Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN


© Crown Copyright and database right 2021. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2021. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.
Use of this data is subject to Terms and Conditions.

The above map is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale map, please see the attached PDF - 1451082.pdf

The PDF will be generated from our live systems and may take a few minutes to download depending on how busy our servers are. We apologise for this delay.

This copy shows the entry on 27-Feb-2021 at 15:42:21.


Statutory Address:
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
City of Westminster (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


The National Gallery extension, also known as the Sainsbury Wing. Designed in 1985, developed and refined in 1986-1987, and built from 1988 to 1991 by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates in association with Sheppard Robson Architects.

Reasons for Designation

The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, of 1988-1991 by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* designed as an extension to Wilkins' Grade I-listed National Gallery of 1832-8, to which it is attached, to house the collection of Early Renaissance art, both of which it references; * in its Mannerist interpretation of classical form and symbolism and use of Post-Modern devices in its response to context; * a highly individual design, achieving a balance of old and new in the display of Early Renaissance art; * lack of alteration and legibility of the overarching concept.

Historic interest:

* the origins and evolution of the project, and the debate that surrounded it, and in the choice of architects and style as the solution to the problem of providing a suitable extension to a prominent public building; * the only work in Britain by these internationally important architects and theorists, generally considered the founders of Post-Modernism; * with considerable experience in the design of art galleries, it is regarded as one of the highlights of their later careers.

Group Value:

* with the Grade I-listed Wilkins Building to which it is attached, with Canada House (Grade II*) and with the iconic structures and statuary that form Trafalgar Square.


The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery is the only work in Britain by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), internationally important architects and theorists, generally considered the founders of Post-Modernism. It was designed in 1985-1987, and built from 1988 to 1991 as an addition to the National Gallery. Work began in January 1988 with the Prince of Wales laying the foundation stone in March 1988. The Queen opened the building on 9 July 1991.

POST-MODERNISM: Post-Modernism can be found across philosophy, literature, art and architecture, and the term is an old one, used in painting in the 1880s and literature in the 1940s. The term began to be used in architecture in the mid-1970s to signify a transformation of the orthodoxy of the Modern Movement that incorporated references to older architectural traditions, was more aware of setting and context, and sought enjoyment through colour and collage techniques. A clear distinction can be made between post-modernist architects, who all grew out of the Modern Movement, and traditionalists such as Quinlan Terry who had no such relationship with Modernism.

The origins of the style are found in the United States, notably in the work of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore from the mid-1960s, paying homage to all aspects of their country’s traditions. A more rigorous, classically-minded version evolved in Italy in the work of Paolo Portoghesi, Aldo Rossi and Vittorio Gregotti; in Italian-speaking Switzerland Mario Botta offered a more over-scaled version, and monumentalism was also seen in Spain. In England, the American and European idioms converged in the late 1970s, where it produced major architects of international significance, including James Stirling, and distinctive voices unique to Britain such as John Outram. The movement in architecture coincided with the revival of the British economy in the 1980s that encouraged new commercial and housing developments in areas such as Docklands.

THE NATIONAL GALLERY: the National Gallery was built to the designs of William Wilkins in 1832-1838 after the British Government acquired the art collection of John Julius Angerstein in 1824, which was originally displayed in his town house on Pall Mall. The demolition of the King’s Mews and the creation of Trafalgar Square nearby provided the perfect location for a gallery in a prominent location that was seen as accessible to all. Wilkins’ gallery was small and was progressively extended, the tight site leading, however, to the creation of the separate National Gallery for British Art (the Tate Gallery) in 1897.

The site of the Sainsbury Wing was that of Hamptons and Sons, a furniture store at 8 Pall Mall East and 1-3 Dorset Street (now Whitcomb Street), built in 1869 and destroyed by incendiaries in November 1940. The National Gallery acquired the site for an extension in 1959 but thereafter concentrated its expansion plans along Orange Street to the north, and it was only in the late 1970s with acceptance that it could not take over the National Portrait Gallery, the rapid growth in museum-going, and demands that the bombsite be filled that the momentum for a new building was created.

