The National Gallery's third century

Stephen Hitchins takes us on a journey through the gallery’s history while providing us with a glimpse into its future.

ANNABELLE SELLDORF’S appointment to make alterations to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery was announced on 21 July 2021. Born of controversy, the building continues to arouse passion. And why not? This site is about as central to the nation’s wellbeing as any. New Year’s Eve, sporting success, parades, parties: they all come here. In announcing the need to upgrade the building the present director, Gabriele Finaldi, acknowledged the ‘practically perfect picture galleries’ in the Sainsbury Wing but spoke of needing to respond to ‘a huge increase in visitor numbers and the changing needs and expectations of those visitors over the last 30 years’. But. The basement has never been ‘perfect’ for major temporary exhibitions. As for the monumental staircase that culminates at a lift door – is it really the mature fruition of postmodernism that combined classical tradition, contemporary wit and the modern demands of great national institution worthy of Grade I listing for a contemporary building? Over the last three years we have been witness to an extraordinary public row. Yet another public row about a building that has caused anger and deep hurt, joy but little elation, for half a century. How did we get here, why has this happened, and what is really happening now?
The façade of the National Gallery facing onto London’s Trafalgar Square. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Cat-fight in Trafalgar Square
She’s good, but is she that good? Who knows? Who’s to say? Did Malcolm Reading know what he was doing when he led the search for an architect on behalf of the National Gallery? Honed at the British Council for decades, has he lost his touch? Referred to as a ‘sensitive intervention’ and ‘pivotal in reshaping the gallery for its third century and the next generation of visitors’, Selldorf’s ideas were not well received. Neither was the second revised proposal.

The gallery has long encouraged quiet, deep reflection of its collection. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Received wisdom apparently said something must be done. But what? Stephen Bayley was not exactly breaking new ground in 2011 when he said that the Sainsbury Wing was ‘a pitiably ill-proportioned and an architecturally illiterate dollop of pious schmaltz’. Jonathan Glancey labled it ‘a postmodern classical trifle’. It’s easy to criticise, but – is the redesign really ‘a more welcoming and inclusive experience for visitors’ with its so-called ‘square within a square’? Our Malcolm’s brief said that ‘the National Gallery now needs to develop an inspirational, world-class welcome attuned to visitors’ expectations, which also resolves practical problems, some of which have been further highlighted by the pandemic’. He also asserted that ‘originally, the building was intended to provide extra gallery space, while being only an overflow entrance to the gallery, a junior partner to the historic Portico Entrance in the Wilkins Building. However, since 2018, for security, accessibility and logistical reasons, most of the gallery’s six million annual guests have been directed to enter through the Sainsbury Wing, which has become the main entrance – something it was never meant to be. Reading again: ‘The original design concept envisaged the foyer as being like a crypt.’ Well, there is a real crypt that visitors have sadly been forced into at a price to see high profile special exhibitions. Reading’s was only the latest in a series of misadventures at the National orchestrated on behalf of the gallery that has been badly served by all of them, and each one compounding the mistakes of previous decisions. Has Selldorf delivered? She said that the style of her practice was ‘not an architecture, first and foremost, of a loud bang’. She nevertheless fired the first shot in the latest battle of Trafalgar Square. Ever since the first visuals appeared in February 2022, the knives have been out. Everyone joined in. It may be unfair, but such is the way of the world.

History casts shadows as well as light

The architectural style of the National Gallery has favoured designs that incorporated a variety of different columns with renaissance references. Image Credit: The National Gallery

It was always about columns – and has continued to be. For most people, then as now, ‘Architecture’, with a capital A, is capitals, columns and other bits of the classical orders – Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian or Composite. When the gallery was to be built, the Gothic revival was well underway, and a battle of the styles waged around a project for new government offices in London. The prime minister, Palmerston, who described Gilbert Scott’s eclectic design for the foreign office as ‘frightful and disagreeable looking’ wanted something ‘gay and cheerful’, specifically Italianate. Thus the architect found himself obliged to comply with a neo-Renaissance style palazzo adorned with pilasters and pedimented windows.

