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The huge variety of public art collections gathered on Art UK demonstrates the fantastic opportunities available to everyone in the UK today to enjoy great art. However, this has not always been the case. In fact, before the early nineteenth century, viewing an original painting by a contemporary artist, or even an Old Master, would have been almost impossible for the majority of the British population, as public art galleries simply did not exist.

In the late eighteenth century the ‘public’ for art was largely restricted to two groups: highly educated connoisseurs and aspiring artists who would make copies as part of their training. Even these individuals could only view paintings at occasional auction house sales or, if they were suitably well connected, by securing an invitation to visit a royal or aristocratic private collection. One such collection was that of the 2nd Marquis of Stafford at his London residence, Stafford House (now Lancaster House), illustrated by James Digman Wingfield in the painting The Picture Gallery, Stafford House. The viewings held here were immensely popular amongst the select few lucky enough to attend, as the ‘Morning Chronicle’ documents: ‘At eleven o’clock on Wednesday last about two hundred of the principal artists and amateurs in the kingdom were gratified with a view of … the Picture Gallery at the Marquis of Stafford's. At five in the afternoon, with some difficulty, the domestics were able to prevail on the company to quit the attractive scene in order that preparations might be made for dinner.’

The situation for the wider public had begun to improve with the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768, which supported the development of British artists and admitted a mix of social classes to its exhibitions. The British Museum had also opened in 1759 (the world's oldest public museum), offering free admission to ‘all studious and curious persons’. However, tickets had to be requested in advance in writing – effectively ruling out the illiterate – and viewing was by way of a hurried tour, conducted by an often begrudging curator. Admissions followed a similar pattern at Britain's first purpose-built public art gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, when it opened in 1817.

It was not until the opening of the National Gallery in 1824, and its subsequent move to Trafalgar Square, that casual art viewing became possible for the general public. The Gallery was founded in part to allow contemporary British artists to study Old Masters, but also upon the idea that the experience of looking at paintings would enhance the day-to-day lives of the masses. In Victorian Britain, such freely accessible art galleries were seen as a moral, civilising force, as well as an alternative leisure pursuit to time spent in the pub. As Charles Kingsley put it in 1848: ‘in the space of a single room, the townsman may take his country walk … beyond the grim city-world of stone and iron, smoky chimneys, and roaring wheels, into the world of beautiful things.’

Giuseppe Gabrielli’s painting Room 32 in the National Gallery, London illustrates a room in the Barry extension of the new National Gallery. Although richly decorated, the room has a sombre feel, particularly when compared with the lavishness of the Picture Gallery at Stafford House. The aim is clearly education rather than opulence, with paintings hung according to school rather than in the picturesque, symmetrical hang that had been popular in private collections. The dark red colour seen on the walls was felt to complement the gilded frames and provide a suitable mid-tone between the lights and darks in the paintings. Overall, the scene appears highly respectable, with the earnest visitors concentrating intently on their catalogues and self-improvement. However, in reality, the Gallery was not always used in this way, as the Keeper, Thomas Unwins, observed in 1850: ‘I saw some people … who drew their chairs round and sat down, and seemed to make themselves very comfortable: they had meat and drink; and when I suggested to them the impropriety of such a proceeding in such a place, they were very good-humoured, and a lady offered me a glass of gin, and wished me to partake of what they had provided.’

The National Gallery set the tone for a boom in the building of public art galleries across the UK, often alongside museums and public libraries, as part of the intense social and educational reforms of the Victorian period. These beautiful buildings and the collections they house form the foundation of the UK’s enviable selection of public galleries that we are all able to enjoy today – with or without a glass of gin in hand!

Sarah Fletcher
, Former Art UK Editorial Assistant