A Brief History of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is the oldest public art gallery in England, having opened its doors to the public in 1817. As you can expect, the gallery has a rich history that we were keen to dive into. From a cherished friendship to a painting famous for being stolen the most times than any other, here is our brief history of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Our story begins with Edward Alleyn, an actor turned entrepreneur in Elizabethan theatre. He acquired the Manor of Dulwich in 1605 and went on to become the founder of the College of God’s Gift, a boys school which then separated into three beneficiary schools: Dulwich College, Alleyn’s School and James Allen’s Girls’ School. Alleyn went on to fill the college and gallery with portraits of English monarchs. However, the gallery wasn’t initially received well from its visitors, with very few additions made during the 18th century. Politician Horace Walpole wrote he saw ‘a hundred mouldy portraits among apostles sibyls and kings of England’. You can find the Edward Alleyn statue in the grounds of the Old College in Dulwich Village.

alleyn statue south london club

Matt Brown


The gallery’s reputation was salvaged thanks to Franic Bourgeois and his business partner Noël Desenfan. When they arrived on the scene, the size and quality of the gallery’s collections improved greatly, so much so they are now recognised as founders of the Dulwich Picture Gallery along with Alleyn. Here the famous painting of the two together below.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery


The two ran an art dealership and Desenfans appealed for the British government to create a British national collection of art and even offered to contribute. Yet the government was not convinced. Meanwhile they collected pieces upon the request of the King of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanislaus Augustus, but after 5 years of assembling, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth no longer existed.

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Dulwich College SE21 - Giclée Art Print

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Straight Outta Dulwich T-Shirt


Desenfans kept the collection in his Charlotte Street house before Bourgeois inherited it upon his partner’s death in 1807. Bourgeois then decided to give the collection to the College of God’s Gift. In his will, he requested the construction of an art gallery to be designed by Sir John Soane, as well as a mausoleum for his friend. He left £2,000 for the building costs and a generous £4,000 for Desenfan’s widow.

The gallery was initially opened to students of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1815 before being open to the public two years later. Many famous historical figureheads visited the gallery over the next 100 years, including the likes of Vincent van Gogh! Dickens also mentions the gallery in his novel The Pickwick Papers, where the protagonist Samuel visits the gallery in his retirement

vincent van gogh south london club


dickens portrait south london club

Jane Nearing


As we move into the 20th century, on the night of New Year's Eve 1966, 8 paintings were stolen from the gallery: three by Rembrandt, A Girl at the Window, a version of Portrait of Titus and his Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, three by Rubens, Three Women with a Cornucopia, St. Barbara and The Three Graces; and one, A Lady Playing on the Clavicord by Gerrit Dou and Susannah and the Elders by Adam Elsheimer.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery


All together the paintings were worth around £3 million, but merely £1,000 was the reward for their return. Detective Superintendent Charles Hewett ran the investigation, having previously led the case on suspected serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams. All the paintings were successfully recovered within a matter of days, yet only one of the thieves was caught, Michael Hall, who suffered 5 years in prison for his crimes.

One painting stands out from the recovered; the Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III has now been stolen a record breaking four times and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records because of it! Locations the painting has been found include on the back of a bicycle and under a bench in a graveyard in Streatham. As you can expect the painting is now heavily guarded!

Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III south london club

Dulwich Picture Gallery


Soane’s final design for the gallery consisted of interlinking rooms showered with daylight from the skylights above. This natural light served to illuminate the paintings without the need for artificial light. The architect favoured a more rustic look, using uninterrupted raw brick, which was a trend adopted later in many 20th century galleries to come.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery


Dulwich Picture Gallery celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2017, partnering with London Festival of Architecture to hold a competition for rising architects, with the winner contributing to a temporary structure to be built in the grounds during summer 2017. The winners were IF_DO, a London-based architecture group.

In 2019, Dulwich Picture Gallery continues to amaze South London, with exciting exhibits like the Colour Palace, where several informative workshops have been held like Neon Naked Life Drawing! Many anticipated announcements have been made for 2020 too, with a display coming of a book containing two private sketches by Dutch painter Rembrandt, who is considered one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art.

colour palace dulwich south london club

Dulwich Picture Gallery


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