200 today: UK’s National Gallery kicks off year-long bicentenary celebrations

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London Copyright Alberto Pezzali/AP
Copyright Alberto Pezzali/AP
By Christian Moore
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After two centuries exhibiting some of the world’s most prized artworks in London, the National Gallery has decided it’s time to get a bit more national.


The National Gallery is kicking off its 200th anniversary today (10 May) by launching a year-long commemorative programme.

Located in London’s Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, which is free to attend, attracted over 3 million visitors in 2023. 

The imperious neoclassical building was completed in 1838, having been commissioned to house a burgeoning national collection of artworks set in motion with parliament’s decision to purchase banker John Julius Angerstein’s private collection of pictures in 1824.

200 years after that original foundational purchase, the National Gallery’s collection has grown to include over 2,300 works; and it’s hardly worth it to start listing the names of artists whose paintings hang in the gallery's halls - you can already guess who they are.

But in spite of its success, the institution has decided to rejuvenate its curatorial approach as part of its birthday celebrations, which kick off tonight with a live music event followed by a light show blazoned upon the building’s facade.

"Madame Moitessier" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1856
"Madame Moitessier" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1856Wikimedia Commons

For starters, the gallery has performed a rehang of its collection, "with a new emphasis on thematic displays, pairings and surprising "artistic conversations" within a broadly chronological framework."

More excitingly for non-Londoners, as part of an initiative titled “National Treasures” the gallery has decided to lend, from today, twelve of its most iconic works to venues around the UK, so that those who don’t live in or travel often to the nation’s capital can enjoy these works locally.

Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus", 1601
Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus", 1601Wikimedia Commons

The full map of which works are going where is available on the National Gallery’s website, but one glance will confirm that they haven’t skimped on the works in question. Constable’s “The Hay Wain” will be taking up residence in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery; York Art Gallery will have Monet’s “The Water-Lily Pond”; and Liverpool almost wins out, with Velázquez’s 'The Rokeby Venus' coming to the city’s Walker Art Gallery, were it not for Belfast’s Ulster Museum trumping the whole lot by hosting Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus”.

"Whistlejacket" by George Stubbs, c. 1762
"Whistlejacket" by George Stubbs, c. 1762Wikimedia Commons

Of course, visitors continuing to visit the National Gallery in its Trafalgar Square location can still enjoy any number of masterpieces, be it the remarkable equine anatomy of George Stubbs’ “Whistlejacket” (the artist’s realism came at a cost, mind - there were any number of dead horses strewn about his studio), or the grand, sybaritic “Madame Moitessier” by Ingres.

For those who still won’t be able to attend any of the events in person, the National Gallery has also announced a travelling “Art Road Trip”, as well as a collaboration with 200 content creators in order to extend its anniversary reach to digital audiences.

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