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The big hole in Britain’s National Gallery: Bring back the Victorians

The omission of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood could be rectified by judicious loans

One of Tate Britain’s most successful recent exhibitions, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde”, closed on 13 January, having attracted 243,000 visitors. The public appetite for this peculiarly English phenomenon seems greater than ever. But it is not an appetite that can be satisfied by our premier national art collection.

British galleries, including the Tate, are rich in works by the Brotherhood, and for many visitors to the main galleries in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, these pictures leave the strongest impression. What is ironic is that the National Gallery, with collections that extend to 1900, resolutely excludes from its walls any British art later than the 1840s.

At the National Gallery, the British pictures are finely hung in a parade of spaces leading from four full-length portraits in the Barry Rooms, through a smaller room containing works by Wilson and Hogarth, to Room 34, a vast gallery showing works by the stars of the British firmament: Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wright of Derby, Turner, Constable, Lawrence. Superbly centred hangs Stubbs’s Whistlejacket, around 1762, facing down the gallery’s longest vista to the Sainsbury Wing. Given that the gallery is currently being forced to make heavy staff cuts, the grandeur of the setting, with its painted ceiling and green damask walls, may appear anachronistically triumphalist, but the overall effect is splendid.

And that is almost all the British art at the National Gallery, as though nothing created on these islands during the second half of the 19th century is worthy of inclusion. The later galleries are dominated by French art.

This hang represents deeply traditional attitudes. Though the National’s founding collection contained British paintings by Hogarth as well as less illustrious names, for most of the 19th century the native school was included only on sufferance. The donation of the Vernon collection of British art in 1847 was greeted with distinctly modified rapture, and efforts were consistently made to despatch British paintings to Edinburgh, Dublin or South Kensington—and not only because the Trafalgar Square premises were so crowded. The Tate Gallery, founded in 1897, initially functioned as an outpost of the National, and only relatively recently was a clear division made between the two collections. The exclusion from the National Gallery of any British paintings later than the 1840s reflects the contempt in which Victorian painting was held 60 years ago.

Given that the National, along with the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is the only national art museum in Europe that can claim to offer a universalist non-nationalistic representation of European art, this exclusion seems ironically misplaced. The collections at Tate Britain are of outstanding quality, but many fewer foreign visitors see them than visit the National. Nowhere else in London, or in Continental Europe, would it be possible to study British art of the later 19th century in the context of developments overseas, to illustrate the strange magnetic quality of the Pre-Raphaelites at their best, to compare Burne-Jones with Symbolist painters from other countries, to view the early Sickert in the context of the French artists who influenced him. And though the National is theoretically confined to showing European paintings, it would surely be enriching to include in its displays works by such artists of American birth but European inclinations as Whistler and Sargent. A great gallery should be inspired not by rules but by passion and innovation.

Such works of art are not easily bought. The Tate is nowadays not likely to denude its walls to make concessions to its elder sister. But a programme of judicious loans from municipal, university and private collections—not more than ten or so works, say—would give the later rooms of the National Gallery a new richness, as well as indicating to native and foreign visitors the notable achievements of British art in a period when, for the first time, it gained a sense of confidence and purpose. What is on view now is impressive, but it is also outdated.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The big hole in Britain’s National Gallery'