Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
3 June 2017
The origins of the collection of art housed in the Dulwich Picture Gallery originated in the early 17th century when Edward Alleyn, founder of the College of God’s Gift bequeathed his collection of paintings to the College upon his death. The collection included a series of portraits of the kings of England and portraits of Edward Alleyn himself and his wife Joan. Alleyn’s collection was added to at the end of the century with a further 239 pictures bequeathed to the College by actor William Cartwright. The collection was displayed on the first floor of the Old College and was said to contain “some scarce and valuable paintings.”
Moving forward to the end of the 18th century, Noel Joseph Desenfans, a French art dealer living in London, was commissioned in 1790 by King Stanislaus of Poland to find and purchase pictures to create a National Gallery of Poland. Stanislaus had been put on the Polish throne by his former lover Catherine the Great but, showing no sentiment toward her former lover, she led the Partition of Poland with Prussia and Austria. Desenfans, and his friend Sir Peter Bourgeois, had travelled throughout Europe and acquired a large collection of paintings intended for Stanislaus but in 1795 Stanislaus lost his throne and became a semi-prisoner in St Petersburg. The deal was not completed and Desenfans was left with a large number of paintings on his hands. He sold many of them and replaced them with pictures of higher quality. He tried to interest the authorities in creating a public national gallery and submitted plans unsuccessfully to the British Museum and the Royal Academy.
Desenfans died in 1807 and Bourgeois acquired the art collection in its entirety. Some sources suggest that Desenfans and his wife Margaret lived in an unconventional ménage a trois at Desenfans’ house in Charlotte Street (now Hallam Street) whereas the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Noel and Margaret Desenfans informally ‘adopted’ Bourgeois when his mother died and his father, a Swiss watchmaker, abandoned him. Bourgeois continued Desenfans' efforts in establishing a national gallery for the public and re-established contact with the British Musem but found them off-putting. By the terms of his will he bequeathed the collection to Margaret Desenfans for her lifetime and then it was to pass “to the master, wardens, and fellows of Dulwich College in trust for the public use” and that they should be available for inspection by the public. He left an endowment of £10,000 and £2,000 to his friend Sir John Soane to build a gallery to house the collection and a sum to build a mausoleum close by which would house the remains of M and Mme Desenfans and Bourgeois himself.
Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first purpose built public art gallery to be founded in England, the fortuitous result of foreign intrigue and international politics that happened a long way from Dulwich. The gallery, which is Grade II* listed, was designed by Sir John Soane and constructed under his direction. Bizarrely it contains a mausoleum which, probably fortunately, did not set a trend in the building of future art galleries.
The Gallery has in its collection a delightful unposed watercolour of the two friends, Desenfans and Bourgeois, which can be seen online.
Initially the stipulation that the collection should be available for public viewing was rather grudgingly given as the gallery was only open to the public on Tuesdays and it was necessary for visitors to obtain a ticket previously from a printseller in London. A notice was displayed at the Gallery and in the catalogue that “without a ticket no person can be admitted, and no tickets are given at Dulwich.” Happily, the limitation on public admittance to only one day a week was soon lifted and after 1858 prior purchase of tickets in London was not required.
200 years ago Dulwich was surrounded by fields and considered rural so perhaps it is surprising that it became home to the first English public art gallery with an enviable world class collection. Perhaps equally surprising is that it has provided the inspiration for a 21st century collection of street art to be seen throughout the area – what would Messrs. Desenfans and Bourgeois make of it?
The paintings bequeathed by Desenfans and Bourgeois reflect the Baroque art of the 17th and 18th century originating in Italy, Spain, the Low Countries and France. English paintings at the Gallery were acquired mostly as a result of two later donations. The roll call of artists whose work is on display is impressive to say the least and includes Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Frangonard, Poussin, Canaletto, Raphael, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Constable.
Bourgeois died in 1811 as a result of a fall from his horse. The sum left by Bourgeois to build the gallery proved insufficient and Mme Desenfans donated a further £4,000 towards its building costs. The newly built gallery, constructed of brick with glass skylights and comprising interlinking rooms, opened in 1817.