The National Gallery is an art museum in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, in Central London. Founded in 1824, it houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900.
The Gallery is an exempt charity, and a non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Its collection belongs to the government on behalf of the British public, and entry to the main collection is free of charge. It is among the most visited art museums in the world, after the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unlike comparable museums in continental Europe, the National Gallery was not formed by nationalising an existing royal or princely art collection. It came into being when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein, an insurance broker and patron of the arts, in 1824. After that initial purchase the Gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors, notably Sir Charles Lock Eastlake , and by private donations, which comprise two-thirds of the collection.
The resulting collection is small in size, compared with many European national galleries, but encyclopedic in scope; most major developments in Western painting “from Giotto to Cézanne” are represented with important works. It used to be claimed that this was one of the few national galleries that had all its works on permanent exhibition, but this is no longer the case.
Only the facade on Trafalgar Square remains essentially unchanged from this time, the building has been expanded piecemeal throughout its history. Wilkins’s building was often criticized for the perceived weaknesses of its design and for its lack of space; the latter problem led to the establishment of the Tate Gallery for British art in 1897.
The Sainsbury Wing, an extension to the west by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is a notable example of Postmodernist architecture in Britain. The current Director of the National Gallery is Gabriele Finaldi.
The Gallery was caught in controversy in 2018 over having some of the most expensive exhibition prices ever seen in London.
The late 18th century saw the nationalization of royal or princely art collections across mainland Europe. The Bavarian royal collection (now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) opened to the public in 1779, that of the Medici in Florence around 1789 (as the Uffizi Gallery), and the Museum Français at the Louvre was formed out of the former French royal collection in 1793. Great Britain, however, did not emulate the continental model, and the British Royal Collection remains in the sovereign’s possession today. In 1777 the British government had the opportunity to buy an art collection of international stature, when the descendants of Sir Robert Walpole put their collection up for sale. The MP John Wilkes argued for the government to buy this “invaluable treasure” and suggested that it be housed in “a noble gallery … to be built in the spacious garden of the British Museum” Nothing came of Wilkes’s appeal and 20 years later the collection was bought in its entirety by Catherine the Great; it is now to be found at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
A plan to acquire 150 paintings from the Orléans collection, which had been brought to London for sale in 1798, also failed, despite the interest of both the King and the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger. The twenty-five paintings from that collection now in the Gallery, including “NG1”, have arrived by a variety of routes. In 1799 the dealer Noel Desenfans offered a ready-made national collection to the British government; he and his partner Sir Francis Bourgeois had assembled it for the king of Poland, before the Third Partition in 1795 abolished Polish independence. This offer was declined and Bourgeois bequeathed the collection to his old school, Dulwich College, on his death. The collection was opened in Britain’s first purpose-built public gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in 1814. The Scottish dealer William Buchanan and another collector, Joseph Count Truchsess, both formed art collections expressly as the basis for a future national collection, but their respective offers (made in the same year, 1803) were also declined.
Following the Walpole comes many artists, including James Barry and John Flaxman, had made renewed calls for the establishment of a National Gallery, arguing that a British school of painting could only flourish if it had access to the canon of European painting. The British Institution, founded in 1805 by a group of aristocratic connoisseurs, attempted to address this situation. The members lent works to exhibitions that changed annually, while an art school was held in the summer months. However, as the paintings that were lent were often mediocre,  some artists resented the Institution and saw it as a racket for the gentry to increase the prices of their Old Master paintings. One of the Institution’s founding members, Sir George Beaumont, Bt, would eventually play a major role in the National Gallery’s foundation by offering a gift of 16 paintings.
In 1823 another major art collection came on the market, which had been assembled by the recently deceased John Julius Angerstein. Angerstein was a Russian-born émigré banker based in London; his collection numbered 38 paintings, including works by Raphael and Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode series. On 1 July 1823 George Agar Ellis, a Whig politician, proposed to the House of Commons that it purchase the collection. The appeal was given added impetus by Beaumont’s offer, which came with two conditions: that the government buy Angerstein’s collection, and that a suitable building was to be found. The unexpected repayment of a war debt by Austria finally moved the government to buy Angerstein’s collection, for £ 57,000.
The National Gallery opened to the public on 10 May 1824, housed in Angerstein’s former townhouse at No. 100 Pall Mall. Angerstein’s paintings were added in 1826 by those from Beaumont’s collection, and in 1831 by the Reverend William Holwell Carr’s bequest of 35 paintings. Initially the Keeper of Paintings, William Seguier, bore the burden of managing the Gallery, but in July 1824 some of this responsibility fell to the newly formed board of trustees.
The National Gallery at Pall Mall was frequently overcrowded and its diminutive size in comparison with the Louvre in Paris was the cause of national embarrassment. But Agar Ellis, now a trustee of the Gallery, appraised the site for being “in the very gangway of London”; this was seen as necessary for the Gallery to fulfil its social purpose. Subsidence in No. 100 caused the Gallery to move briefly to No. 105 Pall Mall, which the novelist Anthony Trollope described as “dingy, dull, narrow house, ill-adapted for the exhibition of the treasures it held”. This in turn had to be demolished for the opening of a road to Carlton House Terrace.
In 1832 construction began on a new building by William Wilkins on the site of the King’s Mews in Charing Cross, in an area that had been transformed over the 1820s into Trafalgar Square. The location was a significant one, between the wealthy West End and poorer areas to the east. The argument that the collection could be accessed by people of all social classes outstripped other concerns, such as the pollution of central London or the failings of Wilkins’s building, when the prospect of a move to South Kensington was mooted in the 1850s. According to the Parliamentary Commission of 1857, “The existence of the pictures is not the end purpose of the collection, but the means only to give the people an ennobling enjoyment.”
From 1837 until 1868 the Royal Academy was housed in the east wing of the building.