On 10 May 1824, the National Gallery opened its doors at its first home, 100 Pall Mall. This year it will celebrate its 200th birthday. In 1831, parliament agreed to construct a building for the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. There had been lengthy discussion about the best site, with the square eventually being chosen due to its being in the heart of the capital. Designed by William Wilkins, the new building finally opened in 1838 on the former site of the King’s Mews. For a short time, the Royal Academy was housed in the building, and at one point the National Portrait Gallery was to have been housed here as well. Both the RA and the NPG quickly found new homes, and the National Gallery itself expanded with the dome and a new wing designed by EM Barry opened in 1876. It was virtually the last of the buildings Wilkins designed and never had many admirers. The façade of thirteen bays is bitty, with a pedimented Corinthian portico in the centre, two subsidiary porticos, two pavilions with pilasters, and, to make the design ‘still more interesting’, as Sir John Summerson cruelly remarked, a dome and two turrets ‘like the clock and vases on a mantlepiece, only less useful’. William IV thought the original edifice by Wilkins was a ‘nasty little pokey hole’, while Thackeray called it ‘a little gin shop of a building’. It was never the muchloved friend that HRH The Prince of Wales would have had us believe.

By the time of the First World War, a further expansion was engineered on the site of a former barracks, and over the next century a series of incremental projects increased the size of the exhibition space considerably, culminating in 1975 with the Department of the Environment’s undistinguished effort, the North Galleries. Meanwhile, the government had acquired the Hampton site in 1958, waste ground at the western end previously occupied by a furniture store that had been destroyed in the Blitz of 1940, and since used for car parking. Finally, after years of indecision, the stage was set in 1981 for Secretary of State Michael Heseltine to launch a competition on behalf of the trustees for the design of a new extension, and we arrive at the first of what were to become repeatedly misconceived competitions. The designer of any addition to the building had to take into account the site’s peculiarities and, of course, its neighbours. Indeed, the trustees of the gallery, in their original brief, specifically recommended that the height, scale, massing and finish of its neighbours be respected. Trafalgar Square is no masterpiece of urbanism. The southern side is a muddle. On the north, there is Canada House with chaste Greek Ionic porticos; the multi-columned and pilastered National Gallery; St. Martin-in-the- Fields with its spire-topped portico; and South Africa House, with an engaged portico. As the late Hugh Honour said, ‘the site for the extension has columns to the right of it, columns to the left of it, and the biggest column of all in the centre of the square’. From a British viewpoint classical architecture has never lost the association with power and dominion that it had from the very beginning: monumentality was a good thing.

An exercise in commercial real estate

The worst aspect of all this was not the design but its brief – embracing Thatcherite love of private enterprise, the proposed building was to cost the taxpayer nothing. It was to be financed by a real-estate developer who would have the right to lease the lower floors as shops and offices. It was a commercial project with an art gallery on top and no fewer than 79 companies made a submission. They all had architectural teams, even Reuben Seifert was party to one entry, the man who singlehandedly had changed the urban skyline with some notorious office buildings and been responsible for more projects in London than Christopher Wren. The Colonel, as he was universally referred to, did not make the shortlist. Seven firms did: Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK); Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners; Covell Matthews Wheatley; Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Raymond Spratley Partnership; Arup Associates; and Richard Rogers. The public was asked to vote. No winner was announced, but ABK was asked to develop its project – another mistake. In normal circumstances ABK would have been appointed and the design developed in conjunction with the client. Instead of which the architects added a tower borrowed from Richard Rogers’ entry, resubmitted their proposal, and all hell broke loose.

In retrospect, the firm’s original scheme looks as though it would have met the conditions of the brief that Selldorf has had to address. Not the revised ABK scheme with the tower derided by the then-Prince of Wales, but its original entry. Classical in proportion and style, sympathetic to the existing building, ABK not only answered the original brief but may well have anticipated and solved the problems that later arose. As for that final solution, it was delivered by the shortlisted Sheppard Robson and worth mentioning in passing that Williams Mullins, the firm’s senior partner, and responsible for its competition entry – a highly unexpected proposal from such a conventional and traditional practice. Respectful but forceful, the dark, sleek merchant banker’s suit that it proposed was quite a shock, an elegant and stylish unpretentious foil to Wilkins building, it was both entirely modern, and subservient to the old. They were almost certainly appointed executive architects due to an interior scheme for the galleries with subtle renaissance references.

Peter Ahrends told Mullins that the whole sorry saga was nearly the death of him, and the end of his firm, even if ABK did win the project to design the new British embassy in Moscow, possibly an opportunity for public redemption and to connect with Richard Burton’s Russian roots – he may have appeared the perfect English gentleman, but in fact his mother was Russian, Vera Poliakoff, who acted under the stage name Vera Lindsay.

