Once you’ve visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery, you definitely know two things: this was the first art gallery in Britain specifically created for the public, and the building was designed by Sir John Soane. These two facts are brought up in the guided tour, the building map, the website, and probably a few other places. But they’re rather remarkable facts, so I can see why the gallery emphasizes them.
Soane was already Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy when his friend’s will requested he design the gallery, so it was a big deal for him to spend his time on it (not only that, but he did it for no fee when it turned out there weren’t enough funds to cover his fee plus building costs). Soane was very interested in natural light and most of his buildings have some form of the domed canopy that we’re all familiar with from the iconic red telephone boxes (a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum, Giles Gilbert Scott, designed the telephone boxes). He did something similar here, putting in massive skylights which light the pictures indirectly; this was a new approach and influenced future art gallery designs.
The other point–that this was the first public gallery in Britain–is also remarkable. The gallery was opened in 1817, at a time when common people were only just starting to be seen as worth educating, let alone exposing to the finer things in life like art. I think the gallery’s openness must be because its founders, Noel Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, were themselves not aristocrats. They hustled hard as art dealers (getting their start with the money Margaret Morris brought in when she married Desenfans), and they lived in comfortable nouveau riche style, inviting well-heeled friends to their home in Charlotte Street to view their personal collection. (Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how perfect that a middle-class man who worked as an art dealer was named Bourgeois–is there anything more bougie than that?) They clearly didn’t forget their roots, though, and I think it’s great that Bourgeois used his powerful connections (he was personal friends with Soane, he was wooed by Dulwich College to bequeath his collection to them) to create something for people with no connections to enjoy.
Although perhaps this collection was destined for public viewing regardless. It was originally commissioned by Stanislaus Augustus, King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to form a national gallery of the old masters as part of his plans to encourage fine art in his country. Perhaps the public would have been invited to view that gallery? But his country kept getting partitioned by greedy nearby states, and five years after the commission, Stanislaus wasn’t ruler of anything anymore, which left Desenfans and Bourgeois with over 300 paintings to house.
The collection now numbers more than 600 paintings, and although the gallery doesn’t make any purchases, people try to make gifts pretty frequently. Because of limited storage space, the gallery has to be quite selective, only accepting pictures that fill a specific gap in the collection.
The rooms are split up into different schools of painting, which more or less followed along national lines: British, Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian. Or as was explained to Queen Elizabeth II when she stood in the center of the gallery to re-open it after a major renovation in 2000: “To the left are the beer drinkers, ma’am, and to the right, the wine drinkers.” Meaning, of course, that the northern Europeans were to the left and the southern Europeans to the right. (Thanks to guide Hillary for this delightful anecdote.)
After the tour was over and we started to disperse, I looked around at who was visiting on a Saturday. A lot of gray-haired folks, yes, but a few other people my age, a teenaged couple who held hands in front of a Rubens, and a couple young kids scampering about while their parents made their way around the Dutch room. Dulwich Picture Gallery might contain expensive works of art centuries years old, but it’s still filling its intended purpose of making that art available to the masses. Its founders would be proud.