The City of London Corporation is the local authority for ‘the Square Mile’, the financial heart of the UK. Its seat is the medieval Guildhall, begun in 1411, and it was to adorn this building that the Court of Aldermen commissioned the City’s first known paintings in 1670. Today only two of John Michael Wright’s 22 ‘Fire Judge’ portraits remain in the Collection, but they laid the foundations for an art collection that now numbers more than 4,500 paintings, sculptures, watercolours, drawings, textiles and prints, some permanently located within the Great Hall, Keats House, Mansion House and the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) and others housed and displayed in Guildhall Art Gallery, established in 1885 and reopened in its present building in 1999.
The first commissions and purchases were portraits of the monarchy and of others to whom the City owed a debt of loyalty or gratitude. In the 1790s the Collection was transformed by the gift made by former Lord Mayor, print publisher and champion of contemporary art, Alderman John Boydell, of at least 28 portraits, naval battle scenes and history subjects. Boydell’s paintings were displayed – both to the members of the Court of Common Council and to the visiting public – in a chamber which also housed the City’s own magnificent commission, John Singleton Copley’s enormous Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 (also known as The Siege of Gibraltar).
By the time the City of London Fine Art Gallery at the Guildhall opened in 1886 the Collection numbered almost 300 items. Under its dynamic and charismatic first Director Alfred Temple, the Gallery soon became well known for its ground-breaking exhibitions and acquisitions. It is to Temple that we owe most of the Victorian paintings that are so popular with our visitors today. At their core is the bequest of 127 paintings which he persuaded his friend Charles Gassiot to make in 1902, while his own purchases of works by (among others) William Holman Hunt, Lord Leighton, Henry Scott Tuke and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – sometimes made in the absence of an official purchase budget – ensured that the Collection remained active and vibrant.
The City’s collection continued to grow throughout the twentieth century through purchase, gift and bequest. A growing specialisation in London subjects was codified by the Gallery’s governing Committee in 1943. In 1974 Mary Keene’s extraordinary gift of more than 1,000 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints by Sir Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith extended the Collection in a different direction, just as had John Boydell’s gift almost 200 years earlier. In the twenty-first century, constrained by a more thoughtful funding regime but with the much-appreciated help of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, The Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the City of London Corporation continues to acquire works of art aimed at encouraging the present and the future visitor to understand, empathise with and feel part of the story of one of the greatest cities in the world.
Vivien Knight, Head of Guildhall Art Gallery
Text source: PCF / City of London Corporation
This description was originally written for a catalogue.