Sometimes history goes backwards, or what might have been – the aftermath

So. ABK’s design received the trustees’ approval, whereupon the Prince of Wales spoke out. On 30 May 1984, he addressed the 150th Gala Evening of the RIBA and called the design ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend’, comparing it to a ‘municipal fire station’ and ramming the point home by invoking Goethe: ‘There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste’. Not since the Prince Consort gave his approval to the Crystal Palace had royalty been so concerned with the design of a public building in England. Paul Koralek tried pointing out that ‘a carbuncle was also a rare jewel’ but to no avail. The National Gallery competition was scuppered. Carbuncles usually take only a few weeks to heal: not this one. British architecture was changed for decades. For ABK, it was, to quote Browning, ‘never a glad, confident morning again’. I hesitate to use a dreadful cliché, but I shall: the rest is history. Winning was a responsibility that always combined intellectual prestige with a strong whiff of poisoned chalice. Their challenge had been impossible: to steer and make sense of a cultural juggernaut that carried the potential to burnish or upend reputations.

It was easier to blame architecture than politics. A sterile battle of styles broke out, ‘modernist’ against ‘traditionalist’, which obscured the larger factors – mostly to do with money and power – dictating why places are built well or badly. HRH had been advised at different stages by a number of people: Rod Hackney, a pioneer of community architecture; Leon Krier, Poundbury’s chief planner and architect; and, principally, Theo Crosby of Pentagram. The overlap between postmodernism and preservationist ideas became a cultural amnesia after the Modern Movement, the rise of nostalgia and the manipulation of history as a commodity. Reyner Banham had written about the ‘Revenge of the Picturesque’ as manifestations of an anti-modernist sentiment became ingrained in architecture. However, the British public had shown a more enthusiastic attitude to Prince Charles’ view on architecture. ‘A Vision of Britain’ was broadcast on television, attracting more than two million viewers. This was followed up with a publication that culminated in Ten Principles that became a set of design guidelines for Poundbury, but began as the Ten Commandments for the Duchy of Cornwall drafted by Crosby. Despite the positive public response, Prince Charles was accused by the architectural profession of sabotaging the democratic procedures of planning permission, to no avail.

The 19th century obsession with history had led not only to the imitation of past styles but also to the demand for one expressing a contemporary spirit and answering contemporary needs. One response, made mainly in Britain, was eclecticism. Alexander James Beresford Hope opined in 1856 that the only ‘common-sense architecture for the future of England’ was Gothic ‘cultivated in the spirit of progression founded upon eclecticism.’ There is a fundamental difference between the eclecticism of 19th century and postmodern architects. The 19th century architects resorted to it in a climate of historicism. Faith in a single ideal had faltered. ‘Doubt begat eclecticism,’ as Baudelaire remarked in 1848. But then, what are we to eclect?

The battle over post-modern buildings: columns again, the second competition

In 1991, the gallery’s interior was described as showing ‘promise’ by the then-Prince of Wales and now King Charles III. Image Credit: The National Gallery

In May 1984, the ABK scheme was refused planning permission and the proposal to extend the National Gallery came to a halt until April the following year when the Sainsbury family offered to fund a new wing entirely for the use of the Gallery. A new search for an architect began and a shortlist of six was drawn up, a notably different list to the finalists of the first competition: Harry Cobb, Colquhoun and Miller, Jeremy Dixon, Piers Gough, James Stirling and Robert Venturi. Venturi Scott Brown was revealed as the preferred architect in January 1986, the same month as Prince Charles had been appointed a trustee of the National Gallery by Margaret Thatcher – a key point in the debate between architectural traditionalists and modernists in Britain, having already made his personal views clear with regards the winner of the first competition.

The first meeting of the trustees attended by the prince was in November 1986, when he was in agreement with Venturi. The minutes record that ‘the Prince of Wales said how much he liked the window towards Canada House that the architect had proposed’ – a large window that would have faced Trafalgar Square at the end of the long central suite of galleries. Other trustees disagreed believing the view from the window would distract from the art, and that sunlight might cause conservation problems. Then, in March 1987, the question of the column came up, the prince telling the board that ‘a column as an architectural feature should act as a support’. Bridget Riley, another trustee, presented a paper that also argued that Venturi’s fake column should be removed. All the trustees ultimately agreed.

Postmodern architecture as conceived by Venturi meant elements drawn from diverse sources were to be absorbed, recast, and often transformed before being used. The column was the final straw that nearly ended Venturi’s direct involvement. People tend to forget that Venturi threatened to resign following criticism of the column by Prince Charles and other trustees, and that the chairman, Jacob Rothschild, warned his fellow trustees that this threat should be kept confidential and ‘must not be known outside the building’. The minutes record that John Rauch, Venturi’s partner, had ‘passed on a request from the architect that the scheme should be handed over to another firm since their firm wished to withdraw’. Rothschild told the board that one option would be for ‘a firm of British architects’ to take over, with Venturi ‘acting as a design consultant’. Because of Venturi’s resignation threat, the trustees relented and finally agreed to the inclusion of the column. Later, in 1987, relations between architect and gallery improved and in March 1988 the Prince and Princess of Wales laid the foundation stone. Building work began – without the window, but with the column. The cost of the extension was more than £33m. The full cost was paid for by the Sainsbury brothers. The building was opened by the Queen in July 1991. The prince’s introduction to the gallery’s own book about the Wing says the interiors show ‘promise’: the exterior is not mentioned.

Gabriele Finaldi, National Gallery director, inside the National Gallery. Image Credit: The National Gallery

There can be little doubt that the firm was awarded the commission mainly on account of its ingenious solution to the problem of the façade. The extension was never meant to dominate its surroundings – like a star performer given a minor role in an amateur production, it was intended to be a good neighbour. Venturi’s is, above all, an example of architectural tact. Yet the façade can hardly be called neoclassical even – the classicism is just skin-deep. The claim that they ‘started off by loving’ the old building, the prince’s ‘well-loved friend’ is a reminder that love is proverbially blind. They provided a most ingenious and well-judged complement to Wilkins’s building, hinting, almost, that he had also played sophisticated games with classical elements. The Venturi pilasters are, of course, decoratively symbolic and not even fictionally structural like those on the old building.

It did not work – the aftermath

It has been loved and loathed in equal measures ever since. In 2015 the American Institute of Architects named Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as the 2016 AIA Gold Medal laureates, giving them the joint recognition the Pritzker Prize organisers refused. Then, three years later, praised for balancing both old and new aesthetics, and ‘a play on Italian Mannerism [that] demonstrates the duo’s sophisticated but ironic acknowledgement of modern conditions while thoroughly exploring classical architecture’s conventions’, the AIA bestowed its 25-Year Award to the Sainsbury Wing, calling it a ‘decorated shed’ and a building ‘that has stood the test of time for 25–35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance’.

The legacy of all the arguments about the extension was to the architects a story of problems, interference and compromise. They had made a valiant attempt to come to terms with the overlaying of classical bombast, imperial grandeur and intricate medieval street plans, the convergence of the entertainment hub around Leicester Square and its representational symbol, Trafalgar Square. Their pseudo-classical façade, responded to the original building whilst accepting that ‘Palladio and Modernism fight it out on the main façade’, as Scott Brown wrote at the time, ‘and must respect our era’s discomfort with unalloyed monumentality’. This was an architecturally literate, witty, reflective and subtle design, albeit not without its problems – some of which were forced on the architects.

However, all that stuff that Scott Brown came out with about driving around Italy in a Morgan three-wheeler discovering the mannerist art of the late renaissance, and staying with friends living in the basement of what had been their palace; how ‘the multipurpose spaces down below, and the scale between that and the house above worked beautifully. That was what we were trying to do with the National Gallery. And it worked,’ she said. It did not work, and never has. The major Veronese exhibition in 2015 and the Lucian Freud show in 2022 certainly benefited where others did not by being put on upstairs in real galleries – original ones in the 19th century building. The suspended walkway linking the Sainsbury Wing to the main building was conceived as a Bridge of Sighs. Come on! As for that lift door facing the grand staircase, ‘There was meant to be a bas relief there,’ Scott Brown lamented wistfully.

It is an in-between building, neither one thing nor the other. Not a bravura resolution of conflicting demands, as some would have it, nor a foil to the original. Most members of the architectural profession, especially those who competed unsuccessfully for the commission, had wanted an unornamented Modern-style building. The others, mainly journalists, plus the populist ‘building beautiful’ brigade, wanted a classicism that was frankly revivalist – not Post-Modern – complaining that Venturi had not gone the whole hog. The general view had not moved on since Evelyn Waugh’s account of 1928 in Decline and Fall of the architect Otto Friedrich Silenus – ‘The problem of architecture as I see it,’ he told a journalist who had come to report on his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminum, ‘is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from all consideration of form.’

