanging our recent acquisitions by Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi in their new definitive home, alongside other masterpieces from this part of the collection.’

Julia and Hans Rausing sayWe are pleased to have been able to support the restoration of Room 32 back to its original colour schemes and thank all those involved over the past 21 months at the National Gallery. The refurbished room provides a wonderful backdrop to paintings by the foremost Italian painters of the 17th-century with improved lighting and facilities.

As the National Gallery opens for the first time in over three months, we are delighted that Room 32 is ready to welcome visitors and hope people enjoy the restoration.’

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, London says ‘As we reopen to the public we are very proud to present the completely refurbished Julia and Hans Rausing Room, the largest gallery in the building. Splendidly hung with Italian Baroque paintings, it creates a sumptuous impression. I am immensely grateful to Julia and Hans Rausing for supporting the complete restoration of this gallery, now open for all to enjoy.’


Julia and Hans Rausing and the National Gallery

Julia and Hans Rausing have been involved with the work of the National Gallery since 2014, when they first supported Strange Beauty – Masters of the German Renaissance (19 February – 11 May 2014).

In 2017 they generously agreed to make a gift of £4m for the refurbishment project of Room 32.

In 2018, they made a substantial donation to Mantegna and Bellini (1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019). In 2019, Julia and Hans Rausing made another seven-figure gift towards the cleaning and conservation work relating to the Gallery’s elevations and Trafalgar Square façade. 

The National Gallery is immensely grateful to Mr and Mrs Rausing for their exceptionally generous support to fund the costs associated with the major building and refurbishment works needed in Room 32 to return it to its former glory and for their continuous support.

The Gallery is delighted that Room 32 will be re-named The Julia and Hans Rausing Room.

The history of Room 32 and the Barry Rooms

From its foundation in 1824, the National Gallery’s collection has expanded through purchases and gifts. It soon outgrew its original site, a town house on Pall Mall.   

In 1838, fourteen years after the National Gallery was founded, its collection was moved to a purpose-built gallery on Trafalgar Square designed by William Wilkins (1778–1839). In 1868 the architect Edward M. Barry (1830–1880) was selected to design an extension for Wilkins’ building. Barry’s cruciform design, with galleries running north and east linked by a central octagon, marked the Gallery’s first major extension. An established family firm of interior decorators, J.G. Crace and Son, devised sumptuous interiors and Barry’s new wing was opened to the public in 1876.

Room 32 was built as part of the north section of Barry’s extension. Measuring 34 by 12 metres, it remains the largest room within the National Gallery and was always intended to display paintings on a grand scale.

Multiple refurbishments and redecorations during the 20th century significantly altered its appearance, but a painting by Giuseppe Gabrielli from 1886 (on loan to the National Gallery from the Government Art Collection and displayed nearby) provides valuable evidence of how the room once looked. Looking south-west from Room 32, Gabrielli’s painting shows original architectural elements such as the laylight – the flat, glazed iron roof construction – and wood floors, and meticulously records the elaborate decorative details.

Photographs and documents conserved in the National Gallery Archive allow us to track subsequent alterations to Room 32: the laylight was replaced with the current clerestory roof by 1911 and the decorative scheme visible in Gabrielli’s painting was whitewashed during the 1920s, by which time Barry’s original floor ‘grilles’ had been replaced with larger ventilation units. The gallery was last refurbished almost thirty years ago: in 1991 it was fitted with light green damask wall coverings, new lighting tracks and hanging rails for the paintings.

Dates and opening hours

Open to the public: 8 July 2020

Daily 11am- 4pm, Friday 11am – 9pm


Images credit: Photos © The National Gallery, London


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