National Gallery

The National Gallery is an art gallery in London, located on the north side of Trafalgar Square. It houses Western European paintings from 1250 to 1900 from the national art collection of Great Britain.

The collection of 2,300 paintings belongs to the British public, and entry to the main collection is free, although there are charges for entry to special exhibitions.

Compared to the majority of European nation states, Great Britain was a late starter in establishing a national art collection open to the public. Whereas the great galleries of continental Europe, such as the Uffizi in Florence or the Prado in Madrid, were built on royal or princely art collections that had been nationalised, the British Royal Collection remained in the possession of the sovereign, dispersed across various royal palaces. A collection equally princely in quality was that assembled by Sir Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister, at his home at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. The threat of these works being sold abroad moved John Wilkes, speaking to the House of Commons in 1777, to call for the establishment of a national gallery as an adjunct to the British Museum.

The government paid no heed to Wilkes’s appeal and 20 years later the collection was bought in its entirety by Catherine the Great; it is now to be found in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. In 1811 London became home to a collection intended for a never-realised national gallery of Poland when it was bequeathed in the will of one of one of the men who had assembled it, Sir Francis Bourgeois, to Dulwich College (it now resides in the Dulwich Picture Gallery). But with the college being a private institution in a South London suburb, the British capital remained without a state-owned national gallery in a central location until after the Napoleonic Wars.

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