It is easy to assume that great art galleries like the National Gallery of London are automatically accessible. It is true that there are great works of art. We, as the public, have the right to see them.

These great collections, however, are not accidental. They were created by wealthy people who donated many pictures to others so they could be enjoyed.

The National Gallery is not content to be grateful for its donors, but has instead been looking into the criminal records of the 19th century contributors.

The National Gallery would not have had the opportunity to show most of the paintings donated by the wealth collectors, John Constable, Raphael and Rubens.

However, this is not what the gallery thinks. Instead, the gallery has brought the original donors to trial and found them guilty because of their (often distant) connections with the slave trade.

Yet, rather than feeling grateful to its benefactors, the National Gallery has been investigating the 19th-century donors who first assembled the collection as if they were criminals. Pictured: The Virgin of the Rocks painting

The National Gallery is not content to be grateful for its donors. Instead, it has investigated the criminal records of the 19th century donors that assembled the collection. Pictured is the Virgin of Rocks painting

They are so determined to place these donors in prison and excuse themselves from any guilt that it is absurd. The latest act of political gesture-politics is making many people mad at the National Gallery.

Take an example of one of the most beautiful paintings in England — Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, now hanging in the National Gallery. Raphael lived in 500 AD. For some 20 years of this picture’s existence — one-25th of its lifetime — it was owned by a famous rake and ne’er-do-well novelist called William Beckford, who derived some of his wealth from owning plantations in the West Indies.

Yet the National Gallery has labelled this picture as something tainted — merely because it was briefly owned by someone whose money was derived from the work of slaves.

John Julius Angerstein donated 38 of the first pictures to the gallery. He was wealthy because he ‘broke and underwritten in marine insurance. An unknown portion of that money was in slave ship and vessel’.

This may be true. However, it doesn’t mean Angerstein actually got money from slavery or that the art he was able to collect had any connection with the slave trade.

The Rev William Holwell Carr bequeathed 32 priceless paintings to the gallery — Rembrandts, Titians, Tintorettos.

Thirty-eight of the first paintings in the gallery were given in 1824 by John Julius Angerstein, whose wealth 'flowed from broking and underwriting in marine insurance, of which an unknown proportion was in slave ships and vessels'. Pictured: The Hay Wain

John Julius Angerstein gave 38 of the original paintings to the gallery in 1824. His wealth was derived from the broking and underwriting of marine insurance. A large portion of his fortune is in slavery ships and other vessels. Photo: Hay Wain

One researcher from the gallery found out that Carr’s sister-in law had some money that was derived from slave-worker plantations. What could possibly make Carr and his generous gift of some of the greatest photographs in the collection less than ideal?

Constable’s most renowned work, The Hay Wain, was donated by Edmund Higginson. He is now tarnished by the fact that he inherits money from his uncle, who trades goods made in South Carolina by slaves.

We are not being encouraged by the National Gallery to show gratitude to their founders for their kindness and generosity. Instead, they are telling us to criticize them as moral idiots and that we have the right to view them from our high vantage point.

The gallery purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin Of The Rocks from Henry Charles Howard (18th Earl of Suffolk). The gallery purchased this image because the 17th Earl’s 7th Earl had “owned an enslaved individual”. It is eleven generations between the two men! We can only imagine how far back we could go to try and bring the ancestors to justice.

Although we can see the horrors of slavery, it is clear that the National Gallery has an imbecilic state of mind. Its actions at this event suggest that paintings are in some way contaminated; that even those who enjoy the rich heritage of art are complicit in the sins committed by our forefathers.

This is not the original way of looking at history and comparing ourselves to benighted historical figures. Charles Dickens’ study at Gad’s Hill had a fake bookcase with title of his invention. One was a seven-volume set titled The Wisdom Of Our Ancestors — Vol I: Ignorance. II. Superstition. III. III. IV. IV. The Rack. VI. VI. VII. VII.

It is perfectly understandable and, in my view, perfectly just to recognise that our ancestors did the most appalling things, and that their scale of values was very different from our own. Pictured: Saint Catherine of Alexandria

I think it is very understandable, as well as perfectly right, to acknowledge that our ancestors committed the most horrific acts and had a different set of values than ours. Saint Catherine of Alexandria 

I think it is very understandable, and even a good idea, to acknowledge that our ancestors were guilty of the worst crimes, and that they had a different set of values than ours. Their views regarding race, gender, social class and other issues were totally different from our liberal view.

Henry VIII endowed Trinity College, Cambridge, which has educated people from all walks of life — are they supposed to feel guilt for the torture of monks, the beheading of wives, the murder and mayhem of Henry’s reign?

Although the National Gallery doesn’t claim John Constable, Leonardo da Vinci or Titian are (necessarily), wicked persons, it is not saying so. But by this display of its own virtue, it is trying to make you shudder slightly as you stand beside these works of art — shudder at the idea of the Rev William Carr’s sister-in-law owning shares in a plantation more than 200 years ago!

As I go to the National Gallery every month with joy and gratitude, my problem is not knowing how I should use the information. Do I feel free to absolve John Julius Angerstein or the other city merchants from the 18th-century of any involvement in this sordid manner in which they made their money in 18th-century?

It makes sense to include, beside every patron-commissioned artwork, a brief account of the grotesque behavior of its original owner. Nearly every pope, king, queen, earl, and duke in history has done things that we find utterly repulsive.

Pictured: The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo

Pictured is the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, by Michaelangelo

Now I am able to see the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo and I feel diminished by Pope Julius II’s brutality, nastiness, and cost of its creation.

It would be an absurd reaction to say I could not enjoy the paintings in the Royal Collection because Charles I was a tyrant, or that George IV, one of the greatest art collectors, would — if his treatment of women was under investigation today by a social worker — undoubtedly have been put on probation by the council.

Feeling guilty about the art and architecture created by people who have gotten corrupt money from the government is a misguided way to look at the story.

It is a good thing to believe that, despite the horrors of history and the inhuman sufferings suffered by humanity, these beautiful objects have emerged to lift the spirit and raise the mind.

In any event, all human beings, to this day, are capable of great acts of brutality, but they are also capable of producing awe-inspiring beauty — beauty which I passionately believe elevates us, and is why we enjoy going to concerts and art galleries.

It is difficult to forget Harry Lime’s speech from Carol Reed and Graham Greene in The Third Man. ‘In Italy for thirty years, under the Borgias they had terror and war, but they also produced Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

“In Switzerland, they had brotherly affection, had 500 years worth of democracy, peace and freedom, and they produced what? The cuckoo clock.