In the 1870s an Academy of Art was established in Sydney ‘for the purpose of promoting fine arts through lecture, art classes and regular exhibitions’ and, with funds made available by government, acquired the first artworks for the Gallery. By the time the site was agreed upon in 1895, State Architect James Barnet had retired and the new Colonial Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon (1846–1914), was given the assignment. The first two picture galleries were opened in 1897 and a further two in 1899. A watercolour gallery was added in 1901 and in 1902 the Grand Oval Lobby was completed.
Built in a classical style, the main facade has a central block with extending wings each terminating in bow-fronted colonnaded pavilions. The central block is marked by a hexastyle Ionic portico, and was built of Sydney sandstone. The windowless wings and end pavilions are emblazoned along the cornice with the names of old master painters and sculptors. In a series of panels beneath, are an incomplete set of bronze relief sculptures by a range of different sculptors and symbolising the contribution to art by ancient civilisations.