The Conservative Government elected in 1979 was unwilling to provide public funding, and proposed instead that a developer build new galleries for the Early Renaissance collections with funding generated by a related office block. An open architect/developer competition was launched in December 1981, and eighty entries were received. Seven were shortlisted, of which the most eye-catching was by the Richard Rogers Partnership, which gained much publicity when praised by the president of the RIBA, Owen Luder, while the gallery preferred the more neutral design by Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM). However, the public and assessors favoured an in-between scheme with curved galleries, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek. The firm revised this to incorporate more gallery and office space, with a tower, and at a public inquiry in April 1984 the inspector found in favour of the scheme, albeit with minor amendments. However, following the Prince of Wales' adverse reaction to the scheme, it was duly refused planning permission by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Patrick Jenkin, in September 1984.

Consequently the Sainsbury family, with a long history of art patronage, stepped forward in March 1985 to sponsor a new scheme, without the need for commercial offices. A second, invited competition was held between six practices: James Stirling, Jeremy Dixon, Piers Gough and Colquhoun & Miller representing Britain, and Harry Cobb of IM Pei and Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown for the United States. Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (from 1989 Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates) who had considerable experience of building art galleries, were declared the winners in January 1986. With changing tastes in the mid-1980s and the Prince’s involvement, a classical design was almost inevitable, but the firms involved represented the strongest English-speaking forces in Post-Modernism at that time.

The building won an AIA Honor Award in 1992.

THE ARCHITECTS: Robert Venturi (1925- ) studied at Princeton and at the American Academy in Rome, and Charles Saumarez Smith suggests that his knowledge of Italian church interiors impressed the competition assessors (The National Gallery, a Short History, 2009, p156). He began his career working for Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn while designing a house for his mother, the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, completed in 1964, which is widely considered the first post-modern building, combining elements of a traditional settlers’ cottage with a broken pediment and modern strip windows. Other houses and small buildings followed in Pennsylvania when he formed his own practice in about 1963, which he combined with teaching at the University of Pennsylvania alongside Kahn. He came to greater prominence with a book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), which called for a return to historical styles, symbolism and context in architecture. He thus placed himself in the vanguard of what became Post-Modernism.

At the University of Pennsylvania he met Denise Scott Brown (1931- , née Lakofski), born in Zambia and trained in South Africa and London, who settled in Philadelphia following the death of her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, in 1959. She went on to teach in Los Angeles, whence in 1967 she invited Venturi to make an architectural and planning study of Las Vegas, which led to their marriage that year and to a second important book, Learning from Las Vegas, published in 1972 with Steve Izenour.

The two went on to design a large number of buildings, separately and together, with Scott Brown taking the lead on the practice’s extensive planning work, mostly for city centres and universities. Their enormous output over a fifty-year career includes large numbers of houses in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, prestigious university buildings and art galleries, including Seattle (also completed 1991) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, California (1996). They have worked very little outside the United States, although they designed the Provincial Capitol Building in Toulouse, France (local government headquarters of 1999). While most projects are jointly credited, the Congregation Beth El Synagogue is by Scott Brown (2007) and the Episcopal Academy Chapel by Venturi (2008), both in Pennsylvania. Although they will perhaps be best-remembered as theorists and for Venturi’s early buildings that first defined Post-Modernism in the 1960s, their influence is traceable across a vast swathe of contemporary architectural practice. The Sainsbury Wing is one of the highlights of their later career. VSBA is unusual among American designers of the 1980s to 1990s in that almost all its work is outside the commercial sector.

Venturi retired in 2012 but Scott Brown continues to run the practice. They jointly won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 2016, ‘for their built projects as well as literature that set the stage for Post-Modernism and nearly every other formal evolution in architecture’, cited in (, accessed 6 October 2017).


The National Gallery extension, also known as the Sainsbury Wing. Designed in competition in 1985, developed and refined in 1986-1987, and built from 1988 to 1991 by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates (Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown to 1989) in association with Sheppard Robson Architects, and with David Vaughan directing the project team.

Structural and service engineers Ove Arup and Partners, with Jaros Baum and Bolles; lighting consultants Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz; acoustics by Arup Acoustics; contractors Sir Robert McAlpine; steel railings, balustrades and gates by Capricorn of London.

