Established in 1886 as 'a Collection of Art Treasures worthy of the capital city,' see works dating from 1670 to the present, including 17th-century portraits, Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces and a range of paintings documenting London's dramatic history.
The first Guildhall Art Gallery was built in 1885 to display the City of London Corporation's growing art collection. The project was inspired by the success of new galleries supported by local authorities in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. It aimed to cater to an 'increased taste for Art' evident in Victorian society. Under the dynamic leadership of its first Director, Alfred Temple, the Gallery ran a series of popular and influential exhibitions and expanded its collection of contemporary 19th century paintings.
The Victorian gallery was almost entirely destroyed by fire during a severe air raid of the Second World War on 10 May 1941. Large parts of the collection had been removed to underground storage in Wiltshire, together with those of other London museums and galleries, but 164 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints and 20 sculptures were lost. A temporary structure was built on the cleared site in 1946 for use as a ceremonial venue and exhibition space. Selected pieces from the collection and art society shows went on display. The City organised two annual exhibitions, The Lord Mayor’s Art Award and the City of London Art Exhibition, in addition to a series of major loan exhibitions between 1952 and 1972 on topics including Canaletto in England, David Roberts, Samuel Scott and Sir James Thornhill.
In 1985 the City decided to redevelop the site and add a new Gallery on its lower levels. The architect was Richard Gilbert Scott, who had earlier worked on the Guildhall restoration and designed the new Guildhall Library and West Wing of 1974. In 1987 the remains of the original Gallery were demolished. Shortly afterwards the Museum of London Archaeological Service discovered the remains of London's Roman Amphitheatre and the building was re-designed to incorporate this astounding piece of architectural history. The new Guildhall Art Gallery finally opened to the public in August 1999 and the Amphitheatre in 2002.