art galleries

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art galleries. In medieval England, as elsewhere in Europe, the church was the most important patron of art, and the first paintings and statues seen by the public were in churches and monasteries, many of whose collections were dispersed or destroyed at the Reformation. Private collections in palaces and noble houses began in the 16th cent., but only a few could see them. Charles I was a great English patron, particularly of painting, but after 1649 the royal collection was dispersed in a period of puritan disdain for art.

Art collecting was at its peak in the 18th cent., a gentleman's pride demanding that this evidence of his family, wealth, and good taste should be on show. Noblemen on the grand tour often sent back large numbers of paintings and sculptures, of varying quality. Some collections in country houses were open to visitors on specific days, though admission fees and difficulty of access filtered out the lower orders.

The first London institution to open its art collection to the public was the Foundling hospital in the 1740s, partly sponsored by William Hogarth. After 1768 the Royal Academy exhibitions were popular, though again the poor were excluded by admission charges. Not until the 19th cent. did public art galleries develop, although governments remained slow to grant funds. The lead was taken by private patrons. In 1814 Dulwich Gallery became the first major public gallery after Sir Peter Bourgeois left his collection to Dulwich College. The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, endowed by the 7th viscount, opened in 1848, the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in 1892, and the Burrell Collection at Glasgow in 1983. Government funds were voted for the National Gallery in 1824. The National Portrait Gallery (1856) and the National Galleries of Scotland (1859) and Ireland (1864) were largely privately funded.

Legislation in 1845 and 1850 encouraged local authorities to provide public museums and art galleries, and the great provision of municipal galleries was largely a Victorian achievement, often assisted by private donors. Birmingham opened its art gallery in 1867 (Rossetti, Brown); Dundee 1873; Liverpool's Walker Gallery 1877; Nottingham 1878; York 1879 (Etty); Manchester 1882 (Hunt and Millais); Leicester 1885; Aberdeen 1885 (Dyce); Leeds 1888; Norwich 1894 (Crome and Cotman); Glasgow 1902; Newcastle's Laing Gallery 1904; Bristol 1905; Cardiff 1912. Two notable galleries, the Tate and the Wallace Collection in London, were launched by private donations in the 1890s, Kenwood House and the Courtauld Institute in the 1920s and 1930s.

Concern that many great works of art were leaving the country, especially to the USA, prompted the foundation of the National Art Collections Fund in 1903 to assist British galleries to make purchases. From 1946 the Arts Council of Great Britain has paid subsidies to the arts, including galleries. Other funding comes from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and, in recent years, the National Lottery.

June Cochrane

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