Skip to main content

Episode 32

The National Gallery Podcast

In the June 2009 podcast, go picnicking among the paintings. A special podcast looking at the origins of the National Gallery.

16 min | June 2009

Male voice: To have a gallery of paintings generally and frequently seen, there must be no sending for tickets, no asking permission, no shutting it up for half the days in the week. Its doors must always be open, without fee or reward, to every decently dressed person. To be of use, it must be situated in the very gangway of London, where it is alike accessible to all ranks and degrees of men.

Leah Kharibian: ‘To all ranks and degrees of men.’ Those lofty ideals were expressed by George Agar-Ellis MP in 1824, just before the National Gallery first opened its doors to the public. For the whole of this month’s podcast, we’ll be investigating the fascinating history surrounding the Gallery’s early years – its guiding principles and its sometimes troubled relationship to the ever expanding city and populous of London. To begin our journey, we’ve left the Gallery’s present home in Trafalgar Square and come to what was once a private home on Pall Mall, the street that runs from Trafalgar Square towards St James's Palace and Green Park. And I’m here with the art historian Brandon Taylor, author of an intriguing study of exhibitions and the London public, called 'Art for the Nation'. And I think first of all, Brandon, you’re going to have to tell us why Pall Mall and why the first floor of a former private house?

Brandon Taylor: Well, the fact is that by the beginning of the 19th century, Great Britain had no national gallery to stand alongside those of the continental nations. And it became a source of concern to many parliamentary reformers, how to establish a fledgling national gallery that was genuinely open to all members and all classes of the public. And so it came about that the collection of a very wealthy banker, John Julius Angerstein, became available in 1823 after his death, and conveniently was situated in Pall Mall which was very close to the heart of London.

Leah Kharibian: So we’ve got this collection and we’ve got a place for it, but what’s the idea behind having a national collection? What’s it hoped it’s going to do for the public in general? 

Brandon Taylor: Well, you have a number of different motives. One is to promote the existence of a British school of artists, but in more general terms it was thought that the experience of looking at fine paintings would enhance the lives and the experience of a broad mass of the public in England – increase their sense of design, improve their taste, and generally elevate their consciousness of what it was to be a member of the nation.

Leah Kharibian: But did the National Gallery really attract all ranks and degrees of men as Agar Ellis put it?

Brandon Taylor: Well, not exactly all ranks of men or indeed women. There was a cut-off point. There was a broad public access as far as we know, but nevertheless, it was still a requirement that you had to be reasonably well dressed, not bringing in mud and rain water on your boots, and not a member of the suspect classes, the very lowest orders and, indeed, the mob.

Leah Kharibian: Now the original 100 Pall Mall was demolished, wasn’t it, to make way for the Reform Club, and we’re in a house, further down Pall Mall, from the same period that still survives, although today it’s modern offices. However, very fortunately, we have as evidence of the original interior of 100 Pall Mall, a watercolour by Frederick Mackenzie that was made in 1834 which shows the room absolutely crammed, floor to ceiling, with pictures.

Brandon Taylor: There’s some exaggeration involved in this view. In fact, the artist has made the rooms look extremely large and grand, equivalent really to the private house of a wealthy aristocrat. You see skylights, which have been added to the ceilings of these two rooms, and this followed a complaint by some of the early visitors to 100 Pall Mall that the rooms were dark and dingy…

Leah Kharibian: Yes, well Agar-Ellis, the man that we heard from at the beginning, actually compared them, or said they were ‘dark and cavern-like’, and there’s a print, a very illuminating print, comparing 100 Pall Mall rather unfavourably to a certain foreign national gallery, isn’t there?

Brandon Taylor: Yes, it’s a very pointed comparison between a vast perspective of the huge building of the Louvre in Paris, which of course was the home of the massive and increasingly large French collection, added to by Napoleon during his conquests in Europe, and this rather plain domestic house in the middle of London, which was the best that the British had to offer. And of course the point of the comparison is precisely to increase feelings of inadequacy on the part of the British government, for failing to have developed a national gallery on the continental scale.

