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The History of The National Gallery

National Gallery from atop Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London

The History of The National Gallery

The History of the National Gallery, started when the British government bought 38 paintings in 1824 from the heirs of a London businessman who was a patron of the fine arts and a collector. It was the prospect that his critical collection of paintings was about to be sold by his estate, and be lost to the nation, as had previously happened with other private collections that galvanised the founding of the National Gallery. Unlike art museums in continental Europe, the National Gallery was not formed by nationalising an existing royal collection. It came into being after the initial 1824 purchase and by private donations, which today account for the majority of the collection. The National Gallery collection today covers most of the significant developments in Western painting.

The present building, the third to house the National Gallery, was designed starting in 1832. Only the façade onto Trafalgar Square remains mostly unchanged from that time, the rest of the building has been expanded piecemeal over the last nearly 200 years. The original building was criticised for its lack of space, which led to the establishment of the Tate Gallery for British art in 1897. The most recent extension of the National Gallery was the Sainsbury Wing, an extension to the west, which is a notable example of Postmodernist architecture in Britain.

Key historical Milestones in the History of the National Gallery include:

  • 1793 – The Louvre was formed out of the former French royal collection.
  • 1805 – The “British Institution” was founded by a group of aristocratic connoisseurs, attempted to address this the lack of a National European Collection.
  • 1824 – The British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein.
  • 1824 – The National Gallery opened to the public, housed in Angerstein’s former townhouse at No. 100 Pall Mall.
  • 1832 – Construction began on the current building in Charing Cross, in an area that had been transformed over the 1820s into Trafalgar Square.
  • 1906 – The first acquisition by the National Art Collections Fund, was Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus.
  • 1940 – With the outbreak of World War II,  paintings were evacuated to various locations in Wales.
  • 1991 – The Sainsbury Wing was built as the west wing.
  • 2004 – The first phase of the East Wing Project opened to the public.
  • 2014 – The first major American painting to be purchased by the Gallery – “Men of the Docks” by George Bellows.

For more insights, see our book "MASTERPIECES of the NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON."

MASTERPIECES of the NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON covers the essential Masterpieces of the National Gallery to tell the story of Western European painting.

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The NATIONAL GALLERY of LONDON'S collection is representative of the major Art Movements over a period of seven centuries. This book guides readers to the essential Masterpieces of the National Gallery.


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Photo Credit: Robert MacPherson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons