Given a high profile home in Trafalgar Square in London, the UK’s National Gallery dates to 1824, and is amongst the ten most visited art galleries in the world, with a collection spanning the 1300s to 1900s. It is quite unique as a European art gallery in that it doesn’t originate from a royal art collection, but from the British Government buying art on behalf of the people of the UK, and accepting donations to the collection.
The British royal family retained their collection of art, but there were many calls for a gallery of the people to be established, often at a time when a large collection came onto the international market. In 1823 a collection of 38 paintings including pieces by Raphael and Hogarth became available, coincidentally at the same time as Austria paid off an old war debt, and so the purchase was made.
The collection was initially displayed in a series of properties around London poorly equipped to act as an art gallery, and in 1832 work began on the current building next to the recently created Trafalgar Square. This location was ideally located between wealthy and working class neighbourhoods ensuring symbolic access to all levels of British society. Early purchases were very conservative, focused on high Renaissance masters, but progressive directors broadened the buying focus and regular expansions to the building just about kept up with the steady expansion.
The art collection of the National Gallery in London
The collection at London’s National art gallery is comparatively small; just 2,300 paintings in total, however, this is a collection which certainly focuses on quality over quantity, and features many important artworks exhaustively representing almost every major development in art history. In recent years the gallery has struggled to keep up with the incredible prices of important artworks and it is supported by public fundraising, and support from major donors.
Focused entirely on paintings, the National contains many treasures; Sunflowers by van Gogh, The Ambassadors by Holbein, Bathers at Asnieres by Seurat, The Hay Wain by Constable, and The Fighting Temeraire by Turner are just a handful; other artists featured include da Vinci, van Eyck, Vermeer, Botticelli, Bosch, Durer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bruegel, Caravaggion, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Garnsborough, Goya, Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, and Rousseau. The core collection is also complemented by a strong program of mostly free special exhibitions focusing on particular artists or periods of painting.
The UK of course has other national art collections; sculptures and applied arts are found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, pre-1300s art is displayed at the British Museum, non-western art, art prints, and modern and contemporary artworks are at the Tate Modern, while the national collection of British Art is primarily focused at Tate Britain, and yet more can be found at the National Portrait Gallery which is next door to the National itself. All of these art galleries and museums are found in London and offer free entry.
The National Gallery is a treasure alongside London’s other great art museums
With pre-pandemic visitor numbers over 6 million people, the National Gallery’s striking collection and ideal central location next to numerous other major tourist landmarks, makes it one of the world’s most visited art museums. It is one of the most well known art galleries in the world and hugely admired for it’s collection of artworks and art prints across the western art world, and of course is much valued within the UK.
Though it’s long held strategy of buying the best of the best available great artworks is endangered by the scale of modern art auction prices, the National Gallery has signalled some potential new directions, making it’s first acquisition of an American work as recently as 2014. This signifies a move to American and other international artists inspired by, or painting in the style of, the European schools of art. Sure to remain an essential art gallery visit for any lover of art that happens to be in London, acquisitions are perhaps of little importance, with such a strong collection already.