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Part IV On Light in Museum and Mansions in England, France, and Spain

14. Lighting up the Darkness: The National Gallery, London

Sarah Quill

© 2019 Sarah Quill, CC BY 4.0

During the early decades of the nineteenth century most public buildings in Britain, including museums and art galleries, were dependent on daylight for their primary means of lighting. This was usually achieved by means of roof-lanterns, windows or small cupolas, and a perfect example of this in a small museum building was at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. Glazing was expensive, but after the glass excise tax was abolished in 1845, larger sheets of glass could be afforded for roofing material.1

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the museum establishment was split by a long-running debate as to the suitability of artificial lighting in picture galleries: an innovation to which the trustees of the National Gallery were strongly opposed. Their continuing reluctance throughout the nineteenth century and beyond to agree to the use of gas lighting was founded on a number of justifiable fears about environmental damage to the collection.2

The fact that by the second decade of the nineteenth century Britain still had no national gallery of art had long been a source of embarrassment for the nation. The British Museum, the first national public museum in the world, had been founded in 1753 and the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, while the Louvre in Paris had been in existence since 1793. But the funding of art galleries in Britain had always been left to private initiative, until the repayment to the British Government of an Austrian war loan meant that the responsibility could no longer be avoided.3 In February 1824 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick Robinson, promised ‘The establishment of a splendid gallery of works of art, worthy of the nation’. Unlike many museums in continental Europe, the National Gallery was not formed by nationalizing an existing royal collection (the Royal Collection in Britain is still held in trust by the Queen), and Robinson stressed the fact that the works of art involved would not be ‘the rifled treasures of plundered palaces or the unhallowed spoils of violated altars’.4 Instead, the Government purchased the art collection of the recently deceased banker and art collector John Julius Angerstein, with a view to creating the nucleus of a national collection. It consisted of thirty-eight important old master paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Titian, Claude, the Carracci, Velázquez and Reynolds; and Angerstein’s house at 100 Pall Mall was also purchased, to become the National Gallery’s first home. The relatively small building was compared by satirists with the magnificent spaces of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and Charles Hullmandel’s lithograph of 1830, which illustrated both buildings, bore the title The Louvre or the National Gallery Paris, and No. 100 Pall Mall or the National Gallery of England, with a quotation from Hamlet: ‘Look here upon this picture, and on this: the counterfeit presentment of two brothers’.5

The rooms at Pall Mall were overcrowded and hot. The limitations of the building and the small number of pictures led to mockery in the press, and unfavourable comparisons were drawn with the public art museums of mainland Europe. Nevertheless, visitors flocked to the Pall Mall house at the rate of at least fifty people per hour.6 Entry to the gallery was to be free, and the trustees stated that ‘[…] its doors must always be open […] to every decently dressed person […] accessible to all ranks and degrees of men’.7 But the space was inadequate, and the trustees were soon complaining to the Treasury about the overcrowded picture-hanging; they also pointed out that if further offers of pictures were to be made, it would be impossible to show them to the best advantage, and that potential donors tended to stipulate that their gifts be properly displayed.

A watercolour by Frederick Mackenzie showing the interior rooms at Pall Mall was not entirely accurate in all its details: artistic licence was employed to give a more positive impression. The rooms were not so spacious as they appeared in the picture, in which a non-existent skylight was added to the ceilings of the two rooms, following complaints by visitors that the rooms were too dark and dingy for the proper display of paintings. Evidently Mackenzie’s watercolour was made after 1826, when Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–23),8 a major acquisition reproduced in his picture, was bought by the British Government from the Villa Aldobrandini in Rome.

In 1825, Sir George Beaumont, a painter and art collector who had campaigned for the creation of the National Gallery, presented his own collection to the nation, including Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard9 a Rembrandt and several Claudes. These were put on display with Angerstein’s pictures in Pall Mall until subsidence in the building caused the collection to be moved a few doors away to 105 Pall Mall. There the situation was no better, and the novelist Anthony Trollope described the building as ‘a dingy, dull, narrow house, ill-adapted for the exhibition of the treasures it held’.10

