The best of National Gallery, London

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat

My wife is a person of few words; very few words. She rarely asks for anything and whenever she does, it becomes a commandment for the family. On a Saturday morning, during our usual morning walks she asked me “Ram, how many days did we spend in London last time, on the way to Geneva?” . I said four. “Was it adequate to see a bit of The U.K.?” I knew something was coming. She told me to plan for a longish vacation for the island and thus, started the gambit of planning for the visit.

The Air India flight to London, reached half an hour in advance on the morning of August 4. My friends, Amrik and Bachiter Bans received us at the Heathrow Airport and on a bright Thursday morning, we were at their home in twenty minutes.

We visited Christchurch, Bournemouth and Isle of Wight sea fronts, the Oxford University and Eaton College, Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, about which I will write in the ensuing posts, but first please allow me to write about the place which touched me the most – The National Gallery in London.

The National Gallery
The National Gallery is an Art Museum, located in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, in Central London. It was founded in 1824 during the reign of King George IV. The museum was originally set up in the house of a Russian Banker and upon his demise; the authorities acquired his house and his art collection. There were 34 paintings which formed the core of the collection in the new museum. The collection grew over the period to massive 2300 paintings which are now housed in a grand neo-classical building in Trafalgar Square. The building had several renovations and extensions, like the East Wing which was added in 1876 and the Sainsbury Wing which was adjoined in the 80s. At this museum, the country’s collection of 13th to 20th century Western European paintings can be seen.

The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery, London

At this Gallery, the collection is arranged roughly in chronological order. It starts with oldest works by the renowned artists like Giotto and Jan Van Eyck, and the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Titian represent the Renaissance artists. The collection also includes works by Rubens, Caravaggio, Van Gough, Da Vinci, Monet, Botticelli, Rafael, etc.

From the title of the Gallery, it would appear that it exhibits mainly works by British Artists. But to the surprise of some of the visitors from abroad, The National Gallery houses the collections of Western European paintings of schools, from the 13th century to the early 20th century.

The Gallery is broadly divided into four sections, corresponding to the chronological display of the paintings on the main floor of the Gallery:

“Paintings 1250– 1500” in the Sainsbury Wing,
“Paintings 1500-1600” in the West Wing,
“Paintings 1600-1700” in the North Wing and
“Paintings 1700-1900” in the East Wing.

Gallery Directions

Gallery Directions

Each section gives in brief the major artists, the main types of paintings, their original functions and locations, their subject and style.

The Sainsbury Wing
The Sainsbury wing was opened in July 1991 and was designed to house the earliest paintings in the National Gallery. Most of the paintings in wing are devotional. These are either Christian altarpieces or altarpiece fragments from the churches and chapels. Some of the paintings are images intended to serve as the hub of pious meditation or prayer. Of the non-religious pictures are portraits. It wouldn’t be out of place to mention that all Western European rulers recognized the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic Church for which the greatest number of important works of architecture, painting and sculpture were created. So, a large number of the paintings in the Gallery bear the impression of the devotional side of the art.

As mentioned above, there are around 2300 paintings in the gallery. So, it is practical only to elucidate on few of the paintings from each section.

Dieric Bouts - The Entombment Artron

The Entombment

This painting by Dieric Bouts, one of the leading artists of Netherlands of his time, was probably done in 1450s. The Entombment is one of the most moving works in the Sainsbury wing. This painting depicts lowering of body of Jesus into the tomb. The figures in the painting are carefully arranged their expressions of grief shown vividly. While the male figures look directly at the body of Christ, the women’s eyes seem to be downcast. Mary holds on to the arm of Christ, in a gesture of tender leave-taking.

Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Giovanni-Battista Cima

Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Giovanni-Battista Cima

This is a great Venetian Altarpiece from the first decade of the sixteenth century by Cima, a painter from Conegliano, a small town close to Venice. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1497 and depicts the most significant moment in the life of Thomas. It is believed that on the day of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples gathered in a closed room. Thomas was not with them at that time and didn’t believe in the miracle without any substantial evidence of his appearance. Eight days later Jesus appeared again. He showed Thomas the print of nails in his hands and asked him to touch the wound in his side. The most striking feature of the painting is that the artist has focused our attention by making Jesus taller than others. Carefully see the use of brilliant color contrasts.

Gerard David – The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor : Source: Wikipedia

This painting by Gerard David, Dutch painter was done probably in 1510 and is located in Room 5 of the Gallery. In this painting Mary is enthroned in a walled garden, a probable metaphor for her virginity. On the right Saint Barbara is shown reading a book. To the left Saint Catherine receives a ring from the infant Christ. Saint Mary Magdalene holding the pot of ointment can be seen on the right.

