I visited the National Gallery again. I always feel uneasy about the place and have never worked out why. Do you have a sense of unease?
It is a national treasure and we are proud of it but it is not like Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square. The building has been there since 1838 or so and like many public buildings it has been subject to controversy and compromise for all its life. It has been modified and extended; the latest being the Sainsbury Wing opened in 1991.
Approaching from Trafalgar Square are steps leading to a blank wall. Above the wall is the long National Gallery; too long for its height. There is a central colonnade with a cupola above looking like a pepper pot. Smaller colonnades on each side mark the site of previous rights of way through the building. At the west end is the Sainsbury wing.
So we go up the steps to the wall, around the wall and up more steps to the colonnaded portico and into the building. Once inside there are still no pictures, you are in the staircase hall. More steps up to the galleries.
It is easy to become lost among the galleries and wonderful pictures. Eventually you find the enfilade, a long corridor flanked by chunky, thick columns and roofed by partly filled archways. The enfilade carries the eye past 15 rooms and the decreasing size of the columns gives an illusion of greater length.
At the end you find yourself in the Sainsbury Wing. The National Gallery was designed by William Wilkins between 1832-38 and was originally a very narrow building. The columns on the sides are a little smaller than those of the main portico. This is because they were scavenged from Carlton House which was being demolished at the time.
Over the years the gallery extended northwards as it acquired more land. The Barry rooms including the dome were added in 1872-76 when a nearby workhouse was demolished. This extension is in the form a cross with a central octagon. More room was needed and a bomb site to the west was earmarked for another extension. In 1985 Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, The Hon Simon Sainsbury and Sir Timothy Sainsbury donated £50 million. Architects were invited to submit plans and those of Richard Rogers and Ahrends, Burton and Koralik were shortlisted. Both made a break from the neo-classical style of the old building and proposed a modern 20th century design incorporating a tower.
Then came the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects and Prince Charles delivered his famous ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech in 1984. He described the proposed extension as like’ a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ So the Richard Rogers and ABK proposals for the extension were ditched and a design by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates was declared the winner. Is it a winner? Most definitely not.
It is separated from the main gallery by what is part of the Jubilee Walk from Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square though who would choose to walk up that dingy and dark passage? In the national interest that little street and right of way should have been closed. As it is, it is crossed by a ‘Bridge of Sighs’ so set back in the passageway that the sun must never reach it. Certainly you will not notice it. The black gap between the buildings makes them look separate.
The Sainsbury Wing
The Sainsbury Wing, as it is called, is built of the same Portland Limestone as the main gallery and the cornice heights are kept the same. Facing it, the impression is of a massive stone block. There are ‘window’ features on the mass of stone but they are built up as if to escape the window tax of 1696. Entrance is via sharply cut black rectangles.
No porticos, no columns, no pediment but no steps either, you can walk straight in from the road. Once inside, your eyes accustom to the gloom of a long hallway leading to the services at the back. Then you see the steps. Jacob must have been less daunted to see his ladder to heaven. They seem to go on for ever; up to the gallery’s 3rd floor in fact. There is a lift, not obvious, but there is one. The back and west side of the gallery, along Whitcomb Street, are built like a factory. Brick slab-like walls. It is little help that we are advised that the bricks are “machine-made, wire-cut with refined edges. The surfaces are specially textured for evenness of soot retention.”
The idea was to keep the style neoclassical, like the original. But the outcome is one of compromise to the point of mediocrity and below. If one needs to criticise, one should have something better in mind. With all those wonderful pictures, it is easy to ignore the building and enjoy the art.