No ordinary school art room
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21
Though Harrow has a posher reputation, there is probably no educational establishment in London so refined as Dulwich College, which was built by the actor–manager Edward Alleyn in the mid-1610s, partly with money he had earned from licensing dogfights, bear-baiting and brothels. Two centuries later it gained the finest school art gallery in the world, with works by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto and Van Dyck, among many others.
Most of the paintings at Dulwich were acquired by the London-based art dealer Noël Desenfans on behalf of King Stanislaus II of Poland, and were intended to form the nucleus of a royal gallery in Warsaw. Desenfans was born in Flanders, which may explain the collection’s particular emphasis on old masters from France and the low countries. King Stanislaus ran into a few local difficulties (culminating in his dethronement and the virtual erasure of Poland from the map) and the pictures remained with Desenfans, who, on his death, bequeathed them to his intimate friend Sir Francis Bourgeois, a Londoner of Swiss extraction and member of the Royal Academy.
Bourgeois in turn bequeathed the collection to Dulwich College, together with funds for the construction and upkeep of a gallery to which the public would be admitted. The money turned out to be not quite sufficient for the purpose and Desenfans’s Welsh widow stepped in to make up the difference. Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël and Margaret Desenfans are entombed in the gallery’s mausoleum.
Francis Bourgeois’s friend Sir John Soane designed a home for the paintings that is a work of art in itself, with the interior walls evenly illuminated by innovative roof-lanterns (upward-projecting skylights, as shown at the top of the photograph below). The set of buildings also included almshouses for six old ladies, which have since been converted to display rooms for temporary exhibitions. Parts of the gallery had to be rebuilt after being bombed in the Second World War and the whole place was refurbished in 2000, when a glass and bronze cloister was added, linking the original building with a new art studio, a very upmarket (and recently refurbished) café and a meeting space called the Linbury Room.
Had London possessed a suitable national gallery of art at the time Bourgeois died, the paintings would have gone to that institution, where there would be no fee to view them, as used to be the case at Dulwich. In the 19th century the only charge levied upon visitors was a one shilling fine if they walked on the grass outside – a penalty once imposed on Prince Albert by a vigilant Alleynian. Nowadays, most adults must pay whether they trespass on the turf or not – the gallery receives no public subsidy so it relies on these charges, together with income from philanthropy and commercial enterprises.