Leonardo Da Vinci - Vergine delle Rocce (Louvre)

The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo Da Vinci (Source: Wikipedia)

There are two paintings of this great masterpiece by Leaonardo Da Vinci (my favorite artist from the renaissance period. The legendary genius was trained in Florence as an Artist/ engineer), one of which exhibited in The Louvre was done probably in 1483. The other was done in probably 1508 and was acquired by The London Gallery in 1880. This painting shows Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel. The painting depicts a rocky setting which gives the painting this name.

The West Wing

The adorations of the kings

The adorations of the kings by Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart)

The Adoration, one of the most sumptuous paintings was done probably between 1510-1515. In this painting, the kings of the earth with their retinues, awestruck shepherds and the angels are shown to adore the child sitting on his mother’s lap. In the centre of the painting, the Madonna and the child are shown sitting in the ruins of a building, receiving offering from the kneeling king. Another king stands to the left with his gift and three attendants. Few shepherds and a cow watch from the behind.

The Mond crucification

Mond Crucifixion about 1502-3

This is one of the earliest works of Rafael dated 1503. The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist stand on the either side of the cross. St. Jerome and Mary Magdalene kneeling before it are depicted. On a closure, the Angels are shown catching the blood in chalices. The letters INRI (INRI stems from “lesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” meaning ‘Jesus of Nezareth, King of the Jews) are shown prominently in the painting.

Ansedei Madonna

Ansedei Madonna

This painting by the ‘divine; Raphael, the Italian High Renaissance was painted while he was in Florence. It was done probably in 1505 for the Ansedei family The painting shows the Virgin Mary sitting on a wooden throne, with child Christ in her lap and Saint John the Baptist on the left and Saint Nicholas of Bari to the right. On a careful observation, one can see that the throne has no arms and the steps are little too steep. This was assumingly done to reflect the humble approach to the throne.

The family of Darius before Alexander

The family of Darius before Alexander

This huge canvas was done by Paolo Veronese in or around about 1575. As explained in the above picture, “following the defeat of the Persian emperor Darius by Alexander, Darius’s mother appealed to their conqueror for mercy. However, she mistook Alexander for his friend Hephaestion. Alexander in his red armour, graciously turned this mistake into a compliment for Hephaestion, as ‘another Alexander’ and an assurance that he would the Darius’s family”

The family of Darius before Alexander

I purposely quoted this from the accompanying picture to the painting, just to apprise the readers that each and every artifact in the Gallery carries an explanatory plate for ease of understanding the painting.

However, coming back to this great work of art, the episode principally illustrates the magnanimity of Alexander. Veronese used bright red color for Alexander courteously pointing at his dearest friend and general, Hephaestion and reassuring the Queen Mother of the safety of the family. Also look at the mixture of contemporary dresses and fancy costumes in the background of palace.

Author in front of a painting

Author in front of a painting

Feel like having coffee and snacks? No problem. There is a large cafeteria in the Gallery itself with excellent seating, where you can compile your notes, sipping your coffee. Alternatively, there are over a dozen of restaurants, bars and cafeteria (including McDonalds and Pizza Hut) around the Gallery, where you can satiate your thirst or have a decent lunch. Since there is no entry fee to the Gallery, going out is not a bad option. Just for your information, The Gallery is open every day of the year except December 24-26 from 10.00 in the morning till 18.00 and to 21.00 on Thursdays and Fridays. The opening times for the Restaurant, café, Archive and Library can found on line. There is a richly stocked shop too, where you can find Art Books, mementos and order prints of some of the paintings.

Author at the entrance of the Gallery

Author at the entrance of the Gallery

The North Wing paintings 1600-1700

The immaculate conception of the virgin - with 2 donors

The immaculate conception of the virgin – with 2 donors

This painting by Juan de Valdes Leal was done probably in 1661 and was acquired by the Gallery in 1889. According to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception it is believed that Mary was conceived without sin. In this artifact, “She is shown standing on the moon and surrounded by cherubs who bear her emblems’, including olive, palm, rose, iris, a mirror and lilies.

The immaculate conception of the virgin - with 2 donors

The finding of Moses

The Finding of Moses

This painting by the Italian painter from Tuscany, Orazio Gentileschi was commissioned in early 1630s. According to the Old Testament story, Pharaoh ordered the execution of all the Israelite boys. To save the life of infant Moses, his mother placed the child in a basket by the River Nile. The child was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants. The painting describes the moment of discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter, the central figure pointing to the child. The two attendants gesture towards the spot where Moses was found. Moses’s sister, shown in the green watching from nearby, suggests that her mother standing on the far left, might nurse him.