MATERIALS AND STRUCTURE: a reinforced concrete frame rests on bored piles and an exterior piled wall, with a deep basement, and with a steel-framed and timber roof structure, which is largely glazed. The cladding is of Portland stone, buff brick and glass, with granite plinths and concrete panel soffits. Window units and glazed walls are in powder-coated aluminium frames, the glazed wall in dark grey with chunky, squared mouldings. The interior is clad in Chamesson limestone and render with grey Florentine sandstone (pietra serena) in the galleries, and has Cumbrian slate or oak floors, and oak fixtures and fittings.

PLAN: it has a wedge-shaped footprint with an extension linking it to Wilkins’ galleries by a bridge in the form of a glazed drum raised over a public pedestrian thoroughfare. Laid out on five principal levels, it contains basement galleries and a cinema for temporary exhibitions, beneath a 350-seat lecture theatre; a ground-floor entrance, shop and visitor facilities; a mezzanine restaurant, coffee bar, conference rooms and information centre; and first-floor galleries on the same level as those by Wilkins. The *lower levels also have large areas for storage, loading bays and garaging, accessed from Whitcomb Street. Above the galleries are two levels of *plant.

The levels are connected by, and the plan arranged around, a monumental staircase on the eastern side of the building, that extends from the ground floor to first floor level and separately from ground floor to basement levels, with a core of lifts behind it.

Three lines of galleries are set off the skewed main axis, the central one an enfilade, the others with some doorways set to one side to interrupt the vistas. Venturi believed that traditional galleries of modest size best suited the Early Renaissance collection, where many pieces are quite small.

EXTERIOR: the gallery steps forward of the main building, with different treatments to each façade. ‘The new building is designed to be a reflection of and an extension to its context’ therefore it presents a different face at each of its edges’ (Zodiac, no 6, 1991, p 93).

The building has a skin of Portland stone with pilasters that repeat the details of those by Wilkins on his frontage and create a sympathetic visual link with Canada House opposite. Venturi was inspired by oblique views of Wilkins’s building, where the pilasters also appear to come together. The architects were keen to show that their pilasters were contextual and not structural, with the stone skin also featuring blind windows in increasingly minimal mouldings as the columns become more spaced out.

The canted but slightly curved Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall East elevation, faced in ashlar, has grouped giant order pilasters on tall bases at the angles of the building, with a fluted pilaster between the entrance openings. The classical columns give way to Art Deco inspired capitals and an increasingly simple order, which is reduced to small metal columns away from the Wilkins front. It has small blind openings in moulded architraves at high level, and a large full-height window, with a crisply-cut transom, lighting the restaurant overlooking Pall Mall East. The parapet continues above both elevations, with a pierced balustrade at the eastern junction. The entrance is set behind unmoulded flat-headed openings that pierce the outer skin, some on the angle, protected by steel gates and railings the considerable height of the pilaster bases. On Pall Mall East these are framed by colourful Art Deco columns, a theme which continues to Whitcomb Street. The entrance is a series of offset geometrical forms. It has an inner glazed screen wall with a monumental frame into which paired oak doors and revolves are set in square openings, with the restaurant projecting above them. The entrance is faced with Portland stone panels that extend to a curved alcove at the southern end. The ceiling is incised in a geometric pattern, again on a large scale. Flooring is of stone and granite. To the west of the entrance the name THE NATIONAL GALLERY / SAINSBURY WING is inscribed in stone.

The Jubilee Walk elevation has a glazed curtain wall that rises in stages following the stair above a flush ashlar base. To the north of the linking drum it is a predominantly blind elevation, pierced at high level by vents for the plant.

A shallow, open dome supported on Portland stone columns shields the pedestrian Jubilee Walk. On each elevation it has a curved window with fixed panes in a moulded architrave in early C19 tradition, lighting the link. The drum is clad in ashlar panels, with a pronounced moulded storey band and a parapet set back behind a cornice. At street level the drum has plain, square-headed openings and open panels above, resembling overlights. At each side, openings butt hard against the adjacent buildings or frame the Wilkins building windows. The soffit of the drum is incised concrete or plaster. It has a granite floor which also extends via steps into the public domain beyond footprint of the drum.

