Monday 17 January 2011

200 years of pictures

Last weekend, Dulwich Picture Gallery celebrated its 200th birthday. That would be an important milestone for any institution, but it's particularly significant as Dulwich is the country's oldest public art gallery. Its story is an intriguing one of Old Masters, fallen royalty and repeated thefts.

In 1790 art dealers Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans were offered what must have seemed a dream commission. The King of Poland wanted a royal fine arts collection, to act as an inspiration to his nation, and asked them to put it together. That was no small job; in fact they spent five years travelling around Europe purchasing Old Masters for the King. Or rather, the ex-King, for by the time they had finished, Poland had been split between more powerful nations and effectively ceased to exist. Its king was forced to abdicate.

Since the original customer was no longer in a position to buy the dealers' collection, they attepted to sell it elsewhere, but without success. Desenfans died in 1807, and Bourgeois's thoughts turned to bequeathing the paintings to the public. Contact with the British Museum wasn't successful, so Bourgeois came up with another plan: he bequeathed the paintings to Dulwich College. There were clear conditions attached: they should be displayed in a building which was to be designed by Sir John Soane and open to the public. His wishes were carried out, and the Gallery survives to this day although it is now separate from the College.

The Soanes building is fairly unassuming from the outside. However, it is carefully designed so that the skylights flood the galleries with indirect light. One small room is a mausoleum, holding Bourgeois, Desenfans and his wife. The Gallery has been a model for many others around the world.

However, life has been by no means uneventful. A V1 rocket strike in World War II caused serious damage to the west wing; luckily the paintings were safely hidden in Wales. There have also been a number of thefts, and one painting appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most frequently stolen artwork. Rembrandt's Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III has been taken no less than four times, turning up in places as varied as a German left-luggage office and a park bench in Streatham.

With all that history, Dulwich Picture Gallery deserves a party. Only a pedant would point out that it was perhaps a little premature, since the Gallery may have been founded in 1811 but only opened to the public six years later.


Graham said...

There's no reason why the Dulwich Picture Gallery can't have two parties.
The British Museum has celebrated its 250th birthday twice (to my knowledge) in the last ten years. Once for founding and then again for opening.
With the BM as a precedent surely Dulwich can follow?

CarolineLD said...

You're right, if they've got any sense they'll follow the BM's example and have two parties!

clashgour said...

Fantastic blog. Lots of detail and pointers for places to explore.

I found your blog when researching the artist Whistler and was looking for the history of the Rotherhithe Tunnel (pity that it isn't very walkable today!!).

I was at a short talk given by the Director of the Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery in Glasgow at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this week and the Dulwich staff did not demur when he said that his museum was the oldest in the UK having been opened in 1807.

You might like to look at my blog at

CarolineLD said...

Thank you for your kind words!

Interesting that the Hunterian is slightly older. Still, being in Scotland, that does leave the Dulwich Art Gallery as oldest in England.