Calls to protect pastiche: the third competition

The Sainsbury Wing was never meant to be used as the main entrance to the National Gallery, yet became so de facto in 2018 due to a number of security and logistical reasons. Image Credit: The National Gallery

The question inevitably arose, did it work? Was a façade that echoed the original such a good idea? Was Venturi’s work really a bravura resolution of conflicting demands? The building was heavily criticised when it was first opened. It’s easy to criticise. However, Margaret Thatcher (who along with Prince Charles was seen by David Chipperfield as ‘one of the twin towers of negativity towards the architectural profession’) once said, ‘Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides’ – a metaphor apt for the manner in which the Sainsbury Wing was received upon completion. The totalitarian viewpoint of both the traditionalists and the Neo- Modernists rejected Venturi Scott Brown’s design as compromised and untrue to tradition on the one hand, and as pastiche ‘picturesque mediocre slime’ on the other. A fine building had nevertheless somehow emerged only to make clear how the vagaries of fashion inhabit architectural closets as much as they do any other.

Just what was the substance of Post- Modernism was never really came into it. The superficial, glitzy and glib – deficiencies that were largely but not solely attributable to the meretricious quality of work produced during the 1970s and 1980s was what made the Sainsbury Wing appear so outstanding. Post-Modernism was not a movement but merely a style – or, perhaps even more accurately, a ‘look’ – generally characterised by historicising motifs (often quotations from well-known architectural landmarks) recombined in collage-like form. The wing has been dubbed one of the few great mature fruitions of Post-Modernism, and in 2018 was surprisingly awarded a Grade I listing for historic buildings, a decision that has reverberated. If you can change this Grade I listed building, what about the others?

The idea behind the latest changes was ‘to make the Sainsbury Wing more visible and easier to navigate’, as well as ‘removing the build-up of queues of people outside waiting to enter…opening up the space and aligning it more clearly with other significant parts of the building…creating a revived foyer for the Sainsbury Wing that is less cramped…with previously under-used spaces at ground floor level within the Sainsbury Wing and Wilkins Building reimagined, improving public access and facilitating a new research centre…a new basement-level connection between the buildings has also been proposed to improve public access [and] public spaces immediately outside the gallery will be made more welcoming and accessible.’ The statement called the upgrades ‘sensitive interventions’ that will be ‘pivotal in reshaping the National Gallery for its third century and the next generation of visitors’, and ended, ‘We are delighted to launch the first stage of public consultation and welcome feedback on these early concept designs’. Feedback there was.

The proposed redesign of the Sainsbury Wing intends to create an open space that is less cramped, reimagining the ground floor level to improve public access and reduce the visibility of queues outside. Image Credit: The National Gallery

The proposals amounted to an oversmooth facelift on the visage of an old friend, seen by some as yet another in Selldorf’s stream of facelifts for fading museums, a mindless Modernist makeover, understated, refined and neutral, or more the architecture of near-emptiness, the default style of international art-world good taste. Could it have been better? Significantly, there have been no proposed changes to the galleries within the wing. The past never repeats itself exactly, but it can offer us some warnings. In the case of this building, they appear to have gone unheeded. In 2025 we shall see how this turns out.

Columns again – the aftermath

The proposed redesign of the Sainsbury Wing intends to create an open space that is less cramped, reimagining the ground floor level to improve public access and reduce the visibility of queues outside. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Everything about the Sainsbury Wing has remained problematic and contentious. The director had referred to ‘the gloomier part of the entrance’, the ‘heavy grey architecture’ that he wished to change, ‘to make openings in the crypt-like ceiling, replace the dark glass with clear, and thin out the forest of thick pillars’. Nevertheless, the great and the good weighed in on the proposed changes, firing off letters that called the proposals arbitrary and irreversible, ‘damagingly destructive’, ‘an act of vandalism’ of ‘a beautifully designed sequence of spaces’, ‘corporate blandness’, ‘a tepid shower of the pallid and the polite’ that would ‘diminish the intended drama of the carefully orchestrated entrance route’, its ‘processional logic destroyed’, that the entrance had been condemned to be ‘an airport lounge’, a ‘hotel lobby’. Overall, the renovation appeared to its critics to be corporate blandness sterilising the original architectural character of the building.

