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Interior view of the gallery
Natural light diffuses the viewing rooms

Spotlight on... the Dulwich Picture Gallery

It's no surprise this art venue in south London won the top gong for Small Visitor Attraction in 2005. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in the quality of its exhibitions and its permanent collection, says Ananda Pellerin...

A brief history

The Dulwich was the first purpose-built public art gallery in England. It was the result of a happy accident in the lives of Royal Academician Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, partners in a late 18th century London-based art dealership.

Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans
A study of the gallery's founders

In 1790 they were commissioned by the King of Poland to assemble a Royal Art Collection. Five years later Poland lost its status as an independent state, leaving Bourgeois and Desenfans with a bunch of paintings and nowhere to hang them.

They tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the collection in its entirety. Sir Francis then added a condition in his will for a gallery to be built that would house the precious paintings, to be enjoyed by the British public.

Bourgeois' will also stipulated his friend, the architect Sir John Soane, design the building. It was a smart move. Soane was so enthusiastic about the project he was to be found on-site a mere one day after Bourgeois' death.

The building

Interior view of the gallery
A study in contemplation

Situated across from Dulwich Park and surrounded by short walking paths dotted with knotted, curious-looking trees, the gallery resembles an unprepossessing civic building on the outside. Once inside however, visitors are treated to a lesson in striking architectural simplicity.

The restraint of Soane's viewing rooms and the domed doorways are enhanced by 'roof-lantern' windows that allow natural light to enter, diffuse and wash over the art works.

The kinship between the gallery's founders and its architect has helped create a relaxed, pleasing ambience and a perfect setting for an impressive, rotating collection boasting a number of works by European Masters, dating from roughly the 16th to the late 19th centuries. 

Highlights of the collection

Included here are some key Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th century, such as a lurid, scrupulous still-life by Hysum depicting full-blooming flowers, painted at the height of their seductive powers.

Les Plaisirs du Bal by Watteau
Les Plaisirs du Bal by Watteau

The portrait of St. Sebastian by Guido Reni is a compelling study of light and darkness in its depiction of martyrdom. It hangs as the focus of the Italian Baroque collection.

Other exceptional pieces from the 17th and 18th century include Watteau's celebratory Les Plaisirs du Bal and Murillo's melancholic Two peasant Boys.

Works by British Masters include Joshua Reynolds' Girl with a Baby and a haunting, proto-modernist portrait of Joan Alleyn, attributed to a member of the British School.

What to look out for

The gallery's ongoing show, Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces, explores the relationship between creativity and commerce. It features 19 of the Old Master's paintings and sketches from 400 years ago, a period that saw dealers and painters bring the Dutch Golden Age into being. Until 3 September 2006.

London's Open House weekend means you can visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery for free, to explore not only the collection but its architectural significance as well. 16 - 17 September 2006.

Adam Elsheimer: Devil in the Detail, is the first solo exhibition held in Britain of this 16th century miniaturist, whose paintings range in size from two feet, down to an inconceivable three inches. 20 September - 3 December 2006.

London through the lens of a Venetian Master: 18th century views of the capital,  country homes and castles by Canaletto, painted during the nine-year stay in England that re-launched his artistic career. 24 January - 15 April 2007.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is in Gallery Road, Dulwich Village SE21. Tel: 020 8693 5254. Open Tuesday - Friday 10am - 5pm, Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays 11am - 5pm. Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays.

last updated: 18/09/08
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