If you had the idea of creating the country’s first electricity grid you probably wouldn’t think of starting it at an art gallery. But that is what happened at the Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair, which was set up in 1877 to take paintings rejected by the staid Royal Academy. It was there that John Ruskin famously said that Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued and won, but after being given a miserable farthing in damages was propelled into bankruptcy.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that the painting of Dorian is so good it should be sent to the Grosvenor Gallery because the Royal Academy is too large and vulgar: “Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.”
The Grosvenor, which was at 135 New Bond Street – occupied today by a Belstaff fashion store – did turn out to be somewhere special for a second reason when Sir Coutts Lindsay, who built it, decided in 1883 to use recently invented electricity generators to light the gallery. This proved so successful that neighbours wanted to be supplied too and, with the help of Sebastian Ferranti, he eventually delivered power from Regent’s Park to the Thames and from Kensington to the City of London. Who could have guessed that such sparks would fly from of an institution of the avant-garde?