How Do You Rewrite a Sonnet?
Glancey, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
Perhaps Dr Faustus turned Edward Alleyn's head with his fanciful quest for divine knowledge. Alleyn was the Jacobean actor who played Tamburlaine, Barabbas and Dr Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's visceral and sensational tragedies. But, where Faust was sensationally selfish and signed his soul away to Lucifer, Alleyn founded the College of God's Gift, which became a charity in 1619 and, in 1811, sired Britain's first public picture gallery. The kernel of the collection was bequeathed by Alleyn at his death in 1626.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Sir John Soane (1757-1837), has grown from these dramatic Jacobean beginnings, and certainly since 1814 when Soane finished work here, into a gallery with an international renown that has, in recent years, weighed heavily on its slender architectural shoulders.
Soane, one of the most imaginative architects of the Napoleonic era, had dreamed of an ambitious pantheon to the arts, but a budget of a little less than pounds 10,000 encouraged, or forced, him to squeeze his ideas into a ball. The result is one of the most delightful and important buildings of its, or any other, era, at once austere and poetic, a masterpiece of composition and compression. This is architecture in sonnet form. Today, the pint-sized gallery is too famous for its own good, a Mecca for architects and architectural students from around the world. An ever increasing number of visitors come not just to see the building but to gawp at its superb collection of paintings stacked three, four and even five high under Soane's revolutionary, top-lit galleries. As the building is great architecture condensed, so the collection is as rich and subtle as a 1976 burgundy. Here, Rembrandt jostles for attention among Cuyp and Van Dyck, Rubens and Murillo, Poussin and Gainsborough. Collected, for the most part, in the 1790s by the art dealer Noel Desenfans for a putative National Gallery in Warsaw, the bulk of these had been sold to Sir Francis Bourgeois who left 371 of them to Dulwich College in 1811 together with pounds 10,000 for their maintenance. This led to Soane's commission, and the gallery we know today. Extending the gallery has become a necessity. Cramped, and lacking in virtually every modern facility (a virtue to incurable romantics, a vice to curators), Dulwich is looking to expand. Before anyone throws up their hands in horror - how can a sonnet be improved? - it must be said, and clearly so, that the proposed extension is modest, gentle and self-effacing. Designed by Rick Mather, who is currently working on designs for the Neptune Court at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and a revamp of the Wallace Collection in London's Manchester Square, the proposed buildings will form the suggestion of a glazed garden cloister fronting Soane's original entrance. Soane's building will not be touched, except in so far as what are now a comfortable old gents' lavatory and storerooms upstairs at one end of the gallery will in future be space given over to paintings. The new lavatories, along with a new cafe, lecture theatre, schoolroom for visiting children (more than 8,000 this year), storerooms and gallery offices, may be housed in an empty wing of Dulwich College, but as the gallery is now independently run, with a new board of trustees formed in March 1994, detailed negotiations are still under way. The trustees and the gallery's recently appointed director, Desmond Shawe- Taylor, will be looking at a probable cost of just under pounds 10m, which is modest, and which it hopes will be largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the remaining 25 per cent coaxed from the private sector. Although the new board of trustees includes at least one billionaire (Lord Sainsbury, the supermarket tycoon) and funding should not, ultimately, be a problem, it would be wise for the gallery to seek backing from diverse sources. If not, it could well be in danger of appearing to be bullied by those with time and far too much money on their hands. …