“Not to embellish the gallery of some affluent nation:” The Eastlakes, Nationhood, and the Purchase of Italian Art for the National Gallery, London

Claire Thomas


Sir Charles Lock Eastlake’s acquisition of Italian art defines his legacy as director of the National Gallery, London. During each year of his directorship (1855-65), Eastlake travelled to Italy on ‘purchasing trips’ to source and secure Italian paintings for the British nation with his wife, writer and art historian, Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake. The Eastlakes had much to negotiate to secure their desired artworks: the political uncertainties of the newly unified Italy; competition from other nations; detractors in England; suspicious art dealers and the perils of sea transport. Building on recent publications of the Eastlakes’ personal notebooks and letters, as well as archival work, this essay collates and interprets previously disparate material to construct coherent accounts of some exemplary purchases of Italian art during Eastlake’s tenure, notably two Fra Angelico works and a failed attempt to secure a Ghirlandaio painting from Florence, . Lady Eastlake’s insight is acknowledged as fundamental to a purchasing process defined by stealth, persistence and careful decision-making. This essay also considers the enthusiastic purchase of Italian art as a metaphor for larger questions of nation-building and cultural status. 


Lady Elizabeth Eastlake; Sir Charles Lock Eastlake; National Gallery; London; art acquisition; Italian Renaissance art

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