The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London (Picture: Wikicommons/ Mike Peel)

Why in 1824 did the rich create big rooms full of paintings for ordinary people to look at? On several levels, there was base self-interest at stake. States were nationalising royal art collections in many European countries. The Louvre in Paris opened in 1793.

Its shift from a royal palace to what was supposed to be a people’s domain symbolised the French Revolution’s social transformation. The British monarchy wanted no grubby hands to touch its stolen and hoarded canvasses—and it was successful. The British royal collection remains a private possession today.

The National Gallery could meet the demand for public access to art but keep the palace gates firmly shut. It was built on exhibitions put on by super-rich men. One central figure was the Duke of Bridgewater, a wealthy canal magnate.

He didn’t have much time for paintings until his “enlightened” nephew Lord Gower persuaded him that an exhibition acted as a saleroom. As the National Gallery’s official history puts it, “Once Gower had explained that the Old Masters could turn a healthy profit, the duke developed a rather sudden enthusiasm for art.”

The gallery started small. In 1823 the government bought 38 pictures from the collection of businessman John Julius Angerstein and took over the lease of his Pall Mall townhouse. The public could view the collection there before the construction of the modern gallery in Trafalgar Square in 1838.

Given the centrality of slavery for early capitalism, many of the gallery’s patrons and leading figures were immersed in the blood of the trade in humans. But the gallery wasn’t just about hard cash. It came to project a vision of Britishness—mainly Englishness—and its place in the world. It was Eurocentric, sexist and imperial.

Some emerging capitalists felt a mission to bind workers to this national vision. They hoped it would stop agitators of revolution. If you go to the National Gallery today there are wonderful paintings. But there are also sections of tedious religious and classical Greek and Roman subjects.

At the time these were crucial, attempting to situate the expanding British empire in a tradition of high culture derived from ancient civilisations. And that’s why much landscape painting at this time—before John Constable who produced more radical versions of rural scenes—was populated with Greek temples and classical mythological figures. 

As society went through the most extraordinary period of industrial development, people’s lives were torn apart and class struggle exploded. The gallery was often a repository of idyllic nature. But because art doesn’t just do what our rulers want, even when they choose what’s on the walls, it also displayed critical and radical paintings. 

J M W Turner’s paintings expressing the horrors of slavery and the Napoleonic Wars are in the gallery, although not his most powerful work The Slave Ship. The new capitalist class hoped to shape a vision of Britain that could achieve both a home-grown “Britain is best” art but one rooted in a supposedly universal tradition.

This involved admitting that foreigners had produced some rather good stuff. The first painting in the gallery’s official catalogue—NG1—underlines all these factors. It’s The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo. The artist was an Italian painter of the 16th century High Renaissance and the subject is a classical religious theme. 

It’s highly advanced for its time, but also entirely safe. It plunders a non-British artist rather than venerating them. The National Gallery now has a series of talks and events to mark its bicentenary. 

Almost inevitably these are attached is a slew of merchandise such as the tie-up with Dr Martens footwear. This has produced a boot incorporating 17th century artist Harmen Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life. Just £180 a pair, since you ask.

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