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Treasury Letters to the National Gallery



Treasury Letters to the National Gallery



Archive reference number



Letters, circulars, minutes, memoranda etc from HM Treasury to the National Gallery relating to financial and administrative matters, including the appointment, remuneration and superannuation of staff, and moneys voted by Parliament for operational costs in addition to the acquisition of paintings.

Some of the correspondence concerns the establishment, staffing and running of the National Gallery of British Art, Millbank [Tate] founded in 1897.

Record type


Administrative history

The National Gallery was established by a Treasury Minute of 23 March 1824 [NG5/3/1]. In this the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool announced that successful negotiations had taken place for the acquisition 'for the use of the public' of paintings from the collection of the late banker John Julius Angerstein. The Minute defined the duties of a Keeper who was to take charge of the new national collection, and 'to attend in particular to the preservation of the pictures, to make arrangements for admission, to be present occasionally, and be competent to value and negotiate the purchase of any pictures to be added to the collection' and stipulated that the paintings were initially to remain at Angerstein's residence in Pall Mall where they would go on display to the public. The purchase vote was taken on 2 April 1824.

A Treasury Minute of 2 July 1824 appointed a 'committee of six gentlemen' henceforward known as Trustees, to superintend the paintings and give orders to the Keeper, William Seguier. The Lords of the Treasury were responsible for filling vacancies with their nominees and all questions of money were referred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Gallery was voted a sum of money annually by Parliament for its operational costs based on annual estimates approved by the Treasury [for example of funds required for wages, travelling and incidental expenses etc], but these estimates did not include a purchase grant. Where paintings came up for sale, the Gallery relied upon Parliament and moreover the goodwill of the Chancellor to vote the exact sums required.

This loose framework remained in place for almost three decades, despite criticism of the Gallery's management. For example, the Trustees did not meet at all for the first three and a half years of the Gallery's existence, and failed to keep a proper record of its administration and acquisitions. It was not until 1846 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury were appointed ex officio Trustees that an attempt was made to hold more regular meetings [See Treasury Letter of 12 August 1846 in NG5/63/5].

With mounting public criticism a Select Committee of the House of Commons was established in 1853 to inquire into the management of the National Gallery. Its report and recommendations led to the issuance of a Treasury Minute of 27 March 1855 reconstituting the establishment of the Gallery [see NG17/2 pp1-9] which for the first time clearly set out the responsibilities of the Trustees and staff. The new post of Director was created, upon whom the final decision with regard to pictures purchases rested. The Minute also allowed for the insertion of £10,000 into the annual estimates specifically for the purchase of pictures. These sums could accrue if unspent, however on occasions where the cost of potential acquisitions outstripped the NG's unexpended balance, appeals for special Parliamentary grants had to be made. The Gallery was fortunate to acquire the Peel collection in 1871 and the Blenheim pictures in 1885 in this way, however following both acquisitions the annual purchase grant was suspended, to be reinstated at a later date. On several occasions throughout its history the Gallery's purchase grant has also been reduced: it was reduced to £6000 in 1860, later fully restored then reduced to £8000 in £1864, fixed at £5000 from 1889 and due to economic necessity was removed entirely for the duration of the Second World War.

From 1865 the Treasury ordered any unexpended balances to be surrendered to the Exchequer at the close of the financial year, thereby removing the Gallery's ability to accrue potential purchase funds. This regulation was retracted in 1889 when a Treasury Minute [dated 2 August 1889, see NG17/5 p52] ruled that the purchase grant, now known as the grant-in-aid could be drawn from the Exchequer, lodged with the Gallery's bankers and spent at the Gallery's discretion as and when needed, provided full accounts were later submitted to the Treasury.

Today the Gallery continues to receive an annual grant-in-aid from the Government, but must supplement its income from a variety of sources including trading revenue from the shop, catering facilities and reproduction rights, and a variety of trust funds, in addition to sponsorship and benefactions.

Gifts and bequests, of paintings, continue to be an important means of enhancing the Collection.

Custodial history

The letters were sent from staff at HM Treasury to the Gallery between the years 1878-1900. They have always remained in the Gallery's possession, however their exact date of transfer to the Archive is not known

Related material

NG5 Letters to the Gallery, for letters from HM Treasury to the Gallery, 1828-1877 NG7 Letters read at Board Meetings, for letters from HM Treasury to the Gallery, 1878-1914 NG6 Letter books, for copies/transcripts of letters from the Gallery to HM Treasury, 1826-1921 NG16/223-232 Subject Files, for correspondence with HM Treasury, 1904-1983 NG1 Minutes of the Board of Trustees, for Board level discussion of Treasury correspondence and administrative and financial matters, 1828-present NG17 Annual Reports, for publication of relevant Treasury letters, resolutions, minutes governing the management, administration and staffing of the Gallery, 1855-present

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