Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), La Ghirlandata, 1873.
The first Guildhall Art Gallery was built in 1885 to display the City of London Corporation's growing art collection. The project was inspired by the success of new galleries supported by local authorities in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. It aimed to cater to an 'increased taste for Art' evident in Victorian society. Under the dynamic leadership of its first Director, Alfred Temple, the Gallery ran a series of popular and influential exhibitions and expanded its collection of contemporary nineteenth century paintings.
The Victorian gallery was almost entirely destroyed by fire during a severe air raid of the Second World War on 10 May 1941. Large parts of the collection had been removed to underground storage in Wiltshire, together with those of other London museums and galleries, but 164 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints and 20 sculptures were lost. A temporary structure was built on the cleared site in 1946 for use as a ceremonial venue and exhibition space. Selected pieces from the collection and art society shows went on display. The City organised two annual exhibitions, The Lord Mayor’s Art Award and the City of London Art Exhibition, in addition to a series of major loan exhibitions between 1952 and 1972 on topics including Canaletto in England, David Roberts, Samuel Scott and Sir James Thornhill.
In 1985 the City decided to redevelop the site and add a new Gallery on its lower levels. The architect was Richard Gilbert Scott, who had earlier worked on the Guildhall restoration and designed the new Guildhall Library and West Wing of 1974. In 1987 the remains of the original Gallery were demolished. Shortly afterwards the Museum of London Archaeological Service discovered the remains of London's Roman Amphitheatre and the building was re-designed to incorporate this astounding piece of architectural history. The new Guildhall Art Gallery finally opened to the public in August 1999 and the Amphitheatre in 2002.
Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), My First Sermon, 1863, oil on canvas.
The Art Gallery
The Gallery shows a changing display of about 250 artworks from its collection of paintings, drawings and sculpture, in addition to a programme of temporary exhibitions. The Gallery is also responsible for significant works of art held elsewhere including the monuments in the Guildhall, statues in the Old Bailey and further sculptures and the Harold Samuel Collection of 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's residence.
A rich variety of Victorian paintings can be seen as you enter the Gallery, displayed in original nineteenth century style. The collections illustrate the key artistic movements and influences of the Victorian period, from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to Orientalism, Classicism and narrative painting.
Pictures of London
The Gallery's collection of London paintings opens a window onto unusual, memorable and colourful scenes from the city's history. Dating from the seventeenth century onwards, they provide a vivid record of events including The Great Fire of London in 1666 and the opening of Tower Bridge in 1894. Street and crowd scenes capture the look and feel of city life, showing Londoners gathering to watch the Lord Mayor's Show, rushing down Fleet Street, or partying on public holidays.
London's Roman Amphitheatre today.
London's Roman Amphitheatre
In 1988, Museum of London archaeologists made an astonishing discovery that changed the face of Roman London. The capital's only Roman amphitheatre was located in Guildhall Yard, during an archaeological dig taking place in preparation for the new Art Gallery building project. In 2002, the doors to the amphitheatre opened for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
You can enjoy free entry to the amphitheatre as part of your visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery.
Download a guide to the Amphitheatre.
When short stretches of Roman wall were unearthed in Guildhall Yard the site became a protected monument. The City of London decided to integrate the remains into its proposals for a new Art Gallery and construction work began in 1992, alongside ongoing excavations. The surviving remains include a stretch of the stone entrance tunnel, east gate, and arena walls. They are protected in a controlled environment, 20 feet below the modern pavement, in which they can dry out slowly without damage to the ancient stonework. The original extent of the outer wall is marked by a circle of black paving stones in Guildhall Yard.
'Famous for its wealth of traders and commercial traffic'
This description of London in the 2nd century AD by the Roman historian Tacitus continues to define the City today. Londonium, as it was known, was one of the largest towns in Roman Britain and among the Empire's most significant settlements outside the Mediterranean. It was a hub of international trade; managed by traders who handled the importing of large quantities of luxury goods such as wine, oil, and cloth and the exporting of raw materials and slaves. It began in AD 47 as a settlement on two small hills on the north side of the Thames, currently occupied by St Paul's Cathedral and Leadenhall Market. With easy access to the sea and an advantageous position at the borders rather than the centres of existing tribal groups, Londinium quickly grew to be the most vibrant town in the whole province.
'The whole place was seething with savage enthusiasm... in the course of the fight some man fell; there was a great roar from the whole mass of spectators...'
London's Roman amphitheatre was a venue for wild animal fights, public executions and gladiatorial combats. Although these violent spectacles were sometimes criticised, particularly by the growing Christian community, they attracted huge audiences. St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century AD, describes the infectious power of the crowd's mood on even the most disapproving visitor, 'he opened his eyes, feeling perfectly prepared to treat whatever he might see with scorn... He saw the blood and he gulped down the savagery... He was no longer the man who had come there but was one of the crowd to which he had come.'