The Birth of the Art Gallery – from Julius Caesar to St Mawes!

In November this year, it will be the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts. That’s a quarter of a millennium! And throughout that time, the Academy has been a huge influence on the world of art, commanding the respect of the public and conferring enormous prestige on its members. But, (though this is seldom acknowledged or remembered), it came into existence for many of the very same reasons that hundreds of small galleries, like our very own St Mawes Gallery, exist for today. It also shares the same history with all public and commercial galleries and it is a fascinating and rewarding history, one that (we think), will enrich your visit to this gallery or any other...

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A History of the Art Gallery - Two Thousand Years in a Nutshell!

The belief that art should be on display has been around at least since classical times, when religious establishments, (such as Roman temples), often operated as art galleries and when collectors, (like Julius Caesar), might endow a temple with priceless collections of engraved gems, bronzes and statuary.


For the best part of two thousand years, the system worked pretty much the same way. In fact, here in the UK, it did so right up to the middle of the 18th century. Like this: From Roman times, art was regarded as being in some way ‘sacred’ and certainly reserved for the religious, the royal or the noble!


Artists were commissioned by wealthy patrons. In medieval times this was usually the church, the guilds, royalty or nobility. The collections amassed over the years might then be put on public display in churches, palaces or mansions to which the public were, sometimes, admitted in order to enjoy the beauty on display. And, possibly more importantly to the collector, to be awed by the power, (religious or secular), or the wealth or the taste – or all three – of the collector.

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But in the 18th century, the agricultural and industrial revolutions saw the advent of a new kind of wealth and that began to change everything. The barons of industry and mercantile trade weren’t interested in patronage, in supporting their own ‘tame’ artist! They were interested in buying the art. They saw a painting they liked and they bought it. Or they wanted a particular painting and commissioned it. The ‘free market’ had arrived.


Artists quickly saw the opportunities. First through the Society of Artists (1761), and then through the Royal Academy of Arts, (founded in 1768), they began to arrange exhibitions of their work.

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There was immediate public interest in these exhibitions, at least from the large, new and newly wealthy middle class who were able to pay the entrance fees. But there were far more artists than the Royal Academy could or would exhibit and even inclusion by the Academy didn’t guarantee a living income. So, somewhere towards the end of the 18th century the first commercial art gallery appeared.


And that led to a demand for art to be made more widely available. After all, if art, like good furniture or good clothes, could be bought by just anyone then, obviously, it should be available to be seen by just anyone!

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In the UK, the first purpose built, public art galleries were opened in the early part of the 19th century: the Dulwich Picture Gallery, (1814) and the National Gallery, (1824).


By the middle of the 1800’s, the commercial art gallery had well and truly arrived.


Both public art galleries and commercial art galleries made art available to the general public, wealthy or not, on a much wider scale than it ever had been before. It was the commercial art gallery, however, that made it possible for thousands of artists to reach the viewing (and buying) public and to sell their work. And that in turn allowed more artists than ever to dedicate themselves to their art.


Without that opportunity, many, many wonderful artists would have remained unknown and many more wonderful works would never have existed.


It’s quite a thought and quite a history to think about as you wander around St Mawes’ Gallery!