In 1831 Parliament agreed to construct a building for what was to become the permanent home of the National Gallery, on the north side of Trafalgar Square on the former site of the King’s Mews. Designed by William Wilkins, it was completed in 1838 and opened by Queen Victoria, who had come to the throne the year before. The building, which had a wide frontage but measured only one gallery room in depth, was much criticized, and soon became too small for its purpose. It would also house the Royal Academy in the east wing for thirty years until the Academy moved to Burlington House in 1868. Within thirty years the new National Gallery was already considered too small, and architecturally unworthy of its important site in the centre of London. Adequate daylight was provided by the central dome, skylights, and glass-roofed spaces, but only a year after the opening, there had been complaints to the trustees about the ‘heat and the foulness of the air in the rooms and the lack of sufficient ventilation in the Galleries’.11

London was a heavily polluted city, partly due to the coal-burning industries based in the city and the increasing consumption of coal for domestic heating.12 After investigating the grimy state of the pictures, the trustees concluded that the damage was caused by a combination of the soot and smoke expelled from the many chimneys in the area, as well as the high number of visitors, and that gas lighting would only exacerbate the problem. Opening the skylights of the gallery provided some ventilation, but also caused yet more dust and smoke to enter the rooms, so that in 1847 the Keeper, Charles Eastlake,13 reported to the Trustees that the floors occasionally had to be watered to help lay the dust.14 The lighting of public buildings by piped gas was being widely introduced, but it was decided that gas lighting at the National Gallery should be avoided, because it was already causing problems in other London buildings.

Sir Charles Eastlake, who had become Director in 1855, travelled widely in Europe to expand the collection, and he was particularly anxious to increase the number of Italian works of art in the gallery. One of his most important acquisitions was purchased from Count Vettor Pisani in Venice in 1857: Veronese’s Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–70),15 described by John Ruskin as ‘the most precious Paul Veronese in the world’,16 and of which Henry James would later write, ‘the picture sends a glow into the cold London twilight’.17 It was as well that the picture had its own glow, for there was still to be no lighting by gas at Trafalgar Square, even in the early years of the twentieth century. The trustees of the British Museum were in agreement, continuing to hold out against evening openings and artificial lighting.

The Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall had been an early convert to gas in the 1830s, but the sulphur dioxide emissions were soon causing damage there in various ways — principally to leather book-bindings and pictures, so that the club was forced to increase its membership fees to help cover the high costs of repairs.18 After 1886 the Athenaeum was lit by electric light, which was still a relative innovation for public buildings in London. The scientist Michael Faraday, who was invited to investigate the problem of smoke and pollution in the National Gallery in 1850, reported on the types of pollutant existing in London, including ‘inorganic fumes from chimneys and the organic miasma from the crowds that are in the town’.19 The avoidance of gas lighting at the National Gallery meant that evening openings were out of the question, and that gallery hours continued to be dependent on available daylight.

But there were other considerations affecting the decision to avoid evening openings: the people. London and the northern cities were awash with public houses and gin palaces; gin was cheap, and drunkenness was a major problem. A programme of civic improvement had followed a Parliamentary Bill of 1834: the intention was to provide recreational and cultural activities that would, it was hoped, help divert the poorer classes away from their undesirable leisure pursuits in the public houses to enjoy more refined and improving pastimes.20 The report caused some hilarity in the House of Commons and was ridiculed in the Press; the Spectator labelled it ‘The Report of the Drunken Committee’, and wrote, ‘It is impossible to read a single paragraph of this document without laughing, it is so rich in absurdity’.21

But the hope remained that the high culture and education provided by museums and art galleries might help turn the working man away from drink and dissipation. The National Gallery Keeper, Thomas Uwins, was disconcerted when he came across a family having an impromptu picnic in the gallery, with ‘[…] a basket of provisions, and who […] seemed to make themselves very comfortable […] I suggested to them the impropriety of such a proceeding […] they were very good-humoured, and a lady offered me a glass of gin, and wished me to partake of what they had provided’.22 People tended to bring in their entire families, including small babies, and there were the inevitable accidents. Along with misgivings about the behaviour of some of the daytime visitors, there was the worry that the wrong sort of people were likely to be attracted in the evenings, should the gallery hours be extended. Directly behind the gallery in Trafalgar Square were the Charing Cross army barracks, the workhouse at St Martin in the Fields, and the insalubrious areas surrounding Leicester Square and Soho. Trafalgar Square itself was full of rough sleepers at night, and it was feared that drunken soldiers and prostitutes might use the building as a convenient meeting place in the evenings. Fire was another hazard: serious fires in gas-lit theatres frequently broke out, and in 1872 the Drury Lane Theatre burned down entirely. So for a variety of reasons, the trustees of both the British Museum and the National Gallery remained unanimous that they would not allow their collections to be open at any hour that would require gaslight, and they continued to resist evening openings, in spite of repeated calls from both press and Parliament.

From the outset the National Gallery’s collection had included works by British artists. By the mid-1840s, the rooms were already overcrowded, and when Robert Vernon presented a large gift of British works to the Gallery in 1847, including four Turners, they had to be displayed elsewhere: first at Vernon’s private house, and later at Marlborough House. A further complication was the Turner Bequest itself. J. M. W. Turner, who had died in 1851, left a large number of oil paintings, drawings and watercolours to the National Gallery, including The Sun Rising through Vapour (before 1807)23 and The Fighting Temeraire (1839).24 The Turner Bequest of 1856 was the largest donation of works ever made to the National Gallery, and it imposed certain conditions on the trustees, not all of which could easily be met; Charles Eastlake’s directorship was somewhat overshadowed by the inability of the National Gallery trustees properly to fulfil the terms of the bequest. Lack of space was the principal problem: there was not nearly enough room to house the works at Trafalgar Square, and it was decided that the British Collection should be exhibited at the picture galleries of the South Kensington Museum (later to become known as the Victoria and Albert Museum). That decision meant that the National Gallery’s British pictures would in fact be exposed to the gas lighting being used by another museum.

The South Kensington Museum (established in 1852 and originally based at Marlborough House in the Mall) had come about as a result of the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was part of the vision of Prince Albert, who had planned the creation of a complex of museums and institutions that would embrace a wide range of educational enterprise in the sciences, engineering, manufacturing and the arts. The new museum, which opened in 1857, was in the rural and desirable area of South Kensington, and could thus afford to take a more enlightened attitude towards gaslight and evening openings. Its ambitious and energetic director, Henry Cole, installed gas lighting at the earliest opportunity, with a system that consisted of open fishtail burners extending from the pipes that supplied the gas.25

The working man’s day was long, with a minimum of about sixty-five hours a week, and Saturdays were part of the working week. Henry Cole was determined to increase visitor numbers, and he extended the South Kensington Museum’s opening hours until 10pm on two evenings a week, to enable working people to visit and thereby provide ‘a powerful antidote to the gin palace,’ as he wrote.26 As though to underline the point, Queen Victoria’s first official visit for the South Kensington Museum’s opening in 1857 took place in the evening at 9.30pm.

John Ruskin, who had undertaken the enormous task of cataloguing almost 20,000 of Turner’s sketches and drawings for the National Gallery, had strong reservations about the advisability of gas lighting, and in 1859 he wrote to The Times, ‘I take no share in the responsibility of lighting the pictures of Reynolds or Turner with gas […] on the contrary, my experience would lead me to apprehend serious injury to those pictures from such a measure; and it is with profound regret that I have heard of its adoption’.27 And Ralph Wornum, the National Gallery Keeper at the time, noted in his diary, ‘I suspect he is right: it dries the air too much’.28 Two years earlier, in 1857, Ruskin had proposed that Turner’s drawings be stored in cases for their protection against dust and light, and exposed only infrequently to the light.29

Following continuing public criticism of the lack of space in the gallery rooms, the National Gallery building was extended by the architect Edward M. Barry between 1869 and 1876. He added seven new galleries at the east end, and arranged the five main ‘Barry Rooms’ in the form of a Greek cross, with the large octagonal domed room no. 36 at the centre. The extension created much needed extra space and light, and it also meant that the British pictures being exhibited at the South Kensington Museum could be returned to Trafalgar Square. (At the end of the nineteenth century, many of them, including those from the Vernon and Turner bequests, made their way to the Tate Gallery, which was established in 1897 as a new national gallery of British art, and which later became independent of the National Gallery.)

