How do you rewrite a sonnet?

Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, famous for its exquisite architecture, is due for a revamp. Will they get it right? Jonathan Glancey reports

Perhaps Dr Faustus turned Edward Alleyn's head with his fanciful quest for divine knowledge. Alleyn was the Jacobean actor who played Tamburlaine, Barabbas and Dr Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's visceral and sensational tragedies. But, where Faust was sensationally selfish and signed his soul away to Lucifer, Alleyn founded the College of God's Gift, which became a charity in 1619 and, in 1811, sired Britain's first public picture gallery. The kernel of the collection was bequeathed by Alleyn at his death in 1626.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Sir John Soane (1757-1837), has grown from these dramatic Jacobean beginnings, and certainly since 1814 when Soane finished work here, into a gallery with an international renown that has, in recent years, weighed heavily on its slender architectural shoulders.

Soane, one of the most imaginative architects of the Napoleonic era, had dreamed of an ambitious pantheon to the arts, but a budget of a little less than pounds 10,000 encouraged, or forced, him to squeeze his ideas into a ball. The result is one of the most delightful and important buildings of its, or any other, era, at once austere and poetic, a masterpiece of composition and compression. This is architecture in sonnet form.

Today, the pint-sized gallery is too famous for its own good, a Mecca for architects and architectural students from around the world. An ever increasing number of visitors come not just to see the building but to gawp at its superb collection of paintings stacked three, four and even five high under Soane's revolutionary, top-lit galleries.

As the building is great architecture condensed, so the collection is as rich and subtle as a 1976 burgundy. Here, Rembrandt jostles for attention among Cuyp and Van Dyck, Rubens and Murillo, Poussin and Gainsborough. Collected, for the most part, in the 1790s by the art dealer Noel Desenfans for a putative National Gallery in Warsaw, the bulk of these had been sold to Sir Francis Bourgeois who left 371 of them to Dulwich College in 1811 together with pounds 10,000 for their maintenance. This led to Soane's commission, and the gallery we know today.

Extending the gallery has become a necessity. Cramped, and lacking in virtually every modern facility (a virtue to incurable romantics, a vice to curators), Dulwich is looking to expand.

Before anyone throws up their hands in horror - how can a sonnet be improved? - it must be said, and clearly so, that the proposed extension is modest, gentle and self-effacing. Designed by Rick Mather, who is currently working on designs for the Neptune Court at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and a revamp of the Wallace Collection in London's Manchester Square, the proposed buildings will form the suggestion of a glazed garden cloister fronting Soane's original entrance. Soane's building will not be touched, except in so far as what are now a comfortable old gents' lavatory and storerooms upstairs at one end of the gallery will in future be space given over to paintings.

The new lavatories, along with a new cafe, lecture theatre, schoolroom for visiting children (more than 8,000 this year), storerooms and gallery offices, may be housed in an empty wing of Dulwich College, but as the gallery is now independently run, with a new board of trustees formed in March 1994, detailed negotiations are still under way.

The trustees and the gallery's recently appointed director, Desmond Shawe- Taylor, will be looking at a probable cost of just under pounds 10m, which is modest, and which it hopes will be largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the remaining 25 per cent coaxed from the private sector. Although the new board of trustees includes at least one billionaire (Lord Sainsbury, the supermarket tycoon) and funding should not, ultimately, be a problem, it would be wise for the gallery to seek backing from diverse sources. If not, it could well be in danger of appearing to be bullied by those with time and far too much money on their hands. The day of the Edwin J Cheeseburger III-style museum extension may not have died (sadly), but a modest gallery such as Dulwich deserves a modest strategy to ensure widespread goodwill as well as a long-term future. The gallery is a local institution as well as an international phenomenon; big financial guns must report here quietly.

