In The National Gallery: A Short History (Frances Lincoln), I recorded how in the 1820s its trustees recognised that its building was inadequate for displaying works of art and that they would have to commission a larger and grander one. In the 1830s, parliament became interested in the issue of the education of public taste and the role that a National Gallery might play in improving the public's knowledge and awareness of the principles of fine art. In 1835, parliament established a committee to look at, and investigate, the processes of training in fine art for the improvement of British manufacture. I discussed how, in 1843, when the first keeper, William Seguier, died, the trustees replaced him with Charles Eastlake, a painter who had spent the 1820s living in Rome.
Eastlake brought with him a much more scholarly and more academic knowledge of the history and study of art than his predecessor.
Henry Cole and Charles Eastlake
In the 1847, Eastlake, fed up with public criticism of his actions as keeper, including his acquisitions and policies of conservation, quit the post, returning only in 1855 as a fully-fledged director. It was only then that he was able to establish its operation on professional lines with an orderly structure, a commitment to the scholarly study of the acquired works of art, a procedure of cataloguing, a description of how the relationship between the director and the trustees was expected to operate and a budget which enabled him to travel to Italy every autumn on purchasing expeditions. Thus he was able to transform the Gallery from an amateurish collection of Old Masters, which betrayed its origins in the Grand Tour taste of its trustees, into one of Europe's greatest, small-scale collections of works of art which were properly illustrative of Western European painting's history.
This transformation happened quickly — in roughly 30 years from 1824, when it was founded, to 1855, when Eastlake was established as its formidable director. In the book, I describe the process of formation of the National Gallery. But I do not stop to record the fact that this was also the period when the National Portrait Gallery was founded, also by parliamentary action. In the NPG's case, this was the result of a very obvious process in the professionalisation of history writing, whereby Thomas Carlyle, researching the actions of the great men of the past, realised that studying them would be greatly enhanced by their images or, as he wrote in a private letter to David Laing in 1854:
Often I have found a Portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written "Biographies", as Biographies are written; or rather, let me say, I have found that the Portrait was a small lighted candle by which the
Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them.
These words led in the space of two years to a series of debates in the House of Lords, led by Lord Stanhope, in which he quoted Eastlake: "Whenever I hear of portraits for sale of historical interest, I cannot help wishing that a gallery could be formed exclusively for authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals, not necessarily with reference to the merit of the works of art. I believe that an extensive gallery of portraits with catalogues containing good and short biographical notices would be useful in many ways and especially as a not unimportant element of education."
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