To all of which a gallery spokesperson said: ‘We have taken on board the views of various groups and are reviewing certain elements of the scheme in the light of their comments.’ Selldorf was challenged by Edward Jones, who designed extensions to the NPG and the Opera House with Jeremy Dixon, reminding everyone of their 1998 masterplan to revamp the Wilkins portico entrance, the natural focus for visitors.

The proposed redesign of the Sainsbury Wing intends to create an open space that is less cramped, reimagining the ground floor level to improve public access and reduce the visibility of queues outside. Image Credit: The National Gallery

But the critics were not finished. Eight former presidents of the RIBA objected, Historic England, Historic Buildings & Places and the Twentieth Century Society all weighed in. The National Gallery hit back. Selldorf was invited by the RIBA to give a speech, and was introduced by its then president Simon Allford who said: ‘I sense a certain nostalgia for a reinvented and reimagined past, not unlike the nostalgia that called into being the very scheme about which we’re talking. The Venturi Scott Brown extension emerged from the ashes of a competition and a winner that was interfered with and unfortunately rejected. The scheme itself was not universally well-received at the time. That, of course, does not mean it is not a fine building. It shows how the vagaries of fashion inform our thinking always, and we should be aware of that. Indeed, it could be said this is one of their finest buildings – their best and most decorated shed. But also it means, like any fine building, it can be adapted if needs arise and I believe that is the case here.’ Indeed, Sir Tim Sainsbury, said that he and his brothers accepted the need to make modifications and if the building was ‘preserved in aspic’ then it would no longer be able to fulfil its purpose. ‘We support the proposed improvements and believe that the Selldorf architects’ proposals are a sensible and sensitive response,’ they said. Unwavering in their opposition, when the proposals were revised, the eight former presidents said that they ‘appear perhaps even more ill-judged’.

Since the redevelopment of the Sainsbury Wing, almost half of the National Gallery’s entire collection has been put away and has now had to be re-hanged, ready for the reopening in May 2025. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Scott Brown urged the Westminster planners to turn down the application and for the architects to ‘bring forward a scheme that better secures the considerable architectural thought that informed the original work’. There is history between these two women. In 2022, Selldorf scuppered a Venturi Scott Brown museum expansion in Cleveland where there ‘just wasn’t any space for an exhibition or galleries’ and to ‘reveal the full beauty of the original building’, so perhaps criticism was to be expected. However, Selldorf has claimed, ‘I enjoy my conversations with Denise a great deal’ and said of her own approach, ‘My instinct is not so much to add anything but to sort of peel away layers that allow a simpler kind of coming together.’ The firm is certainly skilled in navigating different eras, contexts and styles. Selldorf was trying her best with what she had been tasked. We shall see how it all turns out in May next year.

A great leap forward: re-hanging the collection

Since the redevelopment of the Sainsbury Wing, almost half of the National Gallery’s entire collection has been put away and has now had to be re-hanged, ready for the reopening in May 2025. Image Credit: The National Gallery

For some time, the National Gallery has been half what it really is – literally. Much of the museum has been off-limits at the same time as the work to the Sainsbury Wing was underway. Big names were missing, as things were being rearranged, and in some cases it was not only really crowded, it was dark, at times mysteriously so, as the gallery saved on the lighting. Nevertheless, it will all come good in the end. The director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, says, ‘We all miss out when anyone thinks that the National Gallery is not for them. We look forward to our next steps, and opening up the new Sainsbury Wing entrance, our Supporters’ House, and our research centre, at the end of our bicentenary year. We hope many visitors may step inside for the first time, and those who have come before can experience a different start to their visit and view of our collection.’

By the end of 2023 two major rooms had been magnificently redecorated, re-hung and reopened. The curatorial staff certainly know what they are doing even if, time and again, their architectural advisors have long been found wanting. Whilst no overall plan for the redecoration of the original building has been announced, or exactly how or in what order the paintings will in future be displayed, it is intended to re-hang the entire building over the next three years. The two rooms already in place are called ‘Painting in Renaissance Venice’ and ‘Italian 17th century painting’.

