Essential Architecture-  London

Dulwich Gallery


Sir John Soane


College Road, Dulwich, southeast London. Telephone: 0181-693-8000.


1811 to 1814


Electic NeoClassical




Dulwich Picture Gallery is an art gallery in Dulwich, London. It was the world's first purpose-built art gallery (the Foundling Hospital, which contained a permanent art exhibition, being primarily for another purpose) and opened in 1817. Its basic architecture of a series of interlinked rooms lit by overhead skylights has been the primary influence on art gallery design ever since.

The Gallery and grounds — although Sir John Soane took the radical step of designing a gallery with no windows in the walls, he couldn't balance the look of the facade without them. His solution was to use the rows 'blind' window arches seen along the external walls.
It was founded by a bequest from Sir Francis Bourgeois, originally from Switzerland, who on his death in 1811 bequeathed his collection of art to Dulwich College together with £2,000 for the building of a gallery to house them in.

The collection had been put together by Bourgeois and his business partner, Frenchman Noël Desenfans. The two ran a successful art dealership in London and in 1790 were commissioned by the King of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus, to put together a "royal collection", which the monarch lacked and thought would encourage fine arts in Poland. Touring around Europe buying fine art, Bourgeois and Desenfans took five years to put the collection together, but by 1795 Poland had been partitioned — divided up by its stronger neighbours — and no longer existed.

Bourgeois and Desenfans attempted to sell the collection to other nations but were unsuccessful and instead sold small pieces to fund the purchase of further important works, keeping the collection in London. After the death of Desenfans in 1807, Bourgeois contacted the British Museum about bequeathing the collection on his own death, but was put off by the attitude of the Museum's trustees. When Bourgeois died in 1811, the terms of his will stated that the collection was to be left to Dulwich College and that a new museum was to be built by his friend, the Architect Sir John Soane, which would house the collection and would be open to the public. The Dulwich Picture Gallery opened its doors in 1817.

Bourgeois and Desenfans, along with Desenfans' wife, who funded part of their work, are buried in a mausoleum that forms one wing of the museum. The mausoleum took a direct hit from a German bomb during the war and, apparently, their bones were scattered across the lawn in front of the gallery. The three sarcophagi in the mausoleum now once again contain approximately a skeleton each, but nobody was quite sure which bones were whose.

Soane's building has inspired a number of galleries built since then with its clear design and natural overhead lighting. Alms houses alongside the gallery were converted into exhibition space in 1880 and an extension was built in the early 20th century. A modern extension designed by Rick Mather was built in 1999, adding a café, new entrance and covered walkway. Parts of Soane's original design were also restored, having been changed during previous extensions.


Dulwich Picture Gallery