Have you heard the one about the Frenchman, the Pole, the Englishman and the Welsh woman? Well, if you haven’t, then in 2011 you certainly will. The lives and characters of these four players who between them, in life and death, created their remarkable benefaction in Dulwich, has all the ingredients of a play. A perfect four-hander. There’s the minor heiress, who is undoubtedly past it in looks, who elopes with a dodgy foreigner years younger than herself who suddenly develops an interest in art. What would the readers of Jane Austen have made of that? Throw in a young second rate artist with some connections with the Polish court who had such a paranoid sense of death that he leaves money so that he would not be buried underground. Lastly, for good measure, add a complex, self-made, ill-tempered architect who was so estranged from his two sons that he spread the story that one of them had been exchanged for a cad by his wet-nurse.
Stir this oddest of firm friendships with various turns of fate, such as a Russian invasion, an introduction to a peculiar and impoverished charity which had a near derelict picture gallery above a set of virtually uninhabitable bedrooms for its six female pensioners; spice it up with the scandal of a falling out with the Royal Academy over criticism of a living fellow architect during a lecture, and perhaps round it off with a world war in which the entire confection is blown sky-high. A true bombe surprise.
And there you would have a partial account of the wonderful institution we are privileged to have within our midst which, perhaps, sometimes, we take for granted. What keeps Dulwich Picture Gallery so alive, so vibrant, is not only the splendour of its collection or even the brilliance of the design of the Gallery itself; but the other aspects which continually stimulate interest and excitement – the changing and challenging exhibitions, a gallery so alive with children being exposed to art, often for the first time, the building almost pulsates enthusiasm, an adult programme of courses and lectures to stimulate interest amongst the crustiest of us, and of course a social centre without parallel, where, selfishly, we can enjoy countless entertainments without even stirring from Dulwich.
It is probably just as well that the Dulwich Picture Gallery receives no public funding for its support as it no doubt would, in its bicentenary year, be taking a 40% cut if it did. Instead it relies on other means, and this perhaps is the real secret of its success – its continual need to fight for its existence. And it fights extremely well.