The Whitcomb Street and St Martins Street elevations rise as sheer walls, deliberately simple, clad in buff brick in Flemish bond above an ashlar base which on Whitcomb Street is moulded, continuing the theme from the pilasters. Shop windows with a central Art Deco column, a side entrance and a blind bay are set back in rectangular openings, one cutting into the corner with Pall Mall East. Above the shop windows are pairs of deep-set windows in rectangular openings serving the conference rooms, while the brickwork above is enlivened with vertical moulded strips aligned with the bays. The glazed roofs over the galleries are visible but set back behind the flush, brick parapet. Punched into the north-west corner are two small windows above a set-back entrance. Access for vehicles has steel doors and windows, likened to the stage door and ‘get in’ found at the back of a theatre (Zodiac, op cit, p 93).

The rear elevation is dominated by the name THE / NATIONAL / GALLERY carved in stone in over-sized lettering, and included at the request of the Westminster City Council. The use of large lettering, known as supergraphics, is a feature of Post-Modernism. At ground level is a large inscribed granite panel set in an ashlar surround describing the history of the site as royal mews, its use by Hamptons and Sons and the Sainsbury bequest.

The gallery roofs, geometrical forms in two parallel ranges, aligned roughly north-south, and intended to be visible from below, have hipped glazed superstructures and panelled or glazed flanks. INTERIOR: throughout, the tone is one of subdued greys, redolent of the Italian Renaissance, with limestone and rendered walls, and architectural dressings in darker Florentine ‘pietra serena’, with occasional brightly coloured Art Deco details and with oak joinery.

The entrance hall is low and relatively dark in contrast to the exterior, designed to suggest the crypt of an Italian church, or basement level of a Palladian villa. Fat drum piers with simple incised bases in grey stone support a deep coffered ceiling with built-in lighting. The stairway is faced in large, widely spaced stone blocks, resembling giant rustication. The shop has a glazed screen wall framed by paired Art Deco shafts. The floor of the entrance hall is of grey patterned slate.

A monumental staircase rises against the eastern wall, planned by Venturi and Scott Brown to cope with the large crowds attending the National Gallery by the 1980s, with Venturi likening the potential congestion to that of a sports stadium. Broad, unimpeded steps widen towards the top and its glazed side wall provides a visual link with Trafalgar Square, the Wilkins building and the pedestrian way between the buildings at street level. Window units have deep square sectioned frames and the steel framing of the curtain wall continues as arches over the stairwell. The internal wall of the stairs is of stone ashlar with classically proportioned windows of six over four panes in plain openings, as if it were the external wall of an older building that has been cut into to make entrances on the various levels, approached by a stair suggestive of an Italian 'cortile' that in this case includes Jubilee Walk and is defined by the west wall of the Wilkins building and the interior wall of the Sainsbury Wing stairway (BD 2011, p 16). On the wall is a monumental frieze, inscribed with the names of Italian Renaissance artists, by the letter carver Michael Harvey.

Opening off it at mezzanine level is a foyer leading to the restaurant, from which the glazed screen wall overlooks the entrance. Drum structural piers are again expressed in the lower inner section while the taller front section has a top-lit ceiling. Mounted on the internal wall is the painting Crivelli’s Garden (the Visitation) of 1990-1991, by Paula Rego, the theme deriving from the Early Renaissance collection in the gallery above. It was commissioned when Rego became the first National Gallery Associate Artist.

To the side and rear are a series of conference rooms, including the former Micro Gallery computer information room, leading off a curving corridor, where panelled doors, architraves and dados are again in oak. *The interior of these rooms is not of special interest.

The sixteen galleries were specifically designed for the relatively small works of the Early Renaissance. Paired, engaged columns or columns in antis, and essentially Tuscan in character, frame the lobby and principal entrance at the head of the stairs. Here and in the galleries columns and skirtings are in ‘pietra serena’ while floors are principally of oak and internal window architraves and seats are in timber. The galleries are laid out in three ranges, with the central, tallest range laid out in an enfilade, reminiscent of Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, while doorways in the side galleries are offset providing oblique views across the width of the gallery space. The central galleries have tall arched openings, some framed by quarter columns, while smaller openings have square-headed moulded architraves. The openings create a false perspective as their width declines along the main axis and the link with the Wilkins building. The galleries are top-lit, with some side light admitted from the internal windows on the stairwell, while they also offer slanted views towards Trafalgar Square. The ceilings rake inwards above a simplified cornice, and the galleries are lit by clerestorey glazing of small-paned, timber, fixed lights, and in the smaller end galleries by flat, glazed ceilings, all of which are contained within the glazed roofspace above.

