Decolonising Dulwich Picture Gallery:
Revealing systemic racism in the history of England's first purpose-built public art gallery through a ficto-critical encounter with its archive
Author's own photograph, 2021.
This dissertation study asks new questions of a familiar building, Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery (1817). As one of Soane’s most famous buildings, the Gallery has been written about extensively. However, I revisit it in light of the urgent contemporary issue of systemic racism within public art institutions. Existing histories of the building have tended to focus on its technical achievements, its stylistic placement within the canon of European art, its significance in Soane’s oeuvre and its influence upon art gallery design in the 20th century.
It is England’s first purpose-built public art gallery and yet, focusing almost exclusively on the building’s design, these histories lack a thorough investigation into the experience of visitors themselves, telling us little of the life of the Gallery. I follow Peg Rawes who ‘contribute[s] to architecture on the basis that it is located in society,’ as I share her belief that it is ‘lived as an experience that is embedded in existing structures.’ In the immediate aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 the notion of anti-racism has emerged into mainstream discourse.
As a result, many art galleries have publicly acknowledged entrenched structural inequality and have posted antiracist statements promising to confront these issues head on. At this moment of reckoning, institutions are rethinking their past in order to decolonise. Dulwich Picture Gallery’s origins are idiosyncratic, the curious facts of its existence often remarked on. Therefore, the Gallery has developed a particularly intense mythology of its own history. The founding story is retold continually and yet the founders’ motivations have been infrequently analysed. In considering the urgent question of how systemic racism is to be dismantled within our institutions, it is essential to unpick Eurocentric notions of the taste and legacy of the people who founded them. I therefore believe the time is right to revise the history of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s founding and subsequent public life. I trace this history through research at the Gallery and Dulwich College archives, my sources chosen to reveal visitors’ experiences of the space as a destination for arts appreciation and education. In this way, I use Dulwich Picture Gallery as a case study for exploring how art institutions can re-evaluate their own histories in the service of anti-racism.
I use a site-writing methodology of figuration, after postmodernist feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti. This methodology allows me to present a history of the Gallery that is purposefully inflected by my own situated lived experience. Drawing on practices of ficto-criticism within architectural history I blend two distinct writing styles. One is formal, solidly academic— a conventional style for writing essays with. The second is creative non-fiction prose and it has a contemplative, poetic quality. Renderings of walks I have taken as part of my research are integral to the text. These are presented as a cartography by laying out descriptive text, photographs and historic maps on the page. Through this I locate the Gallery as an historic object within the city, retracing journeys taken to and through it by the public over 200 years. Drawing on the historicisation of the Gallery space as a British heritage asset, the actions of historic characters invoked from the archive are delineated by a ‘Soane Red’ colour, derived from that of the Gallery walls. This reanimation of source material has the potential to subvert it. In this I am inspired by the work of Saidiya Hartman who, as Jane Rendell explains, uses a methodology of ‘critical fabulation as a way of doing decolonial history.’ Braidotti promotes figuration as a methodology which can be used to ‘critique Eurocentrism from within’ and the efficacy of such an approach to the problem of ‘dominant visions of the subject, identity and knowledge’ will be central to my consideration of the antiracist responsibilities of an ‘Old Master’ art gallery within 21st century London. This methodology is therefore conceived in order to destabilise the Gallery’s history, to question its founding mythology, revealing and challenging the ways in which it has been presented to the world.
Each step in the city is a choice, a potential composition to be caught on camera. Leaving the Gallery, I walk home along Railton Road. I pass neat rows of terraced houses, all bricks and bay windows. I notice youth centres, pubs, play schemes, a front garden filled with flowers. All made by people, all loved, all precarious. This is a road with a unique history, one that is rooted in black community activism and LGBTQ+ liberation. I pass number 167, a blue plaque commemorating it as the home of writer and activist C.L.R. James. The road is gentrified, tinged with loss. It has been called ‘the frontline,’ the place where Brixton’s ‘social uprisings of 1981 and 1985 began.’ This is a name that embodies residents’ perseverance and solidarity in the face of racism and police brutality, a history that cannot be contained by bricks and mortar. Instead, it exists in the memories of those who lived it, such as poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and activist Melba Wilson. I think about lives in a community, intermingling like the scent of flowers on a hot day, fleeting but essential. Railton Road’s history is remembered in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Items held there reveal many years of grassroots politics, protests and education projects. The archive holds a plethora of art, books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and other ephemera connected with this road and Brixton itself, revealing the story of a place on the periphery of the Gallery, that is its own centre.
 See Giles Waterfield, ‘Dulwich Picture Gallery,’ in Sir John Soane Master of Space and Light, edited by Margaret Richardson and MaryAnne Stevens (London: Royal Academy, 1999), pp.174-179, Ptolemy Dean, Sir John Soane’s London (Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2006), pp.55-61, and John Summerson, Georgian London (London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd, 1945), pp. 144-5.
 Lili Zarzycki, ‘Interview with Peg Rawes,’ in the Architectural Review, 11 March 2021, <https://www.architecturalreview.com/essays/profilesandinterviews/interviewwithpegrawes> [accessed 30 August 2021]
 See ‘Anti Racist Action,’ Whitworth Manchester, <https://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/about/antiracistaction/> [accessed 4 September 2021], and ‘Anti-racism Statement,’ Serpentine Galleries <https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/antiracismstatement/> [accessed 4 September 2021]
 Jane Rendell, ‘Marginal Modes: Positions of Architecture Writing,’ in the Architectural Review, 3 August 2020 <https ://www.architecturalreview.com/essays/marginalmodespositionsofarchitecturewriting> [accessed 7 August 2021]
 Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodied and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 8.
 Sireita Mullings Lawrence, ‘Voices from the Front Line: Young People Interrogating Railton Road’s
Heritage,’ in Photography and Culture 12:3 (2019), pp. 337-350, (p. 338).
 Ibid., (p. 339).
Copyright of image: © Lettie Mckie