National Gallery

In the late eighteenth century, royal art collections across Europe were being nationalized and put on display for the public. The British were late to the party and calls for the establishment of a national art gallery went unfulfilled. The spectacular painting collection of former Prime Minister Robert Walpole wound up sold to Russia in 1777. Finally, in 1824, the National Gallery was established after the purchase of John Julius Angerstein’s art collection. For its first ten years, the operation was quite shabby – paintings were displayed in a small, dingy house in Westminster.

The current building was built between 1832 and 1838 on Tralfalgar Square in the neoclassical style. It has since been expanded, and only the front façade remains unchanged. The Sainsbury Wing, built in 1991, is an interesting example of postmodern architecture. From the initial purchase of Angerstein’s 38 paintings, the National Gallery has grown to house more than 2,300 paintings from the mid-13th century to 1900.  Unlike Europe’s other great art museums, all of this is without the benefit of a royal collection. Nearly 5,000,000 people visit annually, putting it in the top five of the world in terms of attendance.

The collection is an encyclopedic look at the development of art from before the Renaissance until the modern period.  It starts with triptychs from the Middle Ages, then Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, through the various movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth century – Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cannaletto – culminating in Monet, Seurat, and van Gogh at the end of the 1800s.  This is one of the finest art museums in the world and is definitely worth a visit.

Around the corner from the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery.  Opened in 1856, it was the world’s first gallery dedicated to portraits.  It houses portraits of famous or important Britons.  In addition to paintings, there are photographs, caricatures, and sculptures.  There are some very interesting works in here, and the museum offers a little different perspective on British history.

National Gallery
Address: Trafalgar Square, WC2
Telephone: +44 020 7747 2885
Hours: Open Thursday-Tuesday 10:00-18:00; Open Wednesday 10:00-21:00
Admission: Free admission; charge for some of the temporary exhibitions.

National Portrait Gallery
Address: 2 St. Martin’s Place, WC2
Telephone: +44 020 7312 2463
Hours: Open Saturday-Wednesday 10:00-18:00; Thursday & Friday 10:00-21:00
Admission: Free admission; charge for some of the temporary exhibitions.

More Places to visit in London
10 Downing Street
Bank of England Museum
BBC Broadcasting House
Brick Lane
British Library