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The walls in the restricted-access conservation rooms at the very top of the National Gallery, in London, are painted darkest matte black. The inky hue absorbs any reflection from the sunlight that streams in from the skylights, protecting the paintings under restoration. Currently, Rubens’ magnificent The Judgement of Paris, depicting a quasi-goddess-beauty pageant, is being worked on. In the studios sit high-tech equipment and tools – from digital microscopes to macro X-ray fluorescence scanning equipment – but also unframed paintings on wooden easels, brushes and varnishes. “All those things are very recognisable. There’s a continuity,” says Larry Keith, the gallery’s head of conservation and keeper. “If you brought a Renaissance painter into this space, they would feel at home.” Such preservation and protection have been the lifeblood of the gallery for nearly 200 years.
The Judgement of Paris is just one of the masterpieces under restoration in advance of a complete rehang of the gallery’s permanent collection: its entire inventory is going on display for the first time, arranged thematically. The big reveal will be the culmination of an epic year‑long programme of bicentennial celebrations, which will begin on 10 May 2024, and extensive renovations that “centre around making the gallery more welcoming, more inclusive, and to take it into the future”, says the gallery’s director of development Anh Nguyen, who is at the forefront of a £95mn fundraising drive.
NG200 is the largest ever campaign undertaken by the National Gallery. The visitor spaces are being completely reimagined. The Grade I-listed Sainsbury Wing is being transformed into a more accessible, engaging permanent entrance, foregrounded by a new pedestrianised public area adjacent to Trafalgar Square. An education centre includes an immersive 60sq m creative studio, which will host workshops and events for everyone from toddlers to seniors and groups with special needs; overall it will be able to engage double the number of learning groups annually. There will also be an elegant new members’ house.
Meanwhile, the ambitious programme of bicentennial events is a nationwide proposition. Twelve of the gallery’s most treasured paintings, including Constable’s The Hay Wain and Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus (assuming it can be repaired after it was recently targeted by Just Stop Oil), will journey to UK galleries to form the cornerstones of exhibitions. Travelling art studios will also tour the country. In London, creative workshops will spill out of the gallery onto Trafalgar Square, working up to a collective performance orchestrated by British conceptual artist Jeremy Deller.
Corporates, private donors and foundations have already piled in with funds to the tune of £85mn. But £10mn is still desperately needed from the public. “The last stretch is always the hardest,” says Nguyen. “And failure is not an option.”
The nation has form when it comes to preserving this institution. In 1962, 380,000 people in the first month came to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (sometimes called The Burlington House Cartoon), raising £800,000 – worth more than £21mn today – to save it from a purchase that might have meant it went overseas. “People were literally taping coins to postcards to help save this picture,” says Keith. In a world before corporate donations, “people across the country pitched in because it was the right thing to do. It was important.”
“The paintings in the [National Gallery’s] collection are the people’s paintings,” stresses Nguyen. Unlike the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, the National Gallery’s is not a royal collection or a bequest. It began with the government’s purchase in 1824 of 38 pieces from the collection of businessman John Julius Angerstein, which included European masterworks such as Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode (all six) and Rubens’ The Rape of the Sabine Women. “It was felt that the nation should have a collection,” says the gallery’s research centre manager, Alan Crookham. “It was intended to be democratic in the sense that it was free, that anyone could come in; and to improve our own artistic talent in this country. Public-spirited, high-minded reasons. And those still resonate today.”
The gallery has long held a special place in the UK’s cultural heart. Crookham recounts how, during the second world war, when the paintings were shipped off to a Welsh slate mine for safety, there was a public outcry. A letter to The Times said: “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things.” Rembrandt’s Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, which had never been shown, was subsequently put on display. Thousands came to see it. The response inspired then-gallery director Kenneth Clark to begin a Picture of the Month installation, choosing Titian’s Noli me Tangere – depicting Mary Magdalene unable to touch Jesus – as its first highlight and igniting a tradition that still exists today.
“It is one of the most eminent collections in the world, and while national by name, the works within connect us all through the creative impetus to depict the human experience,” says gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac. Many of the artists he represents have spoken at after-hours talks to share how its paintings have influenced them. “It is a source of inspiration that they are quick to acknowledge, and what they are drawn to is borne out in their work in surprising ways. The collection represents the greatest artistic innovations of the past and as such it stands for modernity, the avant-garde. You feel the urgency of each period of art history represented, and we all have visions imprinted in our mind’s eye of works held in the National Gallery that have changed the way we see art.”
“The National Gallery is the people’s gallery,” concludes Nguyen. Raising the final £10mn is a way not only to ensure the gallery remains so, but that it inspires more people than ever, and in so doing “forges a pathway to being the National Gallery of the future”.
Models, Jordan Whittingham at Next, Louis Mercurol at Success, Onyinyechi Chijioke at Models and Rachael Carruthers at Storm. Casting, Nachum Shonn. Hair, Takuya Uchiyama. Make-up, Jimmy Owen Jones at Julian Watson Agency using Byredo and Naturium. Photographer’s assistants, Akira Trees, Emma Ercolani and Rami Hassen. Stylist’s assistants, Connie Ng and Rachel Allison. Make-up assistant, Simone Svantnerova. Retouching, Touch Digital. Production, Sophie M Productions. Shot at the National Gallery, London
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