Inside London's Oldest Art Gallery

By Zoe Craig Last edited 90 months ago

Last Updated 09 November 2016

Inside London's Oldest Art Gallery

Opened in 1817, London's oldest art gallery is the Dulwich Picture Gallery in Southwark, south east London. It's also England's first purpose-built, public art gallery.

The enfilade at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

1. It's got a unique origin story

The Dulwich Picture Gallery grew out of three separate art collections.

The facade of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Photo by Stuart Leech.

The first, by Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur Edward Alleyn, included several portraits of English kings and queens. He gave his collection to Dulwich College (the school he founded) when he died. 26 of these pictures are still in the Dulwich collection.

This was added to by actor William Cartwright on his death in 1686; of his 239 pictures, you can still see 77 at Dulwich.

Later, at the turn of the 18th century, two art dealers, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, were commissioned with putting together an art collection for the King of Poland.

The pair spent five years trotting around Europe, putting together the finest collection they could; but in 1795, the King was forced to abdicate. Poland had been partitioned so many times by its neighbours that it had ceased to exist.

Francis Bourgeois RA (1753/6-1811) and Noel Desenfans (1744-1807). Don't you just fancy heading round Europe hunting for art with this pair?

The duo offered their now glorious 360-strong art collection to the Tsar of Russia and the British government... and were turned down by both. First Desenfans, then Bourgeois died, leaving the collection to Desenfans's widow.

Margaret Desenfans honoured Bourgeois's will, and planned to display the art publicly in a purpose-built gallery, designed by a friend of her late husband, Sir John Soane.

2. It's an architectural marvel

Soane designed Dulwich Picture Gallery as a series of interlocking rooms, lit by overhead skylights. The skylights are designed to light the paintings beneath indirectly.

Soane's plans for the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

It sounds simple, but Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first of its kind in the world, and has influenced the design of art galleries across the world ever since.

Dulwich Picture Gallery from above, with all those skylights...

Looking at the raw brick exterior today, we might not see anything particularly exciting; but this is another innovative (at the time) feature that has been adopted and copied by 20th century art gallery designers all over London, and indeed, the world.

Architect Philip Johnson (1906–2005) said "Soane has taught us how to display paintings".

3. Some of its founders are buried in the gallery

Remember Bourgeois and Mr and Mrs Desenfans?

The threesome credited with founding the gallery are still there: in a unique mausoleum inside the gallery.

Francis Bourgeois' tomb in the Mausoleum.

All three died before the gallery opened, but their incredible work is beautifully honoured in the building itself.

4. It inspired the telephone box

Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the classic K2 telephone kiosk, took inspiration from Dulwich Picture Gallery's mausoleum roof.

Soane's 'pendentive' roof, seen on both the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Soane's mausoleum in St Pancras Old Churchyard both inspired Scott's design.

(Scott had just been made trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum when the competition for a new telephone box design was announced.)

Dulwich Picture Gallery Mausoleum and K2 phone box. Photo by tpholland.

Happily, there's a traditional red phone box in the grounds of the gallery, so you can check out the similarities yourself.

5. It houses a world-class collection

Because of the unique nature of its birth, plus some impressive bequests, Dulwich Picture Gallery contains one of the world's finest collections of Old Masters; that is, European painters working before 1800.

There's a rich offering of Dutch, Flemish, French and Italian paintings inside, as well as plenty of British portraits dating from Tudor times to the 19th century.

Nicolas Poussin, The Nurture of Jupiter. Curious about this painting? Read more on the DPG website here.

For example, the collection includes seven pictures by Thomas Gainsborough; nine by Joshua Reynolds; two each by Italians Rafael and Canaletto; 10 by Peter Paul Rubens; and six by Nicolas Poussin.  

6. It's had some pretty impressive visitors

Because of its world class collection of Old Masters, Dulwich Picture Gallery has long been a popular destination for art students: John Constable, William Etty, JMW Turner, and even Vincent Van Gogh are said to have visited the gallery.

Dickens gives the gallery a mention in The Pickwick Papers; the protagonist Samuel Pickwick visits the collection during his retirement.

HM The Queen reopened the gallery in May 2000, following extensive refurbishment.

Other notable visitors include HM The Queen Mum, who reopened the gallery in 1953, following bomb damage and refurbishment; and the Queen herself, in 2000, following another big refurbishment.

7. It contains the world's most stolen painting

Rembrandt's small early portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen and recovered four times, most recently in 1983.

It's nicknamed the 'takeaway Rembrandt' and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most frequently stolen artwork in the world.

Rembrandt's 'takeaway' portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III. Part of the Google Art Project.

It's 'steal-ability' is probably down to its size: just less than 30cm by 25 cm.

Jacob de Gheyn III has been recovered in some brilliantly mundane places: it was found in a left-luggage office in West Germany in 1986, after being missing for three years; it's been returned anonymously; found on the back of a bicycle; and discovered under a bench in a graveyard in Streatham.

The painting is now guarded by an upgraded security system.

8. You can sleep over in the gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery hosted its first ever sleepover for kids in 2015, called Pillows and Paintbrushes.

Look out for more sleepovers at Dulwich Picture Gallery in future.

Sleepovers are just one of many special events hosted by the gallery: you can watch films, hear live music, learn to paint and enjoy talks and tours... Find out more here.