The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London’s south celebrates the 200th anniversary of its public opening this year. It is the oldest public picture gallery in all of England.

The origins of the gallery back owe their existence to an art dealership run by a Frenchman, Noël Desenfans, and his Swiss friend, painter Sir Francis Bourgeois. In 1790, the men were commissioned by King Stanislaus II Augustus of Poland to form a royal collection of art for him.

They spent five years doing so but in 1795, the king was forced to abdicate and the two dealers were left with the collection. They began searching for a new home for it but failed to find one and following Desenfans’ death in 1807, Sir Francis decided to leave the collection to Dulwich College (apparently on the advice of his friend, actor John Philip Kemble). The college had been founded in the early 17th century as the ‘College of God’s Gift’ by Edward Alleyn, actor and theatre entrepreneur, who had left it his estate.

Sir Francis died in 1811 and, under the terms of his will, the paintings left to Dulwich had to be made available to the public to view. There was an existing gallery at Dulwich College (the collection had originally been formed around Alleyn’s collection which included portraits or kings and queens) but, conscious that it might not be ideal for displaying the collection, Sir Francis had left £2,000 in his will to refurbish it and made it clear that should this be required, he wanted his friend, Sir John Soane to oversee the work.

Sir John, visiting the college the day after Sir Francis’ death, inspects the existing building but decides that an entirely new wing will need to be built to house the collection. He submitted numerous designs but the cost – more than £11,000 – was considerably more than the college could afford despite Sir John’s efforts to cut costs and simplify. Eventually, after Margaret Desenfans agreed to donate £4,000 of her own money, the college officials agreed to begin construction.

In 1814, the collection was moved into the building and the following year, the now completed building was opened to Royal Academicians and students.  The public opening came two years later, in 1817, and the same year the Desenfanses and Francis Bourgeois were buried in the gallery’s mausoleum as its founders.

Several additions and renovations have since followed (including works after bombing during World War II). The last major works were carried out in the 1990s after which the gallery was formally reopened on 25th May, 2000, by Queen Elizabeth II.

Those who visited the gallery, many as students, have included some big names in the art world – John Constable, JMW Turner and Vincent Van Gogh. Charles Dickens referenced the gallery in his work, The Pickwick Papers, in which he had Samuel Pickwick visit the gallery following his retirement.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is now an independent registered charity. Its more than 600 works include one of the finest collections of Old Master paintings in the world by artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Poussin, Watteau, Canaletto, Rubens, Veronese and Murillo. Collection highlights include Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (1645), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Flower Girl (1665-70), Thomas Gainsborough’s Elizabeth and Mary Linley (c 1772) and Sir Peter Lely’s Nymphs by a Fountain (early 1650s).

WHERE: Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich (nearest rail is West Dulwich or North Dulwich); WHEN: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday; COST: £7 adults/£6 seniors/under 18s free (additional cost for special exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

PICTURES: Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

PrudhonThe drawings of “Napoleon’s draughtsman”, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, have gone on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in an exhibition timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. The exhibition, Prud’hon: Napoleon’s Draughtsman, presents a selection of some of Prud’hon’s best works, including 12 works on paper from Gray’s Musée Baron Martin in eastern France as well as life studies such as Seated Male Nude and Standing Female Nude and a series of sketches from when Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, sat for Prud’hon 15 times in her home outside Paris. Runs until 15th November. Admission charge applies. A series of events is being run in conjunction with the exhibition. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

The City of London Festival has kicked off this week with a three week programme including music, performance and visual art, films, tours, walks and talks. Events include the City Beerfest in Guildhall Yard, a tour of the art of the Mansion House, Bank of England open days and a walk celebrating the democratic institutions of the City marking the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The festival, which includes both ticketed and free events, runs until 10th July. For more, including a full programme, see www.colf.org.

A new exhibition exploring the photographic works of Captain Linnaeus Tripe has opened at the V&A. Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860 includes more than 60 photographs of architectural sites and monuments, ancient and contemporary religious buildings, landscape vistas and geological formations. The Devon-born Tripe joined the East India Company army in 1839 and was stationed in India throughout the 1840s, learning the art of photography when back in England in the early 1850s. The photographs represent the output from two major expeditions with Tripe the first photographer to capture Burma’s remarkable architecture and landscapes and the first person to do so extensively in south India. The exhibition, part of the V&A India Festival which marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum’s Nehru Gallery, is organised jointly by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in association with the V&A. Runs until 11th October.  Admission is free. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/linnaeustripe.

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