Dulwich Picture Gallery is an art gallery in Dulwich, South London. The gallery, designed by Regency architect Sir John Soane using an innovative and influential method of illumination, opened to the public in 1817. It is the oldest public art gallery in England and was made an independent charitable trust in 1994. Until this time the gallery was part of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, a charitable foundation established by the actor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Edward Alleyn in the early-17th century. The acquisition of artworks by its founders and bequests from its many patrons resulted in Dulwich Picture Gallery housing one of the country’s finest collections of Old Masters, especially rich in French, Italian and Spanish Baroque paintings and in British portraits from Tudor times to the 19th century.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is England’s first purpose-built public art gallery: it was founded in 1811 when Sir Francis Bourgeois RA bequeathed his collection of Old Master paintings “for the inspection of the public”. The Gallery was designed by Regency architect Sir John Soane and houses one of the country’s fi nest collections of Old Masters, especially rich in French, Italian and Spanish Baroque paintings and in British portraits from Tudor times to the nineteenth century.
Dulwich Picture Gallery house a world-class collection of Old Master paintings in Sir John Soane’s unique building allowing visitors to experience exceptional art in an intimate, welcoming setting. Dulwich Picture Gallery remain relevant by uniting our history with our present using innovative exhibitions, scholarship and pioneering education to change lives.
Today the Gallery is a vibrant cultural hub hosting some of the UK’s leading exhibitions alongside its Permanent Collection of Baroque masterpieces while staging a wide-ranging programme of public events, practical art and community engagement.
Dulwich Picture Gallery sprung out of one of the most successful art dealerships in London during the late 18th century – the partnership of Frenchman, Noël Desenfans (1745 – 1807), and his younger Swiss friend, the painter, Sir Francis Bourgeois, RA (1756 – 1811). The enterprise appears to have been launched by the dowry of Desenfans’ wife, Margaret Morris.
In 1790 the pair were commissioned by Stanislaus Augustus, King of Poland, to form a Royal Collection from scratch. They devoted the next five years exclusively to this task during which time Poland was gradually partitioned by its more powerful neighbours leading in 1795 to its complete disappearance as an independent state. The King was forced to abdicate, which left the two dealers with a Royal Collection on their hands.
Bourgeois and Desenfans strove to resolve their situation in two ways. In private they sold individual works from their Polish stock and replaced them with further important purchases. In public they sought a home for their “Royal Collection” approaching, amongst others, the Tsar of Russia and the British Government. When it became clear that they would not be able to sell the collection in its entirety, they began to think to whom they might bequeath it. This became more pressing after Desenfans’ death in 1807, which left Bourgeois as the sole owner. At that date there was no National Gallery, so the key candidate was the British Museum. However, Bourgeois found its trustees too ‘arbitrary’ and ‘aristocratic’ and so he decided to leave his collection to Dulwich College instead, despite him having no obvious connection with the school. More important than the destination was the stipulation in the will that the paintings should be made available for the ‘inspection of the public’. So it was that Dulwich Picture Gallery – England’s first purpose-built public art gallery – was founded by the terms of Sir Francis Bourgeois’s will upon his death in 1811.
Bourgeois and Desenfans reflected the taste and market opportunities of their time by concentrating on European painting of the 17th and 18th centuries, the period sometimes known as the ‘Age of Baroque’. Their taste was broad with a strong representation of all the major national styles of painting – Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish and Dutch. The great collection of English painting at Dulwich is largely due to two later donations. The group of Linley family portraits was given in 1835 and the Fairfax Murray Gift (also in the main comprising English portraits) in 1911.
During the period 1600 – 1750 European art was at its most rich and most diverse. This was an age when artists were working for radically different societies and did so with astonishing individualism and experimental audacity. The result is an impressive range of style and different ways of looking at the world. To make sense of this kaleidoscope of painting, the collection has been hung by country and period. The Latins – the Italians, Spanish and French are hung at the north end of the Gallery; the Northern Europeans – Flemish, Dutch and British – to the south. The Gallery as a whole thus allows for a ‘broad-brush’ contrast between these two European polarities. Today Dulwich Picture Gallery houses one of the finest collections of Old Masters in the world.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is one of the finest examples of gallery architecture in Britain. It was designed and built by the leading architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) at the personal request of his friend Sir Francis Bourgeois, who had left a fund of £2,000 to establish a permanent home for his collection. The commission also included a mausoleum for the Gallery’s founders, as well as almshouses.
