The National Gallery Archive

Scope and Content

The National Gallery Archive holds the administrative records of the National Gallery, including: Board minutes, 19th century correspondence, annual reports, 20th century registry files, late 20th century departmental records, accounts, art historical dossiers, photographs and press cuttings.

Administrative / Biographical History

The National Gallery houses the national collection of Western European painting from the 13th to the early 20th century. The Gallery's aim is to care for the collection, to enhance it for future generations, primarily by acquisition, and to study it, while encouraging access to the pictures for the education and enjoyment of the widest possible public now and in the future.

The Gallery was established in 1824 when the Government purchased the picture collection of the late banker, John Julius Angerstein. The collection of 38 paintings was placed on public display at Angerstein’s house in Pall Mall. The Gallery was managed by the Keeper, William Seguier, who reported to a 'Committee of six gentlemen'. Both the Keeper and the Committee (which later evolved into the Board of Trustees) were appointed by the Treasury but their exact responsibilities were left undefined. Dissatisfaction with this situation and public criticism of the Gallery’s management led to the appointment of a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1853. Its report resulted in the reform of the Gallery’s administration as defined in a Treasury Minute of 27 March 1855. The minute created a new post of Director with wide powers to acquire paintings for the collection. The Director was assisted by a Keeper who managed the day-to-day affairs of the Gallery. The Board of Trustees was retained ‘to keep up a connexion between cultivated lovers of art and the institution, and to form an indirect channel of communication [with] the Government.’ The reforms improved the administration of the Gallery and, from this time on, annual reports were presented to the Treasury detailing the management of the Gallery and Collection, including pictures purchased and cleaned or repaired. This system of governance continued until 1894 when the balance of power shifted in favour of the Board of Trustees following the so-called Rosebery Minute that altered the Gallery’s constitution. This did not affect the two acts of parliament passed during the 19th century that specifically related to the Gallery and concerned de-accessioning and loans: the National Gallery Act 1856 and the National Gallery (Loan) Act 1883.

In 1897 the National Gallery assumed responsibility for the newly opened Tate Gallery. In the years that followed the division of the national collection between the two galleries was vigorously debated and led to a committee of inquiry headed by Lord Curzon. The ensuing Curzon Report of 1915 recommended that the Tate should house the collection of British and modern foreign art while the National Gallery should retain the collection of Old Master paintings. The Tate became partially independent from the National Gallery in 1917 when it acquired its own Board of Trustees; however, it was not until 1955 and the implementation of the National Gallery and Tate Gallery Act 1954 that the Tate became fully independent. The post-war period also saw an increase in the range of activities carried out by the Gallery and a growing professionalisation of those activities. In the late 1980s responsibility for managing the buildings was transferred to the Gallery and it acquired the freehold of the site in 1992. In the second half of the 20th century the Gallery developed a range of specialised departments: Conservation, Scientific, Curatorial, Framing, Education, Photographic, Library and Archive, Art Handling, Audio-Visual, Development, Finance, Human Resources, Buildings, Design, Digital Media, Marketing, Exhibitions, Information, Information Systems, Press, Registrars, Visitor Services and Security. The governance of the Gallery was further changed by the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 which incorporated the Board of Trustees and provides the current constitution of the National Gallery.


The records are generally arranged into broad series according to their original provenance where known. More details about the system of arrangement are given at each series level description.

Access Information

The National Gallery Archive is open to the public by appointment.

Other Finding Aids

Online catalogue at A paper list is also available at the National Gallery Archive.

Archivist's Note

Fonds level description by Alan Crookham, Archivist.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status is indicated at series level where known.

Custodial History

The archives of the National Gallery have always been retained by the Gallery.

Related Material

Kenneth Clark Archive, Tate Archives.


Suzanne Bosman, The National Gallery in Wartime. London 2008Alan Crookham, The National Gallery. An illustrated history. London 2009Charles Saumarez Smith, The National Gallery. A short history. London 2009