Assuming the planned refurbishment and extension of the gallery get the go-ahead, what will visitors coming to Dulwich see when work is complete at the turn of the century? Nothing much. Nothing much at first, that is, but that is Mather's intention. A sensitive and sensible architect with a proven record of designing a form of modern architecture that is almost filigree in its lightness of touch, Mather has arranged his new glass buildings along the old brick wall that fronts College Road and hides the gallery from visitors until they turn through the main gate. Here, Mather will have them walk straight on to Soane's building, or turn left or right. To the left, the architect plans a formal garden in which visitors can take chairs from the cafe in summer and sit in the shade of the generous old trees that characterise the much loved garden. On the right, a glass door will take visitors directly to the cafe, lavatories, lecture theatre and classroom and so, along a cloistered walk, to a side entrance into the gallery.

Extra storage space, and a new gallery in the annexed college wing, will allow curators to hang paintings a little more generously than at present: the overall effect inside Soane's original building will be one of uncluttered and subtly lit harmony. Of course, there is a case for a Regency-style clutter of paintings, but for those with less than 20:20 vision, high- rise stacks of Gainsboroughs are as unkind as they are far out of reach. As the gallery refuses, point-blank, to provide ladders and glasses for those short of sight (and height), the selfish pleasure of enjoying masterpieces packed together will have to be denied to those who would prefer to see the gallery pickled in Regency aspic.

Mather's proposal promises to provide Dulwich with the extra space and facilities it wants without in any way threatening or squaring up to the existing architecture. However, there will, undoubtedly, be those who will argue that if there has to be an extension, then surely it would have been better to consider burying it underground, or else placing it further away from Soane's free-standing gem; certainly, there is room in the garden. Building underground, however, can be costly, and, in this restricted space subterranean galleries and lecture theatres might be rather claustrophobic. In any case, who wants to visit this delightful garden (with rather a nice gallery attached) only to be forced into the bowels of suburban soil? Soane, of course, might have been taken by the idea; a gloomy man, much given to thinking about death and sketching tombs, he designed a remarkably poignant (and even sinister) last resting place for Dulwich's benefactors, Sir Louis Bourgeois and Mr and Mrs Desenfans. Where is it? In the very heart of the picture gallery. When I first came here on top of an RT bus (a number 12 from Aldwych), clutching a 2s 6d Red Rover ticket, what I remembered most on the slow diesel ride home were Rembrandt's haunting portrait of a young man (brown on brown on haunting brown) and the deliciously spooky mausoleum, the stuff - for a child - of Hammer films and dreams of Eygptian tombs, King Solomon's Mines and lost treasure. The real treasure was, of course, the building and its collection. We all have to learn.

A free-standing building elsewhere in the grounds would be a mistake, as it would gobble up a lot of land. No, Mather's plan - assuming that Dulwich Picture Gallery must be extended - is a good one. It will frame the gallery without drawing attention to itself. The important thing is that it is immaculately detailed. The trustees cannot allow themselves to agree to designs and a budget that will result in an extension that may fail to stand the test of time. Soane created a masterpiece that has matured over the years and won admirers around the globe. At a rough estimate, his budget of just under pounds 10,000 works out at about pounds 6m today.

Assuming Mather's designs can be funded, the next important thing is to ensure that the picture gallery is supported by a comfortable financial cushion. After it was bombed in 1944, repairs, under the direction of Arthur Davis and Edward Maufe, took six long years to complete. Even then, the gallery was not restored to anything like its original Soanian splendour until a later refurbishment in 1980-81. Though abounding in treasures, it has never been flush with cash, nor, until recently, particularly secure.

With money in the bank and the facilities it wants in a necklace of new glass buildings, Alleyn, Desenfans, Bourgeois and Soane should all rest in peace. As those they provided for, we should be able to relax, too. Mather has not set himself up to create some sort of "witty" Post-Modern architectural dialogue with his illustrious predecessor, nor to mimic his distinctive style.

Soane was an original, and Dulwich abounds in inventive detail and an imaginative coupling of unlikely spaces. A wannabe Soane could only undermine the emotional purity of this special, curious and engagingly intense place. Dulwich is of international importance, as well as being deeply ingrained in local affection: Mather's modesty of ambition is a good match for Soane's modesty of means.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London