The calm plastered finishes owe something to the post-war work of Franco Albini and Carlo Scarpa in Italy, while the whole experience is designed to emulate the experience of Italian galleries in converted complexes such as the Sant’ Agostino Museum in Genoa. Scott Brown noted ‘The new spaces are grand but less so than those of Wilkins, and their sequences contain no violent jumps of scale. They wear their history lightly, suggesting that underneath is a modern gallery with non-structural walls. While planning we asked: "What allowed palazzos to start as family homes and convert to public institutions, and how do they manage the phalanxes that throng European museums on Sundays?" And we designed concourse-like main spaces to take major crowds, with side rooms to provide a more intimate, overflow space, and alternative routes when the large galleries are full. (Building Design, 22 July 2011, pp16-17).

Monumental stairs with a deep moulded cornice descend to the rear of the hall, again with a foyer at a half-landing giving access to the theatre. The lobby is lined in oak panelling, with built-in seats and has a geometrical steel balustrade overlooking the stairs. The theatre has raked seating for 340 people. It has slender internal piers, front and rear, with incised bases, and the walls are lined in plasterboard with a facetted acoustic finish. The seats*, audio* and lighting equipment* are not of special interest.

At lowest level is the temporary exhibition space of about 500 square metres divided into six galleries, reached by monumental doorways from a circular foyer with a slate floor. Beyond the monumental doorways, the temporary exhibition space* is designed to be flexibly laid out and is not of special interest.

The following are not of special interest. Service*, delivery* and storage* areas beyond the public domain, which have wholly utilitarian painted blockwork walls* and concrete floors*, and masonry stairs* with steel balustrades*. Two levels of plant* above and to the north of the main galleries and within the rear section of the building. Service cores* and other plant*, kitchens*, restaurant bar front* and furniture*, audio* and visual equipment* and lighting* in the theatre and cinema, cloakrooms* and WCs*, and temporary fixtures* and fittings* such as front desks are also excluded.

* Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.


Books and journals
Pevsner, N, Bradley, S, The Buildings of England: London 6 Westminster, (2003), 305-310
Saumarez Smith , C, The National Gallery, a Short History , (2009)
von Moos, Stanilaus, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, (1999), 122-139
Wilson, Michael, A Guide to the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery , (1991)
A&U, no.5 (260) May 1992, pp.10-42
Architects’ Journal, vol.182, no.42, 16 October 1985, pp.48-9
Architectural Design, vol.61 nos.11-12, 1991, pp.6-19
Architectural Record, vol.177, no.6 (5), May 1989 pp.150-3
Architectural Review, no.1133, July 1991, pp.30-6
Architecture AIA, vol.80, no.7, July 1991, pp.26-7
Architecture AIA, vol.81, no.3, March 1992, pp.48-55
Building Design, no.1975, 22 July 2011, pp.14-17
D Brunt, A Pepper, The National Gallery Sainsbury Wing, in Blueprint, no.77, May 1991, pp.20-3
International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.6, no.2, June 1987, pp.211-17
Lotus, no.55, 1987, pp.84-117
Lotus, no.72, 1992, pp.70-89 R Venturi From Invention to Convention: Extension to the National Gallery
Planning, no.109, May 1990, pp.28-35, The Sainsbury Wing, an extension to the National Gallery, London
SD, no.8 (305), August 1997, pp.10-13, 44-9
Zodiac, no.6, 1991, pp.90-115


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Your Contributions

Do you know more about this entry?

The following information has been contributed by users volunteering for our Enriching The List project. For small corrections to the List Entry please see our Minor Amendments procedure.

The information and images below are the opinion of the contributor, are not part of the official entry and do not represent the official position of Historic England. We have not checked that the contributions below are factually accurate. Please see our terms and conditions. If you wish to report an issue with a contribution or have a question please email [email protected].