Guidhall Art Gallery is home to the City of London Coporation's art collection and is situated in the heart of the Square Mile – a stone’s throw from the Bank of England and St Paul’s Cathedral. The gallery opened in 1886 at a time when, inspired by the public’s ‘increased taste for art’, civic leaders were opening their collections for all to view free of charge. The aim of Guildhall Art Gallery was to display ‘a Collection of Art Treasures worthy of the capital city’. The gallery’s first director from 1886 to 1928 was Alfred Temple, during whose tenure the gallery became a member of the Contemporary Art Society. He mounted a series of popular exhibitions, queues for which stretched from Guildhall Yard to the Bank of England and also started to collect contemporary art, a tradition maintained today.
Fire almost entirely destroyed the gallery during the Blitz in 1941. Although much of the collection had been moved for safety to an underground store in Wiltshire, the gallery lost several hundred works of art. Undaunted, the Corporation opened a temporary gallery and, in 1985, decided to re-develop the building at which time the remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre were discovered, now preserved and open to the public, at basement level. The new building was designed by architect Richard Gilbert Scott and opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1999.
The wide-ranging collection of 4,500 works, including over 1,300 oil paintings, dates from 1670 to the present day. It is particularly rich in Victorian art whose styles and themes range from the Pre-Raphaelites to the late 19th-century fashion for all things Oriental. and also houses important ceremonial and topographical paintings. Scenes of London take visitors on a colourful journey into the City’s past, covering both dramatic events like the Great Fore of London of 1666 and crowds enjoying the Lord Mayor’s Show, to everyday street scenes.
The collection has been built up through commissions, purchases and by generous donations and bequests. The studio collection of Matthew Smith was donated to the City in 1974. In 2013 it launched a new acquisitions drive, focusing on works which explore the gallery’s unique location in the centre of London’s financial district – drawing on themes around money and power, plenty and progress, boom and bust. A recent acquisition from the CAS, Top Shelf, 2018 by Liz Artur Johnson documents the lives of black communites in the capital in a 20-piece photographic montage which is inspired by the way the Victorians would display their collections such as at the Guildhall Art Gallery.