The question of Sunday openings was another issue that split the museum world and provided good material for satirists and illustrators. Where the National Gallery was concerned, the trustees continued to resist pressure, and to hold out against illumination by gas. There were to be many years of debate before Sunday opening was eventually introduced at the gallery in 1896, although it had already come into effect in many other London galleries.30

In 1880 the South Kensington Museum introduced electric lighting into its galleries, and the British Museum followed suit in 1890.31 The decision to install electric light at the National Gallery was made much later (in 1914), but it was not until 1935, under the directorship of Kenneth Clark, that the gallery, having bypassed gas lighting altogether, installed electric light in all the rooms and finally introduced evening opening hours for three nights a week until 8pm. But so far as visitor numbers were concerned, it was already too late: new leisure distractions had taken over, and the biggest attraction in the 1930s was the cinema. For the time being, the mass audience was lost to the museums and galleries, many of which were forced to reduce their evening opening hours, or to abandon evening openings altogether.

By the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the National Gallery had become a leader in the field of lighting systems for museums and galleries, and was the first institution to use LED lighting in conjunction with an automated system of adjustment of roof-light blinds. These blinds open and close gradually, in accordance with the amount and angle of sunlight that enters, and the new system ensures that an even and diffused light reaches the galleries through UV-filtered roof light glazing, so that the natural light is augmented only when necessary. The National Gallery has continued to expand its collection, with a combination of public expenditure and private gift, and has held to its original aim: to care for the national collection of paintings, and to keep it free of charge for the public to visit.

1 Richard Redgrave, ‘The Construction of Picture Galleries’, The Builder, 28 November 1857, pp. 689–90.

2 Geoffrey N. Swinney, ‘The Evil of Vitiating and Heating the Air: Artificial Lighting and Public Access to the National Gallery, London, with Particular Reference to the Turner and Vernon Collections’, Journal of the History of Collections 15.1 (2003), 83–112.

3 Jonathan Conlin, The Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery (London: Pallas Athene, 2006), p. 52.

5 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, scene 4.

6 Brandon Taylor, Art for the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public 1747–2001 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 37.

7 G. J. W. Ellis, Quarterly Review 31 (April 1824), 210–13, cited in Conlin, The Nation’s Mantelpiece, p. 53.

10 Anthony Trollope, quoted in G. Martin, ‘Founding of the National Gallery’, part 7, Connoisseur, October 1974, 108–13 (p. 113).

11 Minutes of the National Gallery Board of Trustees, April 1839, vol. 1, p. 145.

12 David Saunders, ‘Pollution and the National Gallery’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 21 (2000), 77–94.

13 Charles Lock Eastlake, PRA (1793–1865), painter, collector, gallery director and writer, was appointed the National Gallery’s first Keeper in 1843. Knighted in 1850, he was elected first President of the Photographic Society in 1853, and in 1855 became Director of the National Gallery.

14 Minutes of the National Gallery Board of Trustees, July 1847, vol. 1, p. 356, cited in Saunders, ‘Pollution and the National Gallery’, p. 77.

16 The Stones of Venice, vol. II, in E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn (eds.), The Works of John Ruskin, 12 vols. (Library Edition, London 1903–12), XI, p. 359.

17 Henry James, Italian Hours (London: Heinemann, 1909), p. 18.

18 Humphry Ward, History of the Athenaeum, 1824–1925 (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1926).

19 Report from the Select Committee on the National Gallery, 25 July 1850, para 684, cited in Saunders ‘Pollution and the National Gallery’, p. 77.

21 The Spectator, 9 August 1834, p. 16,

22 Report from the Select Committee on the National Gallery: Together with Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index (London: House of Commons, 25 July 1850), para. 82.

25 Geoffrey N. Swinney, ‘Attitudes to Artificial Lighting in the Nineteenth Century’, University Museums in Scotland, conference paper, Edinburgh, 2002,

26 Henry Cole, Alan Summerly Cole (Donor.), Diaries, 1822–1882 (1857), held in the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, MSL/1934/4117-4159.

27 John Ruskin, Works XIII, p. 339.

28 Ralph Wornum, Diary 1855–77, National Gallery Archive, NG 32/67.

29 Saunders, ‘Pollution and the National Gallery’, citing Minutes of the National Gallery Board of Trustees, 9 February 1857, vol. 4, p. 77.

30 Conlin, The Nation’s Mantelpiece, p. 236.

31 Ibid., p. 238.