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What Is the Guildhall Art Gallery?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Guildhall Art Gallery is a museum in London that houses numerous paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. All the works in this museum depict or trace their roots to Britain, particularly London, either in the present day or throughout history. It was chartered in 1885 as a means of preserving and displaying the capital city’s artistic talent. The gallery's original building was badly damaged during the Second World War and not rebuilt until the late 1990s. The present day Guildhall Art Museum sits directly adjacent to the original bombed out building.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Guildhall Art Gallery is that it is situated directly atop the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Architects and building crew breaking ground on the revitalized Guildhall discovered the ruins in 1998. They were buried beneath several layers of earth. Two fragmented walls are all that is left of the structure, which is believed to have been built in 70 AD.

Visitors to the museum can visit the ruins, which are preserved in the building’s basement. They are the center of an exhibit on Roman life in England and have been augmented with digital representations of what the entire structure would have looked like in its heyday. Although unexpected, the London Roman Amphitheater makes the Guildhall Art Gallery one of the most unique British museums.

The gallery also houses numerous valuable and unusual works of art. Curators set a policy shortly after rebuilding the museum that all new acquisitions would focus exclusively on the city of London. This rule was not retroactive, with the result that the museum is home to a wide variety of pieces. It is mostly London-centric, but not exclusively.

Some of the most celebrated pieces were original installments in the first Guildhall Art Gallery, and were salvaged from the bombing wreckage or evacuated before the Blitz. One of these is the gigantic painting The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 by John Singleton Copley. The canvas spans two stories in height and vividly documents the British defense of Gibraltar, a Commonwealth territory on the Iberian peninsula of Spain. This work is one of only a few pieces in the collection created by non-English artists: Copley was an American.

As is true with many museums, the Guildhall Art Gallery owns far more pieces that are ever on display at once. Rotating displays have featured various collections of oil-on-canvas paintings, sculptures, watercolors, and sketches. Curators commonly organize collections based around a single theme or time period, which go on display in the museum’s exhibition rooms. Many of these arrangements are designed specifically for children and school groups and are intended at least in part to foster a connection between museums and kids.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is one of many art museums in London. It is in the area of London known as Guildhall Yard and is easily accessible by public transportation. The gallery is within walking distance of the Museum of London, which displays some art but primarily focuses on artifacts depicting the city’s past. Together these two installments provide a robust picture of London life and culture through the ages.

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