30.03.2015
13:47

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Address:

Gallery Road, Dulwich, SE21 7AD

Phone:

020-8693 5254

Website:

www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Opening times:

Tues–Fri 10:00–17:00, Sat–Sun and bank holidays 11:00–17:00

How to get there:

Station: North Dulwich (from London Bridge)/West Dulwich (from Victoria)

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Café and shop

Designed by the great architect Sir John Soane in 1811–13, Dulwich Picture Gallery is the oldest public art gallery in the country. Purpose-built for the display of pictures, it houses a significant collection of Old Master paintings, the majority of which were bequeathed in 1811 by Sir Francis Bourgeois, including many originally destined for the King of Poland. Dulwich opened its doors to the public in 1817 (seven years before the National Gallery), and in June of that year its first annual dinner took place. Over 30 guests, including many Royal Academicians, feasted on turtle soup and venison accompanied by madeira, claret, port, sherry and champagne. Visitors to the gallery had to purchase tickets in advance from one of a number of shops in central London. Today, Soane’s great building, its east façade recently reconstructed to better accord with Soane’s original intention (galleries had been added along the front c. 1910), sits in spacious grounds in a gracious area of old Dulwich which retains much of the ‘delightful country’ feel remarked on by Bourgeois. The new cloister-like wing, with café (Rick Mather 2000), which wraps itself round the east and north edges of the grounds, against the building of old Dulwich College (relocated nearby in the late 19th century) is low-built and glass-fronted so as not to detract from Soane.

History of the Collection

Now an independent charitable trust, until 1994 Dulwich was part of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift (which included the school, Dulwich College), a 17th-century educational and charitable foundation established in 1619 by the Elizabethan actor and theatre manager Edward Alleyn (1566–1626). Alleyn, manager of the Rose and Fortune Theatres, rivals to the Globe, as well as of London’s bear-baiting, bequeathed to his college his collection of pictures, which included a set of English monarchs beginning with William the Conqueror, and a set of Sibyls. Of historical rather than aesthetic importance, these are rarely displayed. They were joined in 1686 by about 80 from the collection of the actor William Cartwright which, with their surviving inventory, stand as an important record of the collecting tastes of a moderately wealthy, neither rich nor noble, 17th-century Londoner. Among the portraits are important works by John Greenhill; the only contemporary likeness of the actor Richard Burbage; and good quality seapieces by Laureys de Castro. Sir Francis Bourgeois’ bequest in 1811 of over 350 Old Master pictures, many of great distinction, transformed the College collection. Bourgeois (1756–1811), an artist of moderate ability (several examples of his work are in the collection), was the protégé of the ambitious art dealer Noel Desenfans (1744–1807), with whom he collaborated. Between 1790 and 1795 Desenfans was collecting on behalf of Stanislaw II Augustus, King of Poland, who wished to establish a National Gallery of Poland; but with the partition of that country and the forced abdication of the king in 1795 Desenfans was left with the pictures on his hands. On Desenfans’s death in 1807 the remarkable collection, which included works from great collections auctioned as a result of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, passed to Bourgeois.

Highlights of the Collection

The pictures at Dulwich include about 56 of those intended for Poland (others were sold at auction in 1802), and those Bourgeois continued to collect. Highlights of the French works include works by Claude and his circle; Charles Le Brun’s Massacre of the Innocents, previously owned by Louis XIV’s Keeper of the Royal Treasury and then the Duc d’Orléans; Poussin’s Nurture of Jupiter and The Triumph of David, showing David parading the head of Goliath through Jerusalem; and Watteau’s Plaisir du Bal, which the artist Constable, on a visit to Dulwich, found ‘so mellow, so tender, so soft, so delicious’. The collection has a particularly strong collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures: several works by Cuyp, Pynacker, Ruisdael and Teniers the Younger, Dou’s A Woman Playing a Clavichord, possibly that in the de Bye collection, Leiden, in 1665; Aert de Gelder’s Jacob’s Dream, with its huge sky and angel appearing in a dazzling, bright light, formerly owned by Le Brun; Rembrandt’s well known A Girl at a Window, signed and dated 1645, probably owned by the influential French art critic Roger de Piles; several works by Rubens, including Venus, Mars and Cupid, also from the Orléans collection; and Wouwermans’ Halt of a Hunting Party, another Orléans picture. Italian pictures include works by Guercino; Sebastiano Ricci’s Resurrection, an oil sketch for the painted apse in the chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Veronese’s Saint Jerome and a Donor; and Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, a version of the work in the Prado, Madrid (but with a reduced loin cloth), which was a highly celebrated picture at Dulwich in the 19th century. Another popular work, and much copied, was Murillo’s Flower Girl, probably modelled by the artist’s daughter Francisca, later a nun. The British pictures came largely from Charles Fairfax Murray, who bequeathed them between 1911 and 1919 in order to boost the gallery’s British School representation. The bequest included van Dyck’s extraordinary Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, on her Death-bed, painted in 1633 two days after she died in her sleep; Lely’s Nymphs by a Fountain (before 1640) and the beautiful Young Boy as a Shepherd, possibly once owned by the English 17th-century portraitist Mary Beale. These works joined the early Alleyn and Cartwright British pictures; the Linley portraits, including Gainsborough’s excellent full-length The Linley Sisters, bequeathed by William Linley in 1831; and Sir Joshua Reynolds’ great Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, a replica of the one now at the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, which Desenfans ordered from Reynolds in 1789.


The Building

Soane’s task was to design a new gallery for the pictures which was also to incorporate a mausoleum for the tombs of Bourgeois and Desenfans and later Desenfans’ wife (d. 1813), all of whom had been Soane’s friends. This dual purpose, and association between death and art, excited Soane, and Dulwich became his ‘favourite subject’. Due to lack of funds, the actual building (which cost less than £10,000) is stark and austere with little embellishment: though celebrated today, it was not truly Soane’s wish. The main galleries, a succession of plain interlinked spaces, had top-lighting in the form of large lanterns, influential for later gallery design in Britain; and the mausoleum was centrally placed on the west side, flanked by almshouses (a key function of Alleyn’s college), now converted to galleries. The contrast between the ‘dull, religious light’ of the mausoleum, filtered through amber glass, and the daylight clarity of the gallery, was deliberate. Internally the gallery has been restored as far as possible to its original early 19th-century appearance, including the smoky dark red of its walls.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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