Hostname: page-component-7d8f8d645b-h5t26 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-05-28T23:18:58.858Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2010

Charles Saumarez Smith*


This article explores the political and intellectual circumstances which led to the efflorescence of cultural institutions between the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824 and the National Portrait Gallery in 1856: the transformation of institutions of public culture from haphazard and rather amateurish institutions to ones which were well organised, with a strong sense of social mission, and professionally managed. This transformation was in part owing to a group of exceptionally talented individuals, including Charles Eastlake, Henry Cole and George Scharf, accepting appointment in institutions to foster the public understanding of art. But it was not simply a matter of individual agency, but also of coordinated action by parliament, led by a group of MPs, including the Philosophical Radicals. It was much influenced by the example of Germany, filtered through extensive translation of German art historical writings and visits by writers and politicians to Berlin and Munich. It was also closely related to the philosophy of the utilitarians, who had a strong belief in the political and social benefits of the study of art. Only the Royal Academy refused the embrace of state control.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Charles Saumarez Smith, The National Gallery: A Short History (2009). The lecture in the form that it was originally delivered (including reference to Colin Matthew) is available on the Gresham College website and an abbreviated version has been published as ‘Civilising Servants’, Standpoint (Jan./Feb. 2010), 19, 80–3. In writing about the National Gallery, I remain indebted to the work of Jonathan Conlin, including ‘The Origins and History of the National Gallery, 1753–1860’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2002) and his subsequent monograph, The Nation's Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery (2006).

2 For the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery, the most recent account is in David Cannadine, National Portrait Gallery: A Brief History (2007). There is also a description of its origins in Charles Saumarez Smith, The National Portrait Gallery (1997).

3 Henry Cole's autobiography is entitled, very appropriately, Fifty years of public work of Sir Henry Cole KCB, Accounted for in his Deeds, Speeches and Writings (2 vols., 1884). There is a brief, but suggestive discussion of his significance in Michael Conforti, ‘The Idealist Enterprise and the Applied Arts’, in Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson, A Grand Design: Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1997), 28–33, and full biographies in Ann Cooper, ‘For the Public Good: Henry Cole, his Circle and the Development of the South Kensington Estate’ (Ph.D. thesis, Open University, 1992), and Elizabeth Bonython and Anthony Burton, The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole (2003).

4 There is a good discussion of the views of the Fine Arts Commission in Winter, Emma, ‘German Fresco Painting and the New Houses of Parliament at Westminster, 1834–51’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), 291329CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 For writing about historians, see, for example, P. Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838–1886 (1986).

6 The pioneer in writing about this topic was Janet Minihan (née Oppenheim), The Nationalization of Culture: The Development of State Subsidies to the Arts in Great Britain (1977), and there is a briefer, but also suggestive analysis, in Pearson, Nicholas, The State and the Visual Arts: A Discussion of State Intervention in the Visual Arts in Britain, 1760–1981 (Milton Keynes, 1982)Google Scholar. However, they are both fairly broad-brush. For Janet Minihan's approach to the subject, see Mandler, Peter, Owen, Alex, Koven, Seth and Pedersen, Susan, ‘Cultural Histories Old and New: Rereading the Work of Janet Oppenheim’, Victorian Studies, 41 (Autumn 1977), 69105Google Scholar. More recently, there has been much investigation of the period by a group of younger cultural historians, influenced by the writings of John Brewer and Peter Mandler. For broad overviews, see Mandler, Peter, ‘Art in a Cool Climate: The Cultural Policy of the British State in European Context, c. 1780 – c. 1850’, in Unity and Diversity in European Culture c. 1800, ed. Blanning, T. and Schulze, H. (Oxford, 2006), 101–20Google Scholar, and Hoock, Holger, ‘Reforming Culture: National Art Institutions in the Age of Reform’, in Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780–1850, ed. Burns, A. and Innes, J. (Cambridge, 2003), 254–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In thinking about these issues, I am exceptionally grateful for informal advice at an early stage from Professor Peter Mandler and Emma Winter, both of whom guided my interpretation, and for comments on the final text from Professor Tim Barringer.

7 For a description of the phase in which it was assumed that art institutions were more likely to be established by private than by public initiative, see Funnell, Peter, ‘William Hazlitt, Prince Hoare, and the Institutionalisation of the British Art World’, in Towards a Modern Art World, ed. Allen, Brian (London and New Haven, 1995), 145–56Google Scholar.

8 For the life of Charles Eastlake, see Robertson, David, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian art world (Princeton, 1978)Google Scholar, and Christopher Hodkinson, ‘In the National Interest: Sir Charles Eastlake and the National Gallery's Collection of Italian Renaissance Paintings’ (MA dissertation, Lancaster University, 2004).

9 There is a good description of Cole's personality in H. T. Wood, A History of the Royal Society of Arts (1913), 359.

10 The best discussion of Prince Albert's influence on the arts remains Winslow Ames, Prince Albert and Victorian Taste (1967).

11 For Gladstone's views of art, see Conlin, Jonathan, ‘Gladstone and Christian Art, 1832–1854’, Historical Journal, 46 (2003), 341–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 The influence of German ideas on British culture is the subject of Emma Winter, ‘The Transformation of Taste in Germany and England, 1797–1858’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2005).

13 For the influence of German writing on art history, see Francis Haskell, Discoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France (1976); Michael Podro, Critical Historians of Art (1982); and, most recently, Christopher Hodkinson, ‘A Question of Attribution: The Evolution of Connoisseurship during the Nineteenth Century’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Lancaster University, 2009).

14 Henry Cole, Introductory Addresses on the Science and Art Department (1857), no. 1, 9.

15 In The King's Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760–1840 (Oxford, 2003) Holger Hoock provides a revisionist account of the Royal Academy as a national cultural institution as if it were an arm of the Hanoverian state. It and his recent monograph Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850 (2010) argue against an idea that state-funded art institutions in Britain were a creation of the post-Napoleonic era.

16 There is a useful description of the views of the opponents of the Royal Academy in Funnell, Peter, ‘The London Art World and its Institutions’, in London – World City 1800–1840, ed. Fox, Celina (London and New Haven, 1992), 164–5Google Scholar.