When the Sainsbury Wing entrance reopens, all of its gallery spaces will also be open. At the time of its first opening, the gallery’s director at the time, Nicholas Penny, said: ‘One of the problems that one has hanging the earliest paintings in the National Gallery is that they are some of the largest pictures – the great altarpieces – and some of the smallest,’ a problem he for one was very pleased with Venturi’s solution. From the outset, the Sainsbury Wing had been planned as a space where the gallery could breathe new life into the display of its outstanding collection of early renaissance paintings. The public could view the earliest paintings in the collection in a broadly chronological sequence in which pictures from southern and northern Europe were no longer separated but were placed in adjoining rooms. These paintings, mostly religious and devotional pictures or early portraiture, could be enjoyed in a series of galleries whose interiors are reminiscent of the Italian churches in which many of them would originally have been housed.

Reopening Room 29: The Wolfson Gallery – Painting in Renaissance Venice

Since the redevelopment of the Sainsbury Wing, almost half of the National Gallery’s entire collection has been put away and has now had to be re-hanged, ready for the reopening in May 2025. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Built as part of a new extension in the 1920s to house the gallery’s growing collection, this project was funded by Joseph Duveen in 1928, who offered to pay for the cost of building a ‘Venetian Room’. First opened to the public in 1930, Room 29 is one of the largest spaces in the gallery. Since its doors closed in March 2022, important changes have been made to bring the room into the 21st century. The original architect, Sir Richard Allison, inspired by the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, chose to cover the walls in a light grey fabric, with mouldings painted grey to match. Today, the walls have changed to a warm olive green to complement the paintings, and the floors have been replaced with a light oak to make the room feel brighter.

Since the redevelopment of the Sainsbury Wing, almost half of the National Gallery’s entire collection has been put away and has now had to be re-hanged, ready for the reopening in May 2025. Image Credit: The National Gallery

During the Second World War, the gallery’s collection was sent for safe keeping to a disused slate mine in Manod, Wales. The gallery was bombed nine times between October 1940 and April 1941. Room 29 was one of the spaces that was badly damaged. The room was repaired and reopened in 1950, redecorated with pale gold damask and German and Flemish paintings graced its walls. In the 1970s, architectural modifications were again made and these have all been stripped out.

The National Gallery’s Room 32, known as the Julia and Hans Rausing Room, featuring 17th century Italian paintings. Image Credit: The National Gallery

Room 32: The Julia and Hans Rausing Room – Italian 17th century painting

When it opened in 1876, visitors were treated to colourfully painted friezes and lunettes, decorated with celebrated artists’ names and alternating designs of dolphins and winged lions. You can get some idea of what Room 32 looked like in a painting by Giuseppe Gabrielli from 1886. Beneath white overpaint on each of 20 lunettes, alternating designs of winged lions and dolphins with the name of an artist have been revealed: these are mostly Italian, though Van Eyck, Holbein, Rubens and Rembrandt are also there. These lunettes have been reconstructed, with the exception of one dedicated to Titian, which was able to be uncovered completely and restored. As well as reinstating the dark red cloth to the walls (in line with the Crace brothers’ original design), the ornate painted frieze has been put back and the plaster decoration tipgilded with 23.5carat gold leaf. The latest project has reinstated Barry’s original decorative design and modernised the outof- date ventilation and lighting systems.

As Christine Riding, director of collections and research, has said: ‘From May 2025, as we draw to a close our bicentenary celebration year, all our gallery spaces will be open once again and we will redisplay our collection – as always, free to all, and the jewel in the gallery’s crown. This will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see all the National Gallery’s major works on display at the same time, with no loans going out of the gallery for a year, and display cases and other creative innovations will help have more art on display than ever before. While still broadly chronological, there will be a number of special displays and interventions pairing works from different time periods that respond to the same emotional themes or are inspired by one another. We hope that this will both refresh the collection for visitors that know the gallery well and bring out new experiences in favourite paintings, as well as providing a way into the gallery for those who have yet to discover us.’

Giuseppe Gabrielli The National Gallery 1886, Interior of Room 32 1886 Oil on canvas 110 x 142 cm On loan from the Government Art Collection © Crown Copyright: UK Government Art Collection.

The pressure to blockbusterise everything, to hype every special exhibition as if it were world-changing, means that the pressures on galleries and museums everywhere to win ever-higher attendances is the only sure test of value that their paymasters, usually governments or its agencies, understand. Success is a calculus of footfall. By default, a new building project is merely seen as a device to lure and secure more visitors. We shall see over the next two years if the National Gallery has succeeded. It will not all rest on a new entrance area.

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