Museums and Modernity: Art Galleries and the Making of Modern Culture

By Nick Prior | Go to book overview

3
“The Peculiarities of the English”: The
Formation of the National Gallery,
London

E. P. Thompson's recognition of the ‘unique equilibrium of forces’ (1978: 255), the distinct elements in the complex mix of English social development, is a worthy one. It does not seek to over-conflate historical models and yet remains mindful of genealogical commonalities in the onset of European bourgeois modernity. England is late in the development of its national art gallery. This is not to say that it is anomalous, beyond comparison; merely late. The French had their Louvre in 1793, the Swedes their moment of glory a year later; the Prado had been founded in 1819 and the Rijksmuseum in 1808. England's National Gallery stuttered into existence in 1824, and remained in conditions tantamount to a private mansion until 1838. 1 ‘That nation’, one French art theorist quipped of England during the Napoleonic Wars, ‘has no centralised, dominant collection, despite all the acquisitions made by its private citizens who have naturally retained them for their private enjoyment’ (cited in Haskell, 1985: 51). By 1836, the government's Select Committee on Arts, and their Connexion with Manufactures concurred with this assessment, adding that ‘a private collector may be an excellent judge of cabinet-pictures; but he may not have the comprehensive knowledge required in the choice of a national collection’ (SC, 1836: 10). 2 Key questions followed: on what basis should the national collection be assembled, displayed and arranged? Who should be the new superintendents of national high culture? And what was the best way of opening up the collection to a national public without reducing it to sensual amusement?

The present chapter is an attempt to investigate some of the social conditions that mustered around state-art relations in England, chiefly from the seventeenth century, and to sketch the gradual development of a national space for art in the early nineteenth century. It falls into three broad sections which can be matched to those constructed previously: a period of radical uncertainty in the seventeenth century, a time of socio-cultural transition and recovery in the eighteenth century and modern deliverance in the early nineteenth century. In each profile the

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