No Soane Unturned

By Bates, David | History Today, March 1998 | Go to article overview

No Soane Unturned


Bates, David, History Today


Pre-unification Italy, seen through the eyes of British artists is the focus of a new exhibition, `Italy in the Age of Turner' at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, at a time when the gallery itself prepares for a year of change and redevelopment next year.

A programme of structural change will take place from January 1999 and will concentrate upon modernising the gallery's facilities. The 8 million [pounds sterling] project will be partially funded by 5 million [pounds sterling] of lottery money with the remaining amount coming from private donations. The centrepiece of the project is the construction of a new building at the Dulwich site, which will include a 120-capacity lecture theatre, a cafe, an exhibition area and an auditorium for concerts and other events.

Meanwhile, Sir John Soane's building, which has stood since 1811, will also be refurbished. This will include a modernisation process with the atmospheric control plant being replaced to allow for seasonal fluctuations in temperature. In addition, the roof will be renovated and a new daylight control system installed to maintain a standard level of light on the paintings.

The project also attempts to rediscover much of the gallery's original design, parts of which were changed in the 1950s after it was bombed during the Second World War. The 1950s cork-floor will be replaced with a hard-wood floor resembling that from the nineteenth century, While the skylight will be replaced with a replica of the original. It is this emphasis on recreating as much as possible the gallery's nineteenth-century appearance that allows the modernisation of the museum to go hand in hand with restoration of Soane's original design.

Indeed, like many of his contemporaries in other artistic fields, Soane was heavily influenced by Ancient Rome. His neo-classical designs (also found at the Bank of England), reflect the influence of Italy and Italian heritage upon Britain that was common to many aspects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art. It is the allure of Italy and Ancient Rome that forms an important theme in the gallery's latest exhibition, `Italy in the Age of Turner'.

The exhibition explores J.M.W. Turner and other British artists' visions of Italy in the period after the Napoleonic Wars. It was at this time that the cultural influence of Italy was perhaps at its peak. Britons saw it as a cultural icon that took centre stage on the Grand Tours before war with France; after 1815 its appeal remained, if not increased. …

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