The East Wing paintings 1700-1900

The Allegory with Venus and Time

The Allegory with Venus and Time by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

This painting by Tiepolo was done probably in 1754. This was probably carried out as a decoration for a ceiling in a palace of Contarini, one of the oldest families in Venice. This artifact illustrates the consignment by Venus ‘of her new born son, probably Aenaes to Time, who is represented by wings, an hourglass and a scythe. Above Venus’s chariot, Three graces scatter flowers on to figures below’. Below, winged Cupid hovers with his quiver full of arrows.

The Madonna and child with St. Anne

The Madonna and child with St. Anne

The painting with a similar title seems to have been done by many artists including Da Vinci. The painting shown here was created by Francesco Francia in about 1447-1517. The details are shown in the adjoining picture.

Eton College, about 1754

Eton College, about 1754

This painting was made by Canaletto in about 1754 during his visit to England between 1746-1756. I had passed through this private boarding school for boys in Eton, Berkshire, near Windsor on the way to Slough. The college now is a vast structure with play grounds, auditorium, etc. I couldn’t take pictures as was nearing dusk and there was hardly any camera friendly light. However, this is how the college looks now.

Eton College

Eton College – as it looks today

This attractive painting was made by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun in 1782 and was acquired in 1897. This work seems to have been inspired by Ruben’s ‘Chapeau de Paille’, which Vigee Le Brun had seen in Antwerp. It is located in Room 33.

Lady

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat

The Venice basin of San Maraco

The Venice basin of San Marco

This painting by Canaletto (1697-1768) was done probably in 1740. It seemed to be popular with the visitors.

The adoration of the shepherds

The adoration of the shepherds

This painting by an unknown Neapolitan artist was done probably in 1630s depicts The Virgin holding the Christ while the shepherds pay homage. The painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1853.

Another painting which attracted attention was:

Christ blessing

Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) by Andrea Previtali

This painting was created in about 1519. It depicts Christ raising his right hand in gesture of blessing.In this emotionally touching artifact, Christ’s frontal pose and direct gaze seem to encourage a personal engagement from the viewer. Christ blesses us with two fingers of his right hand. Carefully see the shadow of the raised hand falling on his chest. Christ is also shown with a crystal Orb which is surmounted by a cross. This work work by Previtali, perhaps was done later than his other version of ‘Christ Blessing’, which also forms a part of the collection in the gallery.

There is so much more to be said and shown about the Gallery, which I will endeavor to do in one of my ensuing posts, though I must admit that I am not a Christian and have a very little knowledge of the European History and there could be a few mismatches, which I pray may please be ignored.

Thank you for being with me on this memorable visit to The Gallery.

  • Taher Kagalwala

    Fantastic article, and you have really made an effort to document the photos and add the descriptions. Please, may I ask what the wifi symbols next to the text mean?

    • Thanks Dr. Taher for liking the post. I guess the WiFi symbol is meant for the visitors using the audio guide.

      Incidentally, I have been following your brilliantly written posts with fond interest. Your articles, especially, Mecca, The Holiest City of Saudi Arabia, Performing The Hajj Pilgrimage and What it means to be a Hajji were simply outstanding.

  • Uday Baxi

    A great article after a long time from your desk. Thanks for sharing the same.

    • Uday Ji, Thank you for your kind words.

  • In 1998, I got an opportunity to be in London for 2 weeks. My place of work was right at Trafalgar Square and every day, after work it was fun to be spending time at the fountain (and there were lot of pigeons during those days) watching people skate, gossip, socialise and have fun. But yes, me and my friend had little clue of ‘National Gallery’ and probably even little intention. :-)

    I did get another opportunity in 2013 and this time a little older and a wee bit more informed, but missed it again. After reading your beautiful and detailed, which is what your logs are, account, I am now kicking myself.

    I do hope London calls me again. Thank you Ram for sharing this. And I do hope to read the rest of ‘The English Summer’. Thank you.

    • Thanks Nandan, for your very sweet words. At Trafalgar Square, fun, socializing and frolicking is very much there, but “Shuffling, flapping mobs of pigeons once as much a part of the Trafalgar Square experience as Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. But since July 2003, when former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone called time on the birds and introduced hawks to scare them off, numbers have tumbled, from 4000 to just 120” (from an article on Google).

      Do try to find time for The Gallery during your next visit to London.

  • Terence D’Souza

    Extremely reader friendly write up, Ram. Thank you. Besides the efforts put in, especially alluded to by Taher, the style is very much like taking a walk with you and having a personal commentary thrown in.
    I won’t be ‘kicking myself’ as Nandan feels, because I do hope to make a trip to London next year and will relive in person, the written experience you have narrated. Thank you and God bless you for many, many more such articles from you.. & Oh! how can I forget Madhu’s contribution? Her query was the precursor to your trip and that led to this lovely article. Thank you too, Madhu. As we all know, behind every successful writer there often is an inspiration!! Terry.

    • Venkat

      Very informative article touched up with nice pics. Your wife gave you good advise and surely it was time well spent. I look forward to your other articles especially about Scotland.

