Rehanging the Sainsbury Wing

After the destruction of the House of Commons’ chamber in 1941, Winston Churchill famously argued for its reconstruction as it had been before, since a different form of building would mean a different form of politics: ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.1 There are few museum buildings to which this aphorism can more justly be applied than the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, opened in 1991. Designed to house the collection of paintings made before 1500, it has shaped the way that a generation has experienced the art of the medieval and early Renaissance periods. In its basilica-like floor plan of aisles divided by columns of pietra serena, evoking the ambience of Brunelleschi’s Florence, it is so clearly intended for the works it contains that nobody could seriously contemplate using it for the art of any other period.

Working within that fundamentally inflexible context, the curators have the benefit of a collection of such richness that the possibilities for rearrangement are almost endless. Despite its Italianate architecture, the Sainsbury Wing has always housed the art of northern Europe (and other centres) before 1500 as well as that of Italy. It is, therefore, an opportunity as well as a challenge for the Gallery’s curators to decide how much they will mix works with different geographical origins – within the Italian peninsula as well as outside it – to achieve a hang that has to work visually as well as didactically. The major rehang that was completed last month has tackled this issue with a confidence that occasionally rises to boldness. Although there have been earlier rearrangements, most recently a decade ago, none has been so comprehensive. The new display has answered some long-standing criticisms, as set out, for example, in an Editorial in this Magazine in 2001 that marked the building’s tenth anniversary.2

Some of these issues concern the galleries rather than the display. The harsh lighting criticised in 2001 has over the years been mitigated, a change that has now been helped by a modification of the wall colour used in most rooms. The cold shade of pale grey chosen in 1991 has been replaced by a warmer, more yellow, grey, and the rooms look happier as a result. One of the great strengths of the building is the broad vistas that encourage circulation and emphasise the historical continuities of the works on display, but they also weaken a sense of the galleries as selfcontained rooms, making it difficult to give them individual characters through changes in wall colours. The Sainsbury Wing remains a very monochrome – almost Protestant – experience.

Some of the most noticeable changes are outside the vistas. The small room at the south-west corner of the wing, one of only two rooms in the Sainsbury Wing with no natural light, was from the outset devoted to the Gallery’s three panels by Piero della Francesca. Given the deep British reverence for the artist it was not surprising that this chapel-like space became a favourite with visitors. Bravely, the Pieros have now been moved to a large gallery that they share with Raphael. At a stroke, a different narrative has been created, answering the criticism made in 2001 that the display had unwittingly marginalised a ‘pivotal and peripatetic’ figure.3

The room in which the Pieros were formerly shown is now devoted to the collection’s two works by a painter whom it is impossible to marginalise, Leonardo. The shadowy world of the Virgin of the Rocks is at home in the low light levels required by the Burlington House Cartoon. The latter was formerly hung in a small room by itself immediately to the right of the entrance to the Sainsbury Wing. In the rehang this space has been allocated to the Wilton Diptych, an excellent solution to the problem of a work that is inevitably seen in isolation since the collection contains no comparable British (or French) paintings.

One of the challenges of a building in which vistas are so important is the choice of paintings to place at their ends. Among the great successes of the rehang is the spectacular display that closes the east end of the penultimate cross-axis, the twelve main panels from one of the largest altarpieces commissioned in fourteenth-century Florence, painted by Jacopo di Cione for S. Pier Maggiore. The most important vista, which reaches the full length of the National Gallery to Stubbs’s Whistlejacket in the far distance, was for years closed by Cima’s altarpiece the Incredulity of St Thomas, seemingly chosen largely for visual reasons. Its replacement with one of the collection’s key works, Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion, is welcome. This change is also a reminder, however, of the ineradicable problem that by its self-contained nature the Sainsbury Wing creates a barrier at 1500 that divides the early and the high Renaissance, necessitating two displays for Raphael, one here and one in the main building.

This encapsulates the fact that the Sainsbury Wing enshrines a canon that is evidently Vasarian and less evidently Victorian. The collection has been profoundly shaped by Ruskinian reverence for the early Italian Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite admiration for the art of Van Eyck. This point is not lost on the National Gallery’s curators, who wittily have hung at the top of the Sainsbury Wing’s staircase Frederic Leighton’s Cimabue’s celebrated Madonna (on loan from the Royal Collection) so that its procession marches towards the entrance. As this acknowledges, the Sainsbury Wing is a good way of explaining to students the concept of the formation of a canon.

This was a point that fascinated Robert Venturi, who with his wife, Denise Scott Brown (and David Vaughan as job architect), designed the building. Venturi’s death on 18th September has prompted reflection on the sole work in Britain by the author of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). Perhaps because the Sainsbury Wing received only muted acclaim when it opened and has in many ways continued to puzzle critics, the National Gallery does not attempt to explain the building to visitors. Venturi and Scott Brown did not intend its most obviously ‘reverential’ qualities, such as the names of great artists chiselled into the staircase wall, to be taken at face value. Equally important are the Pop art references of the metalwork or such details as the naturally occurring black blotches in the Cold Spring granite of the stairs, which may be intended to suggest chewing gum spat out by visitors on the ascent to Parnassus.4 This subversive element in the Sainsbury Wing is not allowed to impinge on the art it contains and so in one respect the way that the building was intended to shape its users has firmly been resisted. 

1 Hansard, HC, Deb (28th October 1943), 393, col. 403, available at https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/index.html, accessed 17th October 2018.

2 Editorial: ‘Written in stone: the first decade of the Sainsbury Wing’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 143 (2001), p.531.

3 Ibid.

4 This suggestion was made in the most searching analysis of the building to date: B. Calder: ‘“Never so serious”: the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London’, Studies in the History of Art 73 (2009), pp.182–99, esp. pp.194–95.