Art Philanthropy: A Beau Geste From Beaumont
Giving back to society has always been a key focus for Credit Suisse. So it was for art patron and philanthropist Sir George Beaumont who was instrumental in the founding of the National Gallery. Find out more about Beaumont and the beginnings of the National Gallery in London, the bank's long-term partner.
A great arbiter of taste and art patron as well as a gifted amateur landscape painter, Sir George Beaumont was one of the first advocates of a national gallery. He was aware that, unlike the rest of continental Europe, Britain had no public picture gallery, and therefore scholars, artists and public had few opportunities to encounter great art at first hand. To rectify this, he invited artists to study his own art collection in his London house and country seat, Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire.
Later, he announced that he would bequeath the cream of his collection to the nation if a building were found to house it. In 1823, a group of paintings amassed by the deceased financier John Julius Angerstein came up for sale, and Beaumont made his offer even more attractive by stating his intention of donating his pictures immediately: 'Buy Angerstein's pictures and I will give you mine'. When the matter was discussed in Parliament, the Chancellor focused on Beaumont's generosity and predicted that his action would be 'followed by many similar acts of generosity and munificence the result of which will be the establishment of a splendid gallery'. Many more gifts and bequests followed; originally the National Gallery was housed in Angerstein's town house on Pall Mall until a purpose-built gallery by William Wilkins on Trafalgar Square, on the site of the former Royal Mews, was opened in 1838.
Beaumont's choice of paintings reflects the teaching of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy, London, who was Beaumont's friend and hero. Both men thought the past had much to teach the current generation and that exemplary models were to be found in grand Biblical or mythological paintings by Old Masters such as Claude and Poussin, Rubens and Rembrandt. This taste, reflected in subsequent gifts and bequests, prevailed for the first thirty years of the gallery's history. Later on, the acquisition of acknowledged masterpieces continued but a new emphasis was also placed on expanding the scope of the national collection to include hitherto overlooked painters, so that the Gallery could offer a visual survey of the whole history of western European painting from its origins.
Written by Dr. Susanna Avery-Quash,
Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery