The National Gallery will soon celebrate its 200th birthday — here’s how to put yourself in the picture.
The National Gallery’s graceful Trafalgar Square portico has served as the backdrop for countless memorable moments in our national story. From (admittedly rare) celebrations of sporting glory to angry political demos, it feels as if it’s always been there. In reality, it’s been around long enough to be celebrating its bicentenary on 10 May 2024.
If we’re being picky, the gallery technically first occupied more modest premises around the corner on Pall Mall, only moving to its present location in 1838. Still, that whole time it’s been dedicated to giving the British public and curious tourists free access to our nation’s priceless artistic treasures. So how will the National Gallery mark the dawning of its third century?
Out and about
The National Gallery isn’t just for people who live in London — the clue is in the name, after all. This May, 12 simultaneous exhibitions will open at galleries all around the country, each centred around a loaned National Gallery masterpiece. Fans of Dutch master Rembrandt will get to ogle his Self Portrait at the Age of 34 in The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, while folks in Newcastle will be treated to JMW Turner’s iconic The Fighting Temeraire at the Laing Art Gallery. The idea is that 35 million people (more than half the UK population) will be no more than one hour’s journey from an authentic National Gallery treasure.
If you fancy creating your own timeless masterpiece, the ‘Art Road Trip’ programme will send a fully kitted-out travelling art studio on tour around the UK all year, bringing National Gallery workshops and learning activities into communities who mightn’t otherwise enjoy such easy access.
In the capital
On Trafalgar Square, the Sainsbury Wing entrance is getting a long-overdue makeover, with a new Supporters’ House and Research Centre. ‘Summer on the Square’ will see a family-friendly festival of events take over Trafalgar Square. Major new exhibitions will focus on Vincent van Gogh — who, fun fact, visited the National Gallery often in his early twenties when he worked around the corner in Covent Garden — and the early-Renaissance majesty of 14th-century Siena.
The climax will be a massive redisplay of the entire National Gallery collection, aimed at creating surprising pairings and juxtapositions between familiar and unfamiliar works from different artists in different movements.
If you can’t make it to any of the above, fear not, as there’s plenty to enjoy from the comfort of your smartphone, via The Virtual Gallery. This will include 200 newly digitised works from the National Gallery’s collection, available for everyone, everywhere to enjoy.
Another initiative will recruit 20 social media creators (out of 200 applicants) from across the UK, as Creative Collaborators, each receiving access to the gallery to inform and shape its social content for the occasion. Also look out for ‘Behind the Scenes’, a new series of online films that promises to take viewers inside the gallery for some juicy BTS insights.
Van Gogh’s 1888 Sunflowers painting will be a major centrepiece of the bicentenary celebrations. The National Gallery is planning a special event based around the masterpiece, which is kept under wraps for the moment. Additionally, it’ll host the first major Van Gogh show in the UK since 2010 with a mix of publicly owned paintings, alongside artworks from private collections never seen in public before.
Renovations of the gallery’s Grade I-listed Sainsbury Wing are under way, with the sensitive interventions meant to reconfigure the ground floor entrance. The revamped wing will host a new double-height vestibule with refreshed views across Trafalgar Square. Alongside this will be a renovation of the Learning Centre, as well as a new Supporters’ House with dedicated spaces for Supporters and Members to meet.
Triumph of art
Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller is in charge of ‘The Triumph of Art’, a nationwide project set to commemorate festivals, gatherings and art in the public realm. Each partnering organisation will research, develop and stage a local element, before the collaborative projects join together in a big celebration on Trafalgar Square in July 2025 — bringing the Gallery’s bicentenary celebrations to a close.