How a King’s art collection came to London: the history of Dulwich Picture Gallery by Jan Piggott, 2012.
Reviewed by Bernard Nurse
The Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery have published an attractively produced booklet on the history of the gallery. Written by Jan Piggott, it focuses on the 1811 Bourgeois bequest of the most significant collection of 370 paintings, and develops the account in his magisterial history of Dulwich College. It has been edited by Peter Belchamber, then editor of In View magazine.
In the same format as the 40 page booklets published in 2009 on the Polish Connection and the furniture collection, it is even more heavily illustrated with 12 full-size pages devoted to details from some of the best known paintings. Numerous other images depict the founders, those connected with them and the building. Especially revealing is the 1944 photograph showing the extent of bomb damage and how much had to be rebuilt after the war.
The remarkable Dulwich connection is well explained as far as it can be. Sir Francis Bourgeois, who left the paintings to the College, never gave his reasons except for saying that he wanted them kept together and the country air would help preserve them. The two theories that he was influenced by the actor, John Philip Kemble or the College Fellow, the Revd Robert Corry are both shown to be plausible but still only based on hearsay.
The booklet describes how the College was fortunate to have been provided not only with a collection particularly rich in fine 17th century northern European paintings but also a new gallery largely paid for by the benefactors, whose architect charged no fee. Soane’s design of such an innovative and influential building is well described. 19th and 20th century changes and use are covered only in outline. Other gifts have almost doubled the size of the collection: most of the British pictures for example, fully described in the recent scholarly catalogue by John Ingamells, came from elsewhere. The story, however, is brought up to date with the major successes of recent years. The post-war rebuilding, the growth of the Friends, the achievements of directors from Giles Waterfield onwards, the huge efforts in fund raising by the new trust set up in 1995, the much praised work of the education department, the millennium extension and the astonishing increase in visitor numbers are all rightly highlighted.
As a new short visitors’ guide to the history, buildings and collections, on sale at a reasonable price and well researched and illustrated, the booklet deserves to be a popular success. However, the gallery has played such an important role in British cultural life and is so well regarded nationally that there is still scope for a fuller history to be published. Perhaps the 200th anniversary in 2017 of the opening of the gallery to the public (the first public art gallery in Britain in continuous use) would provide a good opportunity. There is much to write about.