      • Thanks Venkat for liking the post. Yes, it was indeed a great time spent during the English Summer, with lovely golden sunshine all through and friendly evenings in the land of Scotch.

    • Thanks Terence for your very kind words. Madhu’s contribution, as always, is simply beyond words. While I was taking notes about the paintings and the respective artists, she was quietly taking pictures, which made this write up possible.

      Do visit The Gallery during your next trip to London. You will simply love it.

  • Archana Ravichander

    The post is a clear depiction of your interest in art, culture , history and of course, flawless narration.
    It’s been about 2 years now since I moved to London but haven’t had leisure time for museums with my little one! This post is a sure inspiration for me to head out NOW!!
    Great writing, as always, Sir.

    • Wish I had known that you have moved to London. Meeting you there would have been an immense pleasure.

      I am glad that you liked the post and thanks for your kind words, Archana.

      Do take out sometime and visit The Gallery. I can assure you, it would be a life time experience.

  • Amrik Arora

    I have read the article on national gallery in London. I am impressed to see the way mr. Dhall has described the paintings and his interest in the national gallery.(Remarkeble)I have been to national gallery many times but i have always seen the paintings as posters and photoes of scenes in the booking hall of a cinema.Dhall Sahab ka hai andaze bian aur.
    I look forward to see an other article on a different subject on his next visit to London.

    • Thanks Amrik ji for your kind words.

  • Pramod Saxena

    Ram Dhal Sir, your description about different paintings present in National Art Gallery, London, is marevellous and eaisly understandable. The paintings selected by you for the post are really very nice. It also shows your deep interest for Europian art, history and culture. I am confident that no tourist will like to miss the visit of this Art Gallery after reading this post.

    • I am very grateful to you for your very kind words. It was an humble effort to write something about this magnificent museum and I am glad it was to your liking. Warm regards

  • Ravinder Kumar Soni

    Excellent presentation of the subject. Liked reading it.

    • Thanks Ravi Bhai for your very kind words. Getting even a smallest compliment from a person of your caliber is a big honor.

  • Sunil Saxena

    Dhull sahab,
    While narrating your travel experience, you virtually look like a magician who mesmerize the reader so much that he feels and realise everything that you realised during you visit. A rare expertise you have.
    Description of historical facts and minute details of artifacts is another beauty of your admirable work.
    Look forward for you ensuing writing.
    Regards.

    • I am deeply touched by your kind words, Saxena ji and am grateful to you for taking out time to read my humble submission. Getting an admiration from a person of your caliber, means a lot to me. Warm regards

  • Patrick Jones

    The one place that mesmerizes you in London is this gallery. I can spend hours and hours looking at those masterpieces and my personal favourite is the West wing – Renaissance period. My job took me to this city many times in the past decade and I make it a point to visit Trafalgar square/Art gallery at least once each time.

    Your lucid style never fails to enthrall the readers. Wonder how you managed to get the photographs.

    • What a joy hearing from you, after what it seems like a decade. I was a little indisposed and hence couldn’t catch up with you.

      Yes, you are right, The Gallery simply mesmerises you. I could visit the place, only on the penultimate day of my return to Delhi and could spend only a day watching these master pieces. I think, you need at least 3 days to understand and appreciate the artefacts to your satisfaction, which I will ensure I will do on my next visit.

      Thanks for liking the post. The credit for taking the pictures goes to my wife, Madhu, who very patiently ensured that we capture the spirit of these master pieces. Photography is allowed in The Gallery, as long as camera flash is not used.

      I do look forward to your continued encouragement and love.

      – Ram

  • Dr. Prakash Joshi

    I have gone through your post and enjoyed like anything.
    It was such a wonderful post that made me to read it twice,I thank sharing such a wonderful experience.
    The photographs taken at national gallery are awsome.you have mentioned all the historical facts in chronological and I admire your memory and your travel experience the way you narrated the story .Any one who will go through youd post will get mesmerised and tampted to visit the national gallery.
    In my personal view you express the facts of the places you visit, better than Shree Amitabh Bachhanji who is ambasador of Rajasthan.You have a art capturing the essence of your visit to any place. Your wonderful skill makes it very tempting.
    May god give you long and healthy life. Many such good hapenings come in your life so that we are benefited by your travel experience.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr.Prakash Joshi

    • Dear Joshi Sahib,

      Thank you for your deeply touching and heart-warming mail. I am speechless. I think, any author after seeing such inspiritional words, will simply feel delighted and honoured.

      In am indeed very grateful for your wishes and prayers.

      I have been travelling to Udaipur and have come back this afternoon only. During my travels, I didn’t have much access to thge internet and hence, the delay in replying.

      May God bless you and the family.

      Ram Dhall