9 April 1838: National Gallery opens in Trafalgar Square

Britain’s royal family has been collecting art for 500 years or so. They’ve got an awful lot of it – 7,000 paintings alone, plus tens of thousands of watercolours, drawings and prints.

Technically, it’s held “in trust” for the nation. But if you want to go and see it – and it’ll only be a fraction of it – you’ll have to pay.

Towards the end of the 18th century, there were moves to assemble an art collection for the people. Other countries had national collections, but Britain had nothing.

Several collections were up for sale, including that of the late Sir Robert Walpole. But the money couldn’t – or wouldn’t – be found.

In 1823, the collection of John Julius Angerstein, a banker, came up for sale. Parliament was persuaded to stump up £57,000 for the 38 paintings, and they were installed at Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, which opened to the public on 10 May, 1824.

The conditions soon became unsuitable, however. The house was too small, too hot and was severely overcrowded. As the home for a national art collection, it was something of an embarrassment when compared to the likes of the Louvre.

And so, in 1831 Parliament agreed to pay for the construction of a new home in Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square was decided upon because it was bang in the middle of London. It was an easy carriage-ride from the fashionable townhouses of the wealthy, while the scruffy oiks from the East End wouldn’t have too far to walk.

The grand building, designed by William Wilkins, was opened on this day in 1838. Admission was, and remains, free.

To the casual observer, the Gallery  has changed little. But while the façade is much the same as it was then, there have been many changes behind the scenes as the collection grew and new space was added.

The collection now includes some 2,300 paintings – you can see many of them here.