The initial idea was to display the paintings in the existing west wing of the College, but finding it in a state of disrepair on his first site visit, Soane proposed they construct a new building altogether. He submitted a number of designs to Dulwich College, including perspective views in watercolour to show how the building would look in daylight and in its surrounding landscape. After numerous alterations, Soane’s plans were finally approved in July 1811. The foundations were laid on 19 October and the Gallery opened to the public in 1817.
The authorities wanted the new gallery to be in keeping with the existing Jacobean architecture of the old college. While Soane’s initial designs incorporated some of these characteristics, he ultimately created a building with simplified forms that subtly alluded to the Classical style in a series of vertical brick projections, a type of pilaster, on the wings. He estimated that this new building would cost in the region of £11,270, substantially more than Bourgeois had provisioned. The deficit was generously met by the College, as well as Margaret Desenfans. Soane did not charge for his services and he constructed the gallery in low-cost London stock bricks, only using expensive Portland stone in the lantern, frieze and along the base of the building. His use of brick was met with criticism at the time as it was a material considered too humble for such an important structure, but it is a testimony to the economy of his design.
The mausoleum is one of the Gallery’s defining features. Located to the west of the building, it is shaped to recall a funeral monument, with urns atop the building, sarcophagi above the doors and sacrificial altars in the corners. Each tier of the structure carefully relates to one another in proportion. Bourgeois, Noel and Margaret Desenfans are buried here.
Inside, the Gallery originally consisted of only five rooms linked by a series of arches, creating an endless sense of space. The pioneering roof-lanterns diffuse a natural top light that is ideal for viewing paintings, while also leaving as much space as possible for the hanging of pictures. The building has influenced the design of art galleries ever since, such as the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
The Gallery has undergone a number of alterations since Soane’s day. In 1866 Charles Barry Jr added a lobby to the south end of the gallery (removed in 1953), and in 1884 the almshouses were converted into galleries. Further rooms were added in 1910 by the College’s architect E.S. Hall, but not completed until 1937 under the supervision of Goodhart-Rendel. The building was severely bomb-damaged in 1944 during the Second World War but was rebuilt in replica by the architects Austin Vernon Associates under the guidance of Arthur Davies RA and Sir Edward Maufe RA. More recently in 2000, a further extension designed by Rick Mather was added to provide essential education facilities as well as modern-day amenities. The old and new buildings are sympathetically connected by a glass cloister.
The Gallery owns one of the finest collections of Old Master paintings in the world especially rich in French, Italian and Spanish Baroque paintings and in British portraits from Tudor times to the 19th century. Famous works include those by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Poussin, Watteau, Canaletto, Rubens, Veronese and Murillo amongst many others. Founded in 1811, it was the first purpose-built public art gallery to open to the public and remains one of Britain’s most valued artistic and architectural treasures.
From talks, tours and performances to creative workshops and courses, we offer a range of inspiring opportunities for schools, young people, adults and families to engage with art and artists.
Dulwich Picture Gallery unite our past with our present through a unique programme of innovative exhibitions, approaching art and artists from new and different angles. Our shows might introduce new artists to the UK; or rediscover artists once famous, now neglected; or present new perspectives on household names. Currently, our programme has four principal strands: Modern British, Rediscovering Old Masters: the Melosi Series, Works on Paper and International.
Dulwich Picture Gallery aim to engage people in the visual arts, through scholarship, exhibition, and education, reaching out and serving as wide a public as possible by making all our activities accessible, for people of all ages and abilities. Our Good Times: Art for Older People programme addresses pressing issues facing older people (and their carers) such as dementia and Alzheimer’s; while our youth programme, The Creatives tackles isolation and at-risk groups of younger people. These two groups come together in our intergenerational programme to help address issues of social cohesion.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery and its mausoleum are listed Grade II* on the National Heritage List for England.