Leah Kharibian: So what was the solution?

Brandon Taylor: After a great deal of complicated negotiations throughout the 1820s, it was decided to develop a site on Trafalgar Square on the north side, which would first of all house the Royal Academy and the Public Record Office as well as this collection of pictures from the Angerstein house.

Leah Kharibian: Well, on that note, just like the National Gallery, we’re going to be on the move.

The move to Trafalgar Square

Male voice: ‘Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper. Every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two, even three. Filth everywhere. Gutters before the houses and a drain behind. Clothes drying and slops emptying from the windows. Men and women in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting and swearing.’ Dickens, 'Sketches by Boz', 1836–7, concerning the poverty of the district north of St Martin’s Lane.
Leah Kharibian: So we’re now on the steps outside the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which if you’ve ever come to the National Gallery, lies on its eastern side in the top corner of Trafalgar Square, where we’re joined by the historian Jerry White, author of the much praised survey of London in the 19th century, which he subtitled, after Blake, 'A Human Awful Wonder of God'. And Jerry, we’ve really only come a few hundred yards from the National Gallery’s original site at 100 Pall Mall, but at the beginning of the 19th century, what sort of world had we stepped into?

Jerry White: Well, if you think about Pall Mall as being pretty prosperous, if you moved further east in the 1820s, then this would be an area of pretty congested housing. North of Charing Cross was built up; behind that you had the King’s Mews, which was a barracks and a stabling place for the King’s horses and so on, and then around St Martin-in-the-Fields, you had some very poor housing indeed. The district just south of the church, was a district of 17th-century courts and alleys, so congested and so lawless that from the 17th century it was known as ‘the Bermudas’, because the streets were as intricate as the islands were. Sometimes too the district was called ‘the Caribee Islands’.

North of St Martin’s Church you had again a very poor district of 18th-century and 17th-century courts that was known as Porridge Island because of its very dirty, slummy, cook houses, cook shops… where you go into a cellar and get fed for a tuppence or something. These areas were all cleared as the sort of last link in John Nash’s great Regent Street development, from Regent’s Park down to Carleton House as it then was, and that was cleared too. And these… the clearances here took place from about 1828 to 1829. Trafalgar Square was more or less cleared from about 1830, it wasn’t called Trafalgar Square until about 1835. And so a lot of these very troublesome districts were cleared as part of the late additions to Nash’s improvement scheme.

Leah Kharibian: And so once Trafalgar Square is opened out, we’ve got this lovely brand new space, with the new National Gallery, who are the people that are attracted here? Is it still the poor? The London poor?

Jerry White: Well, it becomes a focal space for Londoners generally, that this becomes the most prominent open space in the centre of the capital. So it’s a place of recreation for all sorts and conditions of Londoners, including the poor. So it’s a place where beggars will come, where street entertainers will come, where working men and women come to demonstrate, for one reason or another, and it becomes one of the most popular… it’s seized, as it were, by the public… and becomes one of the most popular spaces in the capital.

Leah Kharibian: And Brandon, if I could bring you in, being at this focal point, it seems that the National Gallery really had chosen the right place?

Brandon Taylor: Trafalgar Square was later called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and that’s not a bad description of a symbolic space at the heart of the city, up whose steps, at the top side, facing down Whitehall, all kinds of groups and classes and persuasions and occupations of people could go streaming through the doors, either to get out of the rain at one end of the spectrum or to look at the pictures at the other.
Leah Kharibian: So it really had chosen the right place, and it’s on that note that we’re going to, ourselves, follow the crowd and go inside.

Picnicking among the paintings

Male voice: I have observed, on days especially that the regiment that is quartered behind the National Gallery is mounting guard at St James, that the music attracts the multitude – an immense crowd following the soldiers – and then they come into the National Gallery as soon as the procession is over – the multitude come in, who certainly do not seem to be interested at all about the pictures.

Leah Kharibian: That was Thomas Uwins in 1850, and we’re now in the National Gallery library, with the Gallery Archivist, Alan Crookham, who’s just completed a new history of the Gallery. And laid out before us are some wonderful documents, including the book in which those words from Uwins appears. Alan, who was Thomas Uwins?

Alan Crookham: Thomas Uwins was Keeper of the National Gallery from 1847 to 1855.

Leah Kharibian: And what’s he worried about when he’s talking about crowds?

Alan Crookham: I think that Thomas Uwins was particularly concerned with large numbers of visitors coming in, who perhaps – he felt – behaved inappropriately in the Gallery space. He was worried about people coming in who were eating and drinking in the Gallery, children who were coming in to run around in the Gallery – they would play in the Gallery, they weren’t being kept under control. And I think he was worrying that people were coming into the Gallery for other reasons than to actually look at the paintings on display and to sort of enjoy the Gallery for the purpose for which it had been established.

There’s one example here that I can give you where he was concerned about a group of people, and I’ll just quote from the actual report: ‘they seemed to be country people who had a basket of provisions and who drew their chairs round and sat down and seemed to make themselves very comfortable. They had meat and drink and when I suggested to them the impropriety of such proceeding in such a place, they were very good-humoured and a lady offered me a glass of gin and wished me to partake of what they had provided.’ 

Leah Kharibian: So they’re coming in picnicking…

Alan Crookham: They’re coming in and they’re not only having something to eat and something to drink, but of course, they’re obviously drinking gin in the Gallery as well, and then offering the Keeper a glass.

Leah Kharibian: Now this wasn’t what the Gallery had been opened for, it was meant to be ennobling improvement. Was it the gin that’s bothering them, or the fact that the public just don’t yet really know how to behave?

Alan Crookham: It probably is the gin that was bothering them, because I think there was a big issue in the 19th century trying to tempt people away from gin palaces, so I think that probably was an issue for them, but of course, I mean, the Gallery had been opened partly in order to encourage contemporary British artists to be able to study the works of the Old Masters, and partly in order to offer people an alternative leisure activity other than the gin palace, or say gambling, or things that people at the time thought were morally wrong.

Leah Kharibian: Yes, and what we’ve also heard when we were outside from Jerry was that there was an overriding anxiety about dirt, about over-crowding, about human pollution on the streets. Is that also something that’s concerning the keepers of the National Gallery?

Alan Crookham: Yes, I think there’s two things. One is the people coming in themselves and what they were bringing in with them, and second, there was the environment and the atmosphere in which the Gallery itself was located, right here in the heart of London, when at that time, this part of London would have been quite smoky and very polluted, and the Gallery would have been exposed. I mean, the minute they opened a window it would have been exposed to that atmosphere.

Leah Kharibian: So this period around this… this pivotal moment around the beginning of the 1850s, it seems the public is learning how to be a public for art, and the Gallery seems to also be learning how to be a gallery, or there is a sort of general will to understand how to run a gallery…

Alan Crookham: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think there is certainly with the administration of the Gallery, it’s about setting it up on the most modern principles of the time, and I think that the National Gallery here in London was actually quite open compared to many European collections, which could be a lot more closed.

Leah Kharibian: And do you think that’s remained the ethos of the National Gallery to this day?

Alan Crookham: Absolutely, I think the National Gallery is still accessible. I think throughout the National Gallery’s history… there have been times when it’s charged on copyist days, the days for students, but generally the Gallery has always upheld a principle of free admission, and on trying to reach out to the widest possible audience.

Leah Kharibian: Thank you very much, thank you all of you. And it’s there that we come to the end of this month’s podcast. Enormous thanks to my interviewees – Alan Crookham, Jerry White, Brandon Taylor – and to Erna Klopfer of Argyll Business Centres for the use of one of Argyll’s offices on Pall Mall. If you’d like to find out more about the Gallery’s past, do visit the Gallery’s website at You can also find details of Alan’s forthcoming walking tour of the Gallery’s buildings, and also meetings of the National Gallery history society. But for now, until next month’s podcast, thank you very much for listening. Goodbye.