Dulwich

It was a tale worthy of Wilkie Collins or Anthony Trollope. The cast of characters included penny-pinching schoolmasters, waspish clergymen and a famous, thin-skinned architect – plus six elderly ladies whose rights somehow had to be preserved throughout and three cadavers in sarcophagi. At the centre of the plot was a collection of masterpieces by great painters, intended for an Eastern European monarch, and an ancient school on the outskirts of London.

It is now two hundred years since the foundation of Dulwich Picture Gallery. That’s quite long enough for us all to have grow used to a very odd arrangement: a superb collection of old master pictures, installed in a Jacobean educational establishment in South London.

It came about like this. In 1790 a French art dealer named Noel Desenfans and his younger business partner and friend, Sir Francis Bourgeois RA, a Swiss painter of mediocre talent, were both asked to put together an array of paintings for Stanislaus Augustus, the King of Poland. They spent the next five years accumulating a splendid cache of works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin and many other artists, mainly of the 17th century. The result was more in contemporary European than British taste (the fine English pictures at Dulwich mainly arrived through later bequests). But it was unquestionably good enough for a king.

Unfortunately, for them and from many points of view – especially that of the Poles – by the time they had finished Desenfans and Bourgeois no longer had a royal customer for all these fine canvases. Stanislaus Augustus was an ex-King – the very last monarch of Poland – and his realm itself was partitioned into non-existence as an independent nation by Russia and Prussia. On November 25, 1795 poor Stanislaus was forced to abdicate, and went to live in St Petersburg on a pension provided by Catherine the Great.

At this point, Desenfans and Bourgeois were left with a lot of pictures on their hands. After trying unavailingly to interest the Tzar of Russia – one of the architects of Poland’s downfall – and the British Government (often a tough sell when it comes to art), their thoughts turned to leaving it as a monument to themselves. They traded some works, and sold others. So matters went on until 1807, when Desenfans died.

Sir Francis Bourgeois (his knighthood was Polish) then began to search more urgently for a home for the pictures. It proved a tiresome quest. Rev. Robert Corry, a fellow of Dulwich College, described how it went. “The Royal Academy had given him some offence, he disapproved of the rules and regulations of the British Museum”. Bourgeois wanted, as benefactors often do, to have his collection remain intact.

Next, Bourgeois considered buying the ground rent of his own house at 38 Charlotte Street, Soho, where the architect John Soane had already built a sombre, domed mausoleum in the garden to contain the remains of Desenfans, Mrs Desenfans and Bourgeois himself (they had all lived together in a slightly strange ménage). However, the Duke of Portland was unwilling to negotiate, so the prospective Charlotte St Picture Gallery never came to be.

Bourgeois was a friend of Rev. Corry, and had often visited him at Dulwich. He was “much pleased” with the place, and its “stillness” so close to London, and decided to leave his masterpieces to the College. This was part of a large charity, Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, founded in 1619 by a notable actor-manager of the day Edward Alleyn, who had once taken the star roles in Christopher Marlowe’s major plays.

Corry hurried to deliver the news, which came with some awkward conditions attached – notably that it included custody of the late Mr Desenfans “who had some sort of prejudice against being put underground” and there wished to be housed in a sarcophagus.

His first problem, though, was to find someone to tell the good tidings to. Among the senior members of the College, “the master was very far advanced in years, Stowe was unstable and debilitated by disease, Dowell was too nervous to take any part in College discussions, and Smith was I believe, absent””. It sounds like a thoroughly Trollopean institution.

Accordingly, it was the Warden, Lancelot Baugh Allen, who was left to come to an arrangement with Sir Francis. The two men agreed that gothic was the most suitable style for a new purpose-built picture gallery, to match the existing 17th century College buildings. Allen asked Bourgeois what architect he would recommend. The latter suggested John Soane – added enticingly that Soane was a “man of fortune” had only two sons, already amply provided for, so he would treat the College “as a friend”. The implication was that Soane would not charge for his services. Allen saw the point.

Thus was how the commission for one of the most illustrious structures in British architectural history decided. The brief was an odd one. As the scheme developed, it was decided Soane should design a picture gallery, but incorporating a mausoleum – to contain all three sarcophagi – and also providing housing for the indigent women whose almshouses would be demolished to clear the site.

The Gallery opened in 1817, the first public museum of paintings in Britain. It was a compromise that initially pleased no one. The costs, as usual with building projects, rocketed. Therefore, Soane was instructed to cut back on inessentials. The bare, functional austerity of the exterior – much admired by contemporary architects – was consequently forced on him against his better judgement.

Soane himself would have preferred something more ornate. He was mortified by the criticism of the Rev. Thomas Frognal Dibdin, who exclaimed, “What a thing – what a creature it is!… Semi-Arabic, Moro-Spanish, Anglico-Norman – a what-you-will-production! It has all the merit and emphatic distinction of being unique!” Soane darkly suspected this attack to be the work of his estranged son George, writing under a pseudonym.

Two centuries later, Soane’s Gallery is widely regarded as one of the most perfect ever conceived. The guru of American modernist architects, Philip Johnson, once said “the Dulwich Gallery set forever the way to show pictures.” Essentially, Soane came up with the sort of space he had produced for the display of paintings in country houses, but pared of windows and fireplaces, and top-lit.

The mausoleum, off the central space of the picture gallery, is shadowy, impressive and a little eerie. How the impoverished women felt about living next to it, in a row of little dwellings, is not recorded. Later, in any case, their apartments were transformed into extra galleries in which temporary exhibitions are held these days.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is in every way an accidental triumph. The collection, intended to improve taste in Warsaw, ended up in a leafy London suburb. For economic reasons, the building turned out not gothic as its patrons wanted, nor opulently classical as its architect planned, but proto-modernist.

However, a triumph it is. Each month this year a different visiting masterpiece a month will go on show in celebration – including works by Velazquez, Vermeer, and Van Gogh (the last of whom visited the Gallery while living in London, and wrote with uncharacteristic banality in the visitor’s book). In the mausoleum, Desenfans and Bourgeois should be feeling proud.

From my column in The Lady

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