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National Gallery Letter Books



National Gallery Letter Books



Archive reference number



Letter books comprising copies (produced by the damp press copy process) or transcripts of the Gallery's outgoing correspondence to a variety of recipients including potential donors, art dealers and agents, H.M. Treasury, H.M. Office of Works and other members of H.M. Government. Subject matter includes the acquisition, management and conservation of paintings; offers of pictures for sale; the appointment, remuneration and dismissal of staff; building repair/work and condition of the galleries; catalogues of the collection and the admission of copyists.

Letter books for the years 1826-1893 (NG6/1-17) have been catalogued to item level.

Record type


Administrative history

In 1824 H.M. Government successfully negotiated the purchase of the picture collection of the late banker John Julius Angerstein for the nation, and arrangements were made to display the pictures in Angerstein's townhouse in Pall Mall. A Treasury Minute of 23 Mar 1824 constituted the establishment of the new National Gallery. It established the need for a small staff to provide for the security and conservation of the pictures, in addition to access to them by the public, specifically a Keeper to take charge of the Collection, an Assistant Keeper and Secretary, two attendants, a porter and a housemaid.

George Saunders Thwaites was appointed as the Gallery's first 'Assistant Keeper and Secretary' on 31 Mar 1824. He was required to be present in the Gallery on public days, superintend arrangements for admitting the public and 'act as Secretary in the making of any Communications, or the promulgation of any Rules and Regulations for the exhibition of this Gallery by order of this Board' [NG5/95/1]. He also attended meetings of the Board of Trustees, to read any letters received and compile the Minutes. From 1837 Thwaites was given authority to answer the many letters received of a frivolous and absurd nature without recourse to the Trustees [NG1/1 Board Minutes, 9 Dec 1837, pp111-112]. He held the post until his retirement in 1854.

Following widespread criticism of the Gallery's management, a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1853. Its report and recommendations led to the issue of a Treasury Minute of 27 Mar 1855, reconstituting the establishment of the Gallery [NG5/118]. The posts of Keeper and 'Assistant Keeper and Secretary' were abolished and a 'Keeper and Secretary' position was created, encompassing both curatorial and administrative duties. The officeholder's remit included supervising the management of the building and its staff, regulating the admission of students to copy paintings, preparing historical catalogues of the pictures, compiling the accounts and Board Minutes and conducting all necessary official correspondence. Additionally the incumbent was required to reside in apartments at the Gallery. The first Keeper and Secretary was Ralph Nicholson Wornum.

Outgoing correspondence was copied or transcribed into letterbooks by the 'Assistant Keeper and Secretary' prior to 1855, and by the 'Keeper and Secretary' [or his clerk] thereafter, until 1921 when the series came to an end. After this time a registry system of record keeping was instituted and correspondence, both to and from the Gallery, along with reports and other associated papers were stored in files arranged by subject [See NG16].

Custodial history

The letter books were compiled by the Keeper and Secretary [or Assistant Keeper and Secretary prior to 1855]. They have always remained in the Gallery's possession however their exact date of transfer to the Archive is not known.

Related material

NG5, NG7, and NG68 for incoming correspondence NG1 Board Minutes for board discussion of subjects raised in correspondence, and in some cases further details of the paintings offered. NG38, NG39 and NG40 for offers of paintings declined Some offers in NG16

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