9 April 1838: National Gallery opens in Trafalgar Square

On this day in 1838, William Wilkins’ new National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square opened to the public.

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.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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, and 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 over the years. But while the faade 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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.