It is fitting that our national collection of art to should be the first of the major galleries to re-open, and having been a visitor to the National for decades, I was keen to do so again at the earliest opportunity. It did not disappoint.
I have written elsewhere about my relationship with the arts in general, and some of the paintings in the National’s collection specifically (There is Art. There is Hope). I was lucky to be taken to London’s museums and galleries as a child. But often it is those places that give us our first taste of independence that stay with us, and so it has been for me and the National Gallery. Having first visited as a 15 year old, I have continued to do so ever since. It became somewhere I would ‘pop into’ when passing and would always try and include in visits to London when I lived elsewhere. These last few months may be the longest time I have been away from the National, ever.
Pre-booked timed slots are now required for all visitors, irrespective of whether you are taking in the current ‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ (currently fully booked until sometime in August I believe), or the permanent collection, or both. To facilitate social distancing the Gallery is divided into three one-way routes, A, B and C. On arrival in room 9 at the start of route C, the first painting I encountered was ‘The Dream of Saint Helena’ by Veronese. An image new to me and one which somehow captured my feelings, on returning to this place. Having engaged with art online(1) as much as possible during the weeks of Lockdown, I was unprepared for the visceral experience of witnessing it in person again. A wave of emotion, and something akin to relief washed over me, It was still there, and I was still able to be there.
The Dream of Saint Helena, Paolo Veronese
As well as pictures I often visit, it was wonderful to be able to view The Fighting Temeraire up close so soon after learning more about the work courtesy of TV’s ‘Greatest Paintings’, and to be able to recognise, at a distance, Turner’s signature use of light elsewhere in the Gallery. Also to view in person Klimt’s Portrait of Hermine Gallia 1904, which was recently the subject of an ‘Art with the Experts’ event I attended online.
The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner
A highlight of any visit now is the opportunity to see the newly restored Julia and Hans Rausing Room. The largest room in the Gallery, has been painstakingly restored to its former glory and is something of an artwork in itself. The current Nicolas Maes exhibition is well worth a detour from route C. In particular as this pupil of Rembrandt who later influenced Vermeer had an aptitude for capturing domestic scenes with wit and empathy– somewhat topical for our current times.
A friend asked me whether I had felt that I couldn’t linger in the Gallery as I would wish. Reassuringly this is not the case. While there is a requirement to progress around the building in a given route or routes and direction, once inside you are free to move at your own pace. Outside of the obviously popular rooms (as ever Van Gogh, Gauguin and Monet draw the crowds), it was not, and did not feel ‘crowded’ I would be interested to know how busy the most popular rooms will be allowed to get.(I believe the Gallery is currently expecting to welcome between a quarter and a third of its usual 15,000 visitors daily). The requirement to use defined routes did mean that I could not head straight to my favourite rooms and pictures as I would normally do. But the positive consequence of this is that I discovered pictures new to me.
A map showing the routes and facilities is downloadable in advance though frustratingly doesn’t include room numbers, which would have helped to maintain a sense of direction, while in progress. It can also be a little confusing. Having decided to do routes B and C (which overlap slightly), I was advised on arrival, for logistical reasons, to tackle them in reverse order and also encouraged to divert to the Nicolas Maes exhibition downstairs enroute. This worked well until, having entered the Maes rooms from route B, I exited and found myself part way through route C. Staff were however very helpful, in literally pointing me in the right direction, and I was soon back on track. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the new (normal) visitor experience, and these are minor quibbles, to experience, not least on only the second day of re-opening (9th July).
So if like me you have missed the National, or have never been, this is a great time to go. Right now it will be less crowded, both in the Gallery and on the journey, and once there, there are new joys to discover. Some of us were reminded during Lockdown how much we needed art. As our Galleries re-open, they have never needed us more.
All text © Later Than You Think 2020
- A huge thank-you goes to the artist Lydia Bauman and the excellent lectures she has delivered several times a week through the Art with the Experts Meet-Up Group. Totalling 50 at the time of writing, these have provided the opportunity to learn more about an artist or theme, in short sessions, in early evening, several times per week. An ideal ‘after work’ and ‘social’ art fix for these times, and one which has enabled me to